Toxic workplace

4. Master Sun, part 2

Who will I take on for the role? WILL IT BE YOU?!

           Every manager knows the best way to test a candidate is to drag out the interviewing process: Only someone who smiles like an idiot while dodging wrenches can handle a fast-paced environment like my office. Save for the mysterious man, I have no friends in this group, and while my plan is working brilliantly so far, I still need more time to see if he or anyone else has it in them to meet our company’s standards.

           “I will be testing you now on cultural aptitude,” I tell the final four. I stack a box of props on the front table. “But before I can test your fit for this company, I am going to need you all to fit into these costumes.”

           The Asian man stands up. “We came in on a Friday to wear costumes and put on a play?” he says. “This is a part-time position with no benefits. I paid $30 for my Uber here!”

           “$30!” I say, pointing to the door. “Now you know how much you’ll make when you drive for them.” An applicant eliminated; a disaster prevented.

           The woman with the braid whimpers after he leaves. “Since he eliminated himself, can we move onto the next round of interviews?”

           “Absolutely not,” I respond, handing out new papers. “Here are the scenarios. I suggest you put on your costumes quickly.”

           Applicants assembled, I read the first scenario aloud. “I ask you to come to work on a day you have requested off.” I lay the sheet down. “How do you respond? Demonstrate!”

           The contestants don their big hats and aprons to begin the next round with the energy of stale bread. One applicant turns to her partner. “Don’t worry about overtime: I should be paying you for this opportunity!” she says.

           Outside the office, the alleyway homeless man moans with more passion. I scurry to the window. “Scram!” I yell out of it, throwing a dollar bill at him. “Go grind on a Starbucks.” I turn back to the room and sigh.  

           “Applicants! The situation has changed,” I say. They all look so handsome in their costumes. “Today is your engagement party. Pretend that I am the fiancé—convince me to let you go to work instead.”

           The one with the afro goes to her feet. “Oh, exalted one!” she says.

           “Exalted one?” I say. “Remember, I’m your partner, not your boss! Next!”

           “I can do this,” says the giant redhead. He bends down in front of me. “Fiancé, you know how I will always choose work over us?”

           “I’m listening,” I say.

           “Our engagement party is tonight, but so is work, and I am sorry, but- “

           “But what?!” I jump in. “This is your career that you’re talking about. What on earth are you apologizing for?” He steps back; my employees come up to the door again.

           “What is it now?” I say.

           “We’ve waited another hour. Now, it’s well into our weekend,” Allison says.

           “Can we leave?” Melanie asks.

            “How about this?” I say. “Since you both love cake so much, I can order another one when this round is done.” I pat Allison’s arm. “It’ll be fun.”

           “I’m sorry, but—”

           “Don’t say that word,” I say.

           “We have plans. We both have to go now,” Allison finishes.

           “Go where?” I ask. The handsome man approaches us. “You know what? Never mind. Just clean up before you leave.”

           I turn around. The handsome man says, “May I hold your hands for the sake of acting?”

           “For the sake of acting,” I say, laying my palms on his. His skin is soft and smooth and cool. “Fiancé, I will not mince words. I am going to work and I am missing our party. Before I do, allow me to explain why with a parable.” He traces a finger up my wrist and pulls me closer. “Success relies less on the enemy not coming but of our readiness to receive them.”

           The remaining verse rises like a balloon within me. “Success relies not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather that we have made our position unassailable,” I continue.

           He smiles. “The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.”

 “I see we have a disciple of Master Sun,” I say.

           “I see that, too,” he responds.

A disciple of Master Sun!

            As the applicants put their costumes back in their boxes, I make a special effort not to look at one of them in particular. My heart throbs like the tea bag that I bob with my hand. I do my breathing exercise. It is better to be feared than loved. It is better to be feared than loved.

            “What’s going on?” the woman with the afro asks.

            “I don’t know,” I say, spilling tea on my blouse with my stupid, shaking hands.

            “No, I mean what’s going on with the interview?” she asks. “Aren’t we on round three?”

            “Oh yes,” I say and pick up the schedule. Creativity test. “If you really want this position, I’m going to need you to show it.” I hand everyone a fresh sheet of paper and a pen. “Write me a poem about how much you want to work here.” And I sit back down and breathe with my eyes closed, hoping that Melanie and Allison don’t take the fresh air for granted when they go out. But where are they going without me? How could it be that they have their own lives?

