Illustration by Charlotte Goff, http://www.charlottediane.com
After eleven years managing corporate events at a major convention center, I landed a job as a middle manager for a prestigious university’s campus events team. The job came with a lot of security, as the turnover amongst university personnel is extremely low.
On my first day, I was told I had to learn about the “university culture.” Part of my “learning process” was to keep the office fridge stocked with beer. Within the first week I noticed my supervisor drinking beer at her desk while on the phone with clients. She averaged about three beers over the course of a day. English is my second language, and I learned the word “chug” after she shared she had “chugged a beer” right before meeting a client.
The Director of the team, her direct boss, also drank at work. He would mostly drink at his desk toward the end of the day. Over time, it also became clear they were charging their personal alcohol to event orders, effectively buying it with university money.
People started asking me why I didn’t drink at work. My colleagues even started a rumor at one point that I was in AA or had a religious constraint. The truth is that I don’t want to set an example of drinking on the job to my teen children, and also consider it unprofessional behavior.
My supervisor’s drinking negatively impacted her work. In one case, she had recorded an event that was supposed to start at noon as starting at 1pm. She blamed a subordinate for not double checking the details with her when the clients complained about the failure, even though she had been originally responsible for recording the start time in the work order.
There were other uncomfortable practices within the team. For example, we would hire hourly workers seasonally or for certain events. When I was still in training, my director would tell me to go out to the event floor, pick a random hourly temp worker, and send them home. When I asked why, he said, “I just want to see if you are able to do that”. I would have send someone home when they had only clocked an hour on the job. They chalked up behavior like this to the “university culture”.
They also had questionable hiring processes. One time we were interviewing a talented candidate for an assistant position who happened to be overweight. In the interview panel, our director expressed a concern about the woman’s weight, but said nothing about her qualifications.
All of these experiences violated my personal ethics, but there was an unspoken punishment system for speaking out. The senior manager and director emphasized to our group of eight event managers that we were all part of a “circle of trust.” Our salaries ranged between $60-$80k, and where we fell on the scale was largely tied to performance bonuses. The managers who complained about unethical behavior didn’t get bonuses.
I was also intimidated by my senior manager. She could not tolerate pushback, even on minor feedback regarding printed materials. She reacted strongly to managers she perceived as challenging her, sending angry emails or even physically confronting them and screaming. She would lash out without reason and would only provide vague feedback.
Things came to a head after several months on the job. A new event manager had just been hired. One Sunday we were both working events, and she texted me to let me know her event was done. I extended an invitation for her to swing by and observe the VIP event I was managing. She stopped by for five minutes before heading home. Later, I learned she had had a miscommunication with her client, who complained to our senior manager about the lack of oversight for the close of the event.
I had Monday off, and when I came back to work, there was email from the supervisor blaming me for the new manager’s early departure from her event. It was clear that she was drinking. I let her know it wasn’t a good time to have the conversation as I was minutes from the start of a large event and left. We ended the day with a heated conversation where I confronted her about her drinking behavior in response to what I felt were highly unfair accusations. I left the office crying.
They next day, I called banquet captain to check in on an early morning event we were managing. She hesitated, “I don’t think you should be calling me. Did you check your email?” Overnight without notifying me, my manager had retaliated by publicly shaming me with an email to the entire team sharing news of my suspension from the job and prohibiting anyone from talking to me.
How did you respond?
I was exhausted by our confrontation and realized that the dynamic with my manager was fundamentally unhealthy. I called her and said, “You win, I quit.” She tried to talk me out of it, but I was resolved to leave.
In my exit interview with the recently hired director of HR, I shared my story. She reacted strongly by promising an investigation into the matter and assuring me that, “We are not going to tolerate this, regardless of who this person is.”
My former colleagues congratulated me for standing up to the two managers, who were universally disliked on the team. Some of them even came forward in the subsequent investigation. Unfortunately for them, it was not confidential. During a performance review, the Director in question actually told one manager they were receiving a bad review as punishment for complaining to HR. This individual also ended up leaving the university. Incidentally, the HR representative who conducted the review was also later fired.
My story ultimately was a happy one. Burnt out from my experience, I switched to a completely new career as a caretaker. Though it was not as prestigious as my former position, it was higher paying and much more personally satisfying.
What are you reflections in hindsight?
I mistakenly believed that I could change the cultural dysfunction on our team from within, but as a new middle manager, I didn’t have the clout to do this. Rather than investing so many months of my time, I wish I had just called it a wrong fit and moved on immediately to cut my losses.
I recognize now that I really stayed so long because of the institution’s brand name and great employee benefits. I accepted things that I knew were wrong to advance my career, as well as to feel accepted and liked by my colleagues. My advice to others: no matter how prestigious or well-paying a position may be, don’t compromise your ethics. You can always find another job. In my case, the emotional damage far outweighed the monetary upside. I still have nightmares about my experience there.
I have mixed feelings about HR. In reality, they have to represent the company as well the employees, and the company will always come first. As one person in a giant organization, I was at a serious disadvantage in terms of relative importance. It also opened my eyes to the ugly truth about retaliation against employees who complain to HR.