Crazy week – mentoring, bullying client, balanced responses

I used to think that parenting was the most terrifying job in the whole world, because the consequences of failure impacted others outside of me. I could easily imagine screwing up so spectacularly that my children would suffer dramatically and their hatred of me would be a defining energy source for the entirety of their adult lives.

At this point, I am comfortable that my mostly irrational fears had no basis in reality. I did make at least my fair share of mistakes, but perhaps in my imperfection I did a better job of preparing my kids for successful independence and living life under their own means and power.

While I mostly enjoyed being a parent, especially the part where the kids grow up into people I genuinely like as well as love because they are my kids, I have always been open about anticipating the launch point, where I am no longer primarily responsible for their well being and making all the decisions for them and their lives. I know a lot of parents cannot fathom my feelings – and probably judge me as unfit for feeling that way – but I believe a big part of being a mom is preparing kids for functional independence as they mature and are capable of assuming it. To me this is a very natural, organic transition.

In work, I have been a worker bee; I have been a supervisor; I have been a boss; and I have been part of a firm’s policy-making and enforcing management body. In my current law firm position, I actually wear all those hats and more. Here, I am also considered a mentor for not just my direct report, but also for other administrative and newer/junior staffers.

The mentor role – it’s disquieting for me in the same ways it is sometimes hard to be a flawed human being and a parent.

Yet, I think I probably do okay, so I should probably quit squirming internally at the title and wincing and physically trying to shrink into my chair whenever the word surfaces in relation to me and my place in the firm. There are ladies in my business network and social circles that I trained and supervised 20+ years ago that have gone on to their own careers as managers or more that still keep in touch and occasionally even ask for help or advice with their own thorny business problems.

I recently hired a new receptionist, and it is on the surface a risky hire. Even my bosses were kind of tepid on my selection at first. She is young – only turned 20 this week – and had no real office experience, much less law firm experience. However, she has a steady, stable work history, good test scores on the Office suite programs she uses as part of the job, and positive entry-level references. In our interview she was poised, thoughtful, and had a restrained sort of eagerness to prove herself. I saw her as a blank slate – no bad habits to break immediately – and someone bright enough I could train to the job.

Thus far, it has gone very smoothly. The reception and basic admin functions she’s doing well, learning quickly. I am finding it’s the smaller details that I am having to provide more training, correction, feedback, but she is learning and adapting. Things like dress codes. *sigh* I have a love-hate relationship with my firm’s dress code, which is essentially law firm level professional, i.e., suits and ties for male attorneys, skirted suits or more tailored dresses and jackets for female attorneys . Administrative staff have a slightly relaxed version of that – slacks, dress shirt, ties for the men, slacks/skirts/nice tops or dresses for the ladies. Fridays are considered casual days, unless in court or in meetings with clients outside the office. And then there is a mostly unspoken standard understanding of casual if you have any meetings in the office, i.e., khakis and buttondown shirt equivalent of business casual. For the rest of us, jeans and tailored t-shirts are fine, except they cannot be ripped jeans or screened t-shirts for favorite things, etc. And no gym-like attire, as in no tank tops, board shorts, flip flops, yoga pants. Believe it or not it was a question posed when we announced relaxing the casual Friday standard.

It seems the more you have a dress code, the more you have to talk about what it means to have a dress code. And I admit being kind of surprised that I have to be so specific and break it down into what not to wear for some of the staff, or had a female staffer bring in a new dress or outfit and ask if it’s okay for the office. I remind myself I’m older and can remember working for firms where I had to wear a dress or skirt and pantyhose every single day, including the 100+ degree days of summer. I am so glad professional dress has eased back from that point.

For my receptionist, there are also things like taking notes, writing down instructions, asking questions if she does not understand something. Where I am very old school and tend to walk around with a notebook and pen in my hand, she is just learning the habit and constantly trying to find something to write with, write on, but improving. She is adopting my post-it note habit of sticky-ing every document that comes across her desk and writing down what it’s for, what needs to be done with it, any deadlines associated, etc. I have had decades to hone these skills, figure out what works best for me and the way my brain works. She is just starting out and adopting/adapting new habits for her workstyle. There are far worse people to learn from; trust me, I have worked for a lot of them at some point.

Overall, she is doing quite well and I am very pleased. The risk seems to be paying off.

Until today, and now I worry that she might be thinking of running away screaming and never coming back.

My least favorite client came in for a meeting. Usually I review the meeting schedule and advise her if there are any high maintenance clients coming in, but this morning I was handling another issue and had not had an opportunity to look at today’s schedule. But when I saw him in the conference room and the expression on her face as he was speaking, I knew it was going to be a rough introduction.