            “I finished!” says one of the candidates, not the handsome one unfortunately. I take her poem:

My alarm rings; it’s time to fly

Without my job, I think I’d die

Administration, it’s the dream

Planning meetings and filling forms by the ream

Purpose is freedom, and it’s good to know

That my work helps the company grow—

            “One second,” I say, slamming the paper down and bolting into Melanie’s office, where Allison is also sitting.

            They jump at my arrival. “Where are you going?” I ask.

Melanie says “the engagement party” before slapping her hands over her big mouth.

            “Melanie!” Allison says. “You weren’t supposed to—”

            “It’s okay,” I say, thinking quickly through the shock. “I have plans, too. You can both go now; you’ve waited long enough. Wait—” I say as they stand. “Make sure to mention that I have plans. Fun parties. You know. Friday.”

            “We know,” Allison says, and they continue to clear up.

            I return to the candidates. “Wow. Time really has flown today, hasn’t it?” I say. “But I think we’ve been here long enough, and you can come back on Monday to finish.”

            “We’ve been here for hours,” one says. “What more can we test?”

            “Your readiness for the position,” I snap, loading up my purse. “See you!”

            Chairs creak behind me as I empty the teacup out the window. I tap my fingers on the windowsill—everyone needs to hurry up, I must be out before Allison and Melanie. They and the ex-admin must see how busy I am and how awesome my plans are.   

            I feel eyes on the back of my neck: dark, handsome eyes. “Can I help you?” I say, turning around.

            “I think you can,” he says, handing me his poem.

            “I hope you see that I am a very important woman with many plans,” I blurt.

            “To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear,” he responds.

             I hold his poem to my chest long after I return home. It is better to be feared than loved, but a little love would go a long way in the empty apartment tonight.

Toxic workplace

3. Master Sun, part 1

I test out the new candidates… are any of them worthy of a part-time position with no benefits?

            “You come from far and wide and passed our rigorous screening process,” I say to the six candidates in the kitchenette. “Now, I will evaluate you on the qualities of a successful hire.”

            My fingernail runs through the stack of paper and separates out a chunk. “We will start with these problem-solving tests. Then, I will look at cultural aptitude, creativity, and long-term potential. One of you will be eliminated each round.”

            The redhead takes the stack. An Asian man in a collared shirt frowns at his test. His neighbor, a stretched-out Melanie, scratches her head. Behind her sit two others: one with an afro and another with a braid. Their neighbor is a dark-haired man: handsome, maybe Middle-Eastern or South American. Or Indian. One of those.

            “Let the second round of interviews begin!” I say.

            When the ex-admin left, she brought a storm to my tight ship of an operation. Thanks to my managerial expertise, I grabbed the situation by the mast and steered us through muddled waters to the rain clouds’ silver lining. Over those fateful welcome-back donuts, I promised gentle Allison and meditative Melanie that I would not only rectify her departure but improve the company’s processes. I would start by identifying gaps in our recruitment strategy.

            “Five more minutes!” I announce. “And I would like to remind any slackers that PEUC benefits end in September.”

            My tea tastes like frustrated water; its bitterness is a reminder of the ex-admin. I knew upon her application that she was a chance to hire that I would have to invest my time and resources in training her. All of it was wasted: She made her low culture apparent by refusing to come in on days off, and when she negotiated benefits, I knew attitude would be a problem. While no one could have foreseen her final tantrum, I can only blame my easy-going nature for welcoming her on board in the first place.

            But what really hurt was her quitting last week. Until then, I thought that she liked me!

            It is better to be feared than loved, but a true leader is a fox as well as a lion. Much as the lioness’s roars are felt throughout the Sahara Desert, I make my influence known throughout the company. But today, I will embody the clever fox when selecting the next admin. Ostensibly, the candidates are demonstrating their abilities, but secretly I am eliminating them on their predecessor’s characteristics: fickleness, hypocrisy, and greediness of gain.

            “Time!” I say to the motley crew, who slam their pencils onto the table.

            “No.” I thumb through the packets. “Absolutely not.” I slash a page with red ink. “I will be with you in a second,” I say to Allison and Melanie when they show up at the door. I turn to the candidate with the big hair. “Young woman, what is your name?”

