Toxic workplace

5. Monday, part 1

An uneventful Monday: all-hands, employee reviews, second-round interviews… what could possibly go wrong?

            I like my lessons and coffee the same way: full-bodied. Toasty but not scalding. Once again, I let my easy-going nature get the best of me when Allison and Melanie asked to leave on time on a Friday. A wiser boss would have declined their request, and that’s the froth of the situation.

          This weekend, I slurped deeply from a steaming cup of professional growth. Instead of sending them to the ex-admin’s engagement party, I should have kept them to review applicants with me. We would conclude together that the handsome man is the best fit for the ex-admin’s position before his return today. My underlings would own our company’s culture, praise my intuition, and have much more fun than at some party I wasn’t even invited to.

          Of course, I don’t care that I wasn’t invited—I’m a no-frills kind of gal with a lot of busy plans. In fact, that Friday, I returned to the office within an hour of coming home to make the all-hands presentation of our times. This presentation would chastise sweetly like Halloween candy on an orphan’s tongue. It would electrify more than a fork in an outlet. Today, icon oclastic as Buddha meditating under the sacred fig, I am cutting through the malarkey to explain to Allison and Melanie what is at stake if they don’t take their careers seriously.

          But first, let there be music.

          “Who is excited for an in-person all-hands?” I say from the front of the conference room. Party lights bathe us in blue and red and green. Melanie and Allison dole out a fragile little shake, and I turn the music up for them. “Come on, stand up and dance!” I shake to my 2000’s playlist as my underlings bounce twice. Finally, I sigh and turn on the slides.

            The first screen lights up: NO PRESSURE, NO DIAMONDS. “Where should we begin? Our successful return to the office? Our hiring processes, and how I am tackling gaps head-on?” I flick to a picture of the ex-admin. “Let’s pick the employee of the month by process of elimination, starting with Allison.” I go to her picture and make eye contact before continuing.

            “Allison, your time management leaves a lot to be desired.” I skip to a pie graph that I worked on this weekend as I fantasized about today’s very important appointment: the second final round of interviews. I set three alarms and reminders for today; the excitement of it all makes me lightheaded.

            “Unbeknownst to you, I moved the office camera to monitor your desktop behavior. 15% of the time, you are in the bathroom or on Facebook. Or getting coffee. And what is this?” I move to a blurry image of a white and green screen. “A job board? Are you not telling us something?” I pause to stare her down. “Let’s first review Melanie before taking your crown.”

            I change to pictures of the fiddle-leaf figs behind us. “These plants are on death’s door. What is going on?”

            “We haven’t been in the office much,” Melanie says breathlessly. “It’s dark. And they’ve had very little carbon dioxide to eat-“

            “Carbon Dioxide? Seriously?” I say. “You’re an intelligent person, Melanie. I’m sure you remember what Benjamin Franklin said about people with excuses.”

            “No,” she says. “I don’t know what he said.”

            “He said… he said…” Words skip over me; froth fills my brain. What did he say?

            I continue flicking through the slides, wondering where I left off. “Can we end this early? I feel light-headed,” Melanie says.

            “Melanie, there is no reason why you should not be watered,” I say.

            “Huh?” Allison asks. I close my laptop, not interested in two insurrections in as many weeks. I try my breathing exercise, but the girls get up and leave before I can return to myself. Where was I, and what was I doing? I follow Allison to her desk. “I think we need to have a conversation.”

            “I think so, too,” she says. “I’ve been interning at this company for over a year. No benefits, no PTO—which I’m not complaining about,” she adds. “I am beginning to wonder… at what point will I be, you know, hired?”

            “How cute, Allison, especially after today’s all-hands,” I say, pulling out a chair. “I have a feeling we need a better grasp on your limeline, I mean, timeline.”

            Behind us, Melanie pushes a giant potted plant. It scrapes against the floor. The noise is loud enough to awaken a Kraken, who may as well be hiding in the walls right now for how much my head is pounding.