In an odd coincidence, M knows him quite well and has since his very earliest running days. And once client figured out that M and I were related, actually married, he has taken that as license to be very observant about my physique, trying to fat shame me, and stating how I am not capable of running on M’s level. At first I just stated the obvious – I had no desire to be a runner – but he was undeterred. Last time he was in the office for a meeting he tried to fat shame me again, this time saying if I lost X amount of fat I would do better with my exercise efforts, and in his professional opinion I might want to join an obesity therapy group program to work on my lifestyle habits.

To say I had had it at that point is to put it very mildly. I looked him squarely in the eye and said I was not paying for his analysis and would like him to stop sharing his unsolicited opinions with me or anyone else. He started to tell me how getting angry was good, but being defensive was not going to get me anywhere, and I just put my hand out in a “talk to the hand” type gesture and left the room, seething with anger but maintaining my basic professionalism and not throwing the cup of coffee at him instead of setting it on the table. He told my boss that I was resistant to change and inflexible. When my boss asked me what that was about, I told what was said and that I showed admirable restraint in my response. Boss was aghast. Hostile workplace and harassment laws apply to clients and vendors as well as other employees.

My new receptionist was not so fortunate this morning and got snagged by his very cutting tongue. She was nearly in tears by the time she got back to her desk, and I sent her on a coffee run – hers was on me – to calm her nerves and then had her working in the file room when the meeting concluded to avoid further confrontation.

When I came home and told M about my first run-in with this old acquaintance, M remarked that this is his specialty – confrontive analysis – and he is quite brilliant and effective at it. Totally lost my shit on M that night. I maintain that since I have not engaged him professionally for such services, he’s just a big, mean bully and that I cannot effectively defend myself against it since he is effectively assaulting me in my workplace and professional environment.

Which elevated it up to the boss. To boss’ credit, he initiated a telephone conversation prior to this meeting and told client to not engage any staff in any discussions unrelated to his current consultation.

Except as I almost expected, he completely disregarded the advisement. My receptionist is today’s cannon fodder. And I feel badly about not shielding her better, yet at the same time understand and accept this is a teachable moment for her from the way we, her management team, handle the situation. Boss is writing a strongly-worded email and we will be withdrawing as counsel should it happen again.

And I find myself irrationally angry with M for indirectly defending this jerk. Intellectually I know M is mostly horrified at the behavior of this client of my firm and his old acquaintance, because M’s acquaintance has had a direct, negative impact on M’s wife, but emotionally I know this man is someone M has known for decades, followed his career, and actually admires his methods and successes with patients. It’s the “admires his methods” that enrages me. Irrationally, I know, and I am working on finding my way to letting go of it. The situation would be completely different if this had happened in a non-business situation, because my honest reaction would carry no consequences. But in my professional office environment, I am completely hamstrung between how I would like to respond and how I am professionally able to respond.

F**king asshole. The client/acquaintance, not M. Just to clarify, because I am kind of irritated to different degrees with both at the moment. But it far better, healthier for my marriage to sort out my shit here rather than going home and picking a fight with M because this guy put me into a very pissy mood. Hopefully I’ll be completely over it by the time I get home tonight.

And while I am speaking of my personal irrationality, let us transition to the crazy portion of this post.

Monday I had a conversation with another member and found him odd. Our conversation seemed a bit disjointed and weird, and I had already decided to keep my distance and avoiding getting drawn into another chat-fest with him. Yesterday J remarked that he’d seen the guy doing weird stuff and talking to himself, which reinforced that it would be far better to me to be really busy and focused on my own List of the day should our paths cross and he try to engage me in conversation again.

So this morning this same guy shows up as I am finishing the first block of my List of the day. He said hello, I said hello back, and then promptly turned my back and started mentally projecting “I am very engrossed in my exercise” vibes while actually being very engrossed in my List. Thankfully he did not talk to me further, but instead sprinted around the room several times (in his bare feet), climbed onto the TRX structure, shadowboxed, all while carrying on a very animated conversation with himself or an invisible friend. I avoided making eye contact and kept reminding myself I had an exit strategy in place and knew exactly where I would go to finish my List should the need arise.

I believe he is a mostly harmless nutball, but still. From the animated conversation I observed (had headphones in my ears and music turned up and could not hear what was being said), he could be quite a time suck if encouraged to chat.

And I am not the only one having brushes with nutty people. M is out on the trail running before dawn every morning, and last night he told me about passing a homeless couple whose dog had gotten sprayed by a skunk and they were trying to find the dog and wildly shining their flashlight up at the homes above the trail while trying to find their dog in the bushes. The noise, the light shining in the windows woke a homeowner who threatened to alert the authorities if they did not move along. Rather than moving along, homeless guy yells back at the homeowner to “shut the f**k up, we are on public property.” At 4 in the morning. State parks are close at dark, and technically neither they or even M should have been on the trail at that hour. M warned them about it and continued on with his run. By the time he returned a couple of hours later, stinky, skunk-smelly dog was the only one left on the trail. Poor dog.

It is turning into even more of an eventful week than I had anticipated.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s