            She mumbles. “What?” I say.

            “My name is Maddy,” she says.

            “Well, Maddy, I’m going to need you to be more calm-y.” I flip to a random page. “You are in a cabin. Every direction around you is south. A bear shows up. What color is its fur?”

            “I don’t know,” she says.

            “White! The bear is white! You are at the North Pole—where else would your compass point south everywhere?” My head shakes. Unbelievable.

            She flinches and is saved by the idiot in front of her. Stretched-out Melanie says, “What do bears have to do with the job description?”

            I point to the door as the mysterious man stands up.

            “Do you want to grow stagnant at your role?” he says. “We lateral thinkers welcome the challenge.”

            The poets describe love as a softness you fall into: blankets, fresh from the dryer; a scented bath; the ball pit at McDonald’s. In truth, it’s a more violent experience, like stubbing your toe in the dark. And right now, watching this candidate recite facts like song, I am hit HARD. But I am a boss babe, a company woman, and once the tingling retreats from my appendages and is replaced by warmth, I return to reason—company first. Always put the company first. I have business to take care of, and I tell stretched-out Melanie and Maddy.

            Allison and Melanie step up as the two women step out. “Could we go home now?” Allison says.

            “What she meant to say,” Melanie began. “Is that we know that you must be embarrassed about what was said to you last week-“

            “Ah yes, the quitting,” I say. “As you can see, I am taking care of that now. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. I loved her little exhibit on my leadership.”

            Allison’s mouth dropped open. “She told you to suck it.”

            I am confused. “Of course she did. We were experiencing a Jolly Rancher together. It was an allegory, sweet like me.”

            Allison and Melanie glance at each other before Melanie continues, “It’s after 5 on a Friday. We need to leave to make it to an… appointment.”

            “Absolutely not,” I say, watching the two failed candidates leave the office from the conference room window. “I might need backup.” My two employees mope their way back to their desks.

            I face the rest of the group, now thinned out. “Based on these results, I shouldn’t be keeping any of you. However, there are three more tests, and I am ready to be impressed.” I lean back in my chair. “So dazzle me.”

Render unto Ceasar what belongs to Ceasar!
Toxic workplace

2. Bridezilla

           San Francisco’s foggy mornings fortify my bones. The salt in the mist carries my body from the bedroom to downtown, from sleepiness to the present: I am here, I am now, this is not a dream. While my girls from the office might disagree, shutting off your 6 AM alarm is an act of humility, a prayer almost. With that simple gesture, you symbolize your contribution to a world where rivers flow and bees pollinate—it’s not about you and your momentary comfort.

            Yes, I think on the escalator ride up from Muni’s dark belly. My two and a half employees might be upset that I ended remote working prematurely, but like most adults, they will realize that their place is in the cubicle and not at home with their beloved partners, families, and hobbies. The decision was a hard one to make, but growth is a painful, dirty affair, and only after a wasp larva eats its way through the abdomen of a spider can the baby insect fly to freedom, soaring to great heights.

            Speaking of great heights, I crick my neck as I look up to the top of the building in front of me. The cloudy canopy above absorbs its very tip as if extending the elevator track through the heavens.

            Inside, I flip on a switch to ignite the office and illuminate its open layout. To match the panopticon theme, the walls of my cubicle were replaced with glass, per my request. The sleek doors come closer as I approach them—old friend, is that really you? A sigh escapes me like the steam from a cup of tea, and I step in; the trophy is back in its display.  

            From the inside of my crystal, I watch my underlings return.

           First stumbles in Melanie, the office manager. She circles around my cubicle on her Target flats. I gesture to her without lifting my elbow off the desk. An unfortunate mustard-yellow top reveals that work from home has added a few inches to her waistline. As a mid-level manager, it is my responsibility to share my concerns with her. Like how the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his beloved Mumtaz, the universe built me for this role: My employees’ success is my success, and Melanie’s health is my own. There is no freedom without rules, and indulgence is the greatest of shackles.

           Next to arrive is Allison, the intern. As always, her entire outfit and personality was purchased from the “new this season” counter at Francesca’s. I too, gesture to her, and she responds with a little wave before sitting at her desk in front of me.

           Her computer lights up to a photo of her and her sorority sisters, a reminder of how my work is cut out for me here. College photos? What’s next—pentagrams?