            Allison moves her mouth to speak, and I interrupt her. “I’m here to support you, so let’s go through my points one by one. I know—this will be just as painful for me as it is for you.”

            We talk about coffee breaks, her thinking at the computer, how she loads up the refrigerator. Twice, Allison leans down, as if to fall asleep, but I wake her. From outside the office, the homeless man howls.

            “Melanie,” I call out. “Why does the office smell? Allison should take your role, and she’s the type of girl to join a sorority if you catch my drift. Hee hee hee.” I try to laugh off an evil feeling, but my paranoia grows. The feeling reflects in my underlings’ faces—there is darkness afoot. “She doesn’t execute many office functions!”

            The world darkens. I slow my breathing—what if I am heard? Allison doodles, Melanie pushes a pot to the floor. “I’m sorry!” she squeals as she knocks over another. She laughs, and I want to shake the woman. Does she not know what is at stake?

            On her notepad, Allison scribbles: To execute…OR EXECUTE. She sketches a grim reaper with harsh, deep strokes. Time to go!

            Darkness crawls over us like the fog on the Marin headlands. Melanie knocks another plant down. The soil scatters, and I jump on a chair so that the stuff doesn’t crawl up my ankles like a thousand caterpillars.

            Lights call me to the center of the hallway. What was once a smoke detector floats down, blinks, and swells. I descend from my chair to meet it.

            When faced with the unknown, the true unknown, our minds shields us from insanity with the armor of things that we know. The shape before me morphs into forms I understand a chariot, UFO, tornado, and octopus. And on the very edges of these shapes glisten eyes like raindrops on a spiderweb. Each is filled with memories of gardens I have never stepped through and arms I have never been held by. As I met these eyes, they sent a silent message that cuts through the whirling of wheels and wings: Be not afraid. And just like that, I am not.

            Next to her, Melanie empties out the watering can on the soil before watering herself.

            “I think we are dry,” she drips and pouts.

            “No,” I tell her and walk up to grab her by the hand. “We’re never out. There’s an infinite amount in the kitchen.”

            “You’re telling me we have a supply of this stuff?” she says and gestures to the can in her hand.

            “I’m saying it is… on tap.”

            She beams and bounces away. I turn back to the lights.

            “Sh!” I hiss to Allison, who rips pages from her scribbled notebook. I turn back to the lights. “What do you want?” I whisper. Red, red, red, BLUE. Evil, evil, evil, GOOD.

            After some time, I realize that I should check on Melanie, who has probably lost herself.

            “I will return,” I tell my glowing friends and make my way down the hallway. I hop over the dirt and porcelain smashed all over the floor. Someone slashed through the whiteboard with a Dry Erase. Was that me? I can’t tell anymore.

            I find her shaking in the storage closet. She laughs, cries, and whispers to herself. When she sees me, she reaches out. I take her hand.

            Tears swim in her eyes. “This is getting really weird,” she says.

Toxic workplace

1. The Reckoning

          I am a mid-level manager: Hear my roar! I travel extensively despite the quarantine—from my home office I plant my authority in my underlings’ living rooms, floating from apartment to apartment to peek through their windows and evaluate their performance. I am a company woman, a boss babe, and I set the pace, floating above them all in my corporate-sponsored cloud. Of my importance I was certain, until a fateful message pushed me from my pedestal into a sea of doubt. Now I am drowning, splashing in the froth of no longer knowing who I am or what I do, and it is all thanks to remote working.

          Click click click. Unless we’re outside work hours, the nightmarish sound you hear is not spiders hatching in your ear but my Slack message shaking up your peace. Check your email, I send, sounding out each syllable before I do. I then lean back on my swirly chair, holding the warm weight of responsibility and fresh coffee against my chest. After a breathing exercise, I check Facebook to see if the ex has responded to my poke from 2017. He’s just busy.  

          I glance at the clock. Three already! Time flies when you are busy. I prioritize tasks for the rest of the evening: I could look for formatting inconsistencies in the intern’s emails, but wouldn’t it be a better use of my time to berate the office manager for her overpriced highlighter orders?[1]

          Instead, I google memes for our all-hands presentation. Right as I land on NO PRESSURE NO DIAMONDS, a Slack message rips me from my reverie and sends me spiraling.  

          The Slacker is none other than the part-time admin, pretty and sweet and as pleasant as a hair in my margarita. Have a minute?  She writes.

          Have a minute? The words reverberate like the shaman’s drum. This is what remains of decorum and of law and order: managers are not even worthy of a do you anymore.

          It is time to reconsider remote working.

Check your email!

          Work was never meant to take place from home, of that I am certain. Time saved from not commuting can’t convince me otherwise. Healthy breakfasts and fresh lunches I only now prepare haven’t either. My yoga breaks and extra sleep haven’t argued their point, and palm trees swaying in the breeze and birds tweeting from my yard won’t change my mind—the people need an office.         

          I didn’t attend the nation’s most prestigious and overpriced schools just to lord my authority over two and a half employees. I am here to show these girls what success looks like, and sometimes leaders must demonstrate bravery and humility when making scary decisions before they’re asked to do so.

          First, I must temper the brat. Do I have time for what? I write, unfortunately forgetting to italicize the first two words.  

          To talk, she says. We are talking right now; I want to respond but hold off. She begins to type again; the three dots by her icon dance.         

          Some say that remote working improves employees’ mental health. I put little faith in the elites who forget about the clarity gained from our commutes. We are above all a civilized species, and the physical distance that separates a person from work and their beloved partners, families, and hobbies constructs the veneer that they don for colleagues and clients. What to say and how to act is only learned in the physical realm. As I forego all interests not directly in the company’s benefit, a corporate personality comes easily to me. Others are not so blessed.

          What is this about? I type before she responds, cutting her off. Chop chop, underling—I need to pick a color theme for the return-to-office announcement. Should I start off by saying that I am delighted or thrilled for us all to be back?

          Finally, she responds: Never mind. Melanie answered my question. Sorry to bother you.

          Sorry to bother you.

          My LinkedIn bio describes me as a super-star thought-leader, which means something different to all award-winning, growth-minded individuals, and a possible interpretation is that I let apologies stand and bygones be bygones.

          It’s okay, I respond. You haven’t bothered me.

          I send the Slack and stand up over my desktop computer to face the window. The sun washes over me, its radiance reminiscent of my own grace. I sip from my coffee, the sincerity of reconciliation supercharging my spirit. If only the admin could understand her impact on me today!

          They say that the solution to restitution is dilution, and I can’t overwhelm my coworkers with change if I want to return to how things were. After all, all is not lost: my colleague still somehow remembers how to apologize.

          We can still do two days from home, three if the team models the company’s mission according to my high standards. My boss will be so impressed to see the ducklings back in their pond first![2]

          Still aglow, I again check the ex on Facebook. Something is up–how could he not respond in four years? And it dawns on me to click on his profile.


          This can’t be. Four years? That’s not enough time to get over me, start a new life, and meet someone new. Good things should only happen to those who work hard and network. Schadenfreude, my sweet relief, convinces me to search up another lazy bum—the admin. Surely her failure of life can be the salve to my own discomfort!

          Also engaged. I sit back down and stare at the wall.

          We come back Monday; I email everyone—no template, no color theme.

            Two engaged and one enraged, but my breathing slowly returns to normal. I lean back on my chair and tune into it all: the sound and the fury, the ocean waves pounding against the rocks. An eagle soars over a canyon; somewhere, a hiker’s boot crushes a ladybug. And here we are, unique instruments in the world’s ecosystem, about to assemble ourselves in our rightful nests as of Monday.

            I’ll ping the office manager to order donuts for everyone, but all three and a half of us know those pastries are for me and my authority. After all, we should celebrate the leaders who make hard decisions in our best interests, and today that person is me.

[1] $2 more on Office Depot than Amazon, a difference of almost $9 this year!

[2] When he decides he and his team should go back, of course.