           Finally, the part-time admin arrives. She glides in, last of course, on the long sleeves of her silk blouse. The fabric flows behind her as insults do from her keyboard. Is that a dress code violation? She waves to me; I look for something in my purse.

           Naturally, she disrupts us all as soon as she is seated. “You guys!” she squeals. Allison, Melanie, and I rush over, hoping she hasn’t completely lost it.

           Instead, her desk is covered in white and gold glitter and presents: Congratulations here, Congratulations there, Congratulations every-freaking where. Balloons are even taped to this idiot’s walls, as well as photos of her with the now-fiancé, an unbelievable hoopla for such a predictable event. The room breaks into applause. What will we celebrate next, mold growing on bread? Fish swimming? But one must give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and thus I bestow upon the tax collector a socially dictated number of claps.

           “Congratulations!” Melanie says, hugging her.

           “We set this up yesterday to surprise you!” Allison says. She almost knocks me over to hug the admin herself.

           “Yesterday?” I say, straightening myself. “I wasn’t informed.”

           Allison gives Melanie an awkward look. The part-time admin wraps her arms around the presents and holds them to her chest, as a dung beetle would with its own ball of waste.

           Melanie’s phone pings. “Donuts are here,” she says and rushes out to grab the delivery.

           We step out of the cubicle as well. I change the conversation to our new filing system, but Allison beats down the admin instead: “Where did it happen?” “When is the wedding?” “Show me the ring? (Gasp) So pretty!” Each squeal from her is a ping pong ball bouncing off my head. Even the kitchenette with its matching plates and mugs can’t cheer me up.

           “Are you excited about marriage?” Allison asks, pouring water from the purifier into one of the coffee mugs. I wince.

           “Unbelievably so,” the admin glows.

           I turn to her, saying, “I salute you–only the most well-mannered of us can satisfy society’s noble plan for women. I remember evading a man’s commitment, just knowing my back would rather break than contort to the quaint fringes of marriage. I’m sure that white dress will suit you, though!”

           The admin smiles. “How forward-thinking, for both you and your ex! I bet he is grateful that you stuck to your values. With just a glance, anyone can see how well that worked out.”

           I smile back. “Thank you for that. I like to wear my values on my sleeves to inspire those around me. I have always respected how you too stand up for what you believe. Tell me, did you and your fiancé agree to the same flexibility that you demanded in our initial interview?”

           “Him and I were just made for each other,” she says. “What chance do any of us stand against kismet?”

           Melanie returns. “I got donuts and a little something else,” she says, placing both deliveries on the table. She lifts the lid off one box and then the second: a cake with Congratulations spelled out in gold.

           “I can’t believe you, Melanie,” the admin says, wrapping her silk arms around her. Melanie blushes and puts her card back into her wallet.  

Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar!

           “I can’t either,” I say. “Did you use company money for both the donuts and the cake?’

           Melanie’s blush intensifies. “I, well-“

           “Is this cake congratulating all of us? Because, unless it is, this looks like a personal purchase,” I say. The mustard pufferfish opens her mouth and closes it. “We’ve been through this. Even the Jolly Ranchers on Allison’s desk were a struggle to approve. Have I been speaking to a wall this entire time?”

            After some silence, Allison says, “It’s okay, Melanie. I’ll cover it. My treat. We’re just so happy for you!” She turns around and grips the admin’s hand. 

            “That’s so sweet, Allison. How about this—you take care of the cake, and I’ll reimburse the office for the donuts. After all, we can’t have my engagement overshadow our return to the office,” the admin says.

            I say, “When it comes to success in the professional world, consistency is everything. I have tried to inculcate these values in you three but have been limited by the digital constraints of virtual work. Hopefully, the effects of my negligence are not irreparable—I can only blame myself for not bringing you all back in earlier.”

            “Atlas shrugged,” she says and puts a twenty down on the table.

           I eventually retire my attempts of steering the conversation towards something related to me. I return to my desk, from where I can hear the beehive of women hum. A battle wages in my head—how do I smoke this colony out of the breakroom? There must be a reasonable way to terminate an event that only I am not enjoying.

           I strain my ears, discerning for any evidence of Unapproved Conversation: sex, drugs, Fully Automated Robot Communism. I am out of luck—even the wedding has been laid to rest. My underlings are happy together, celebrating even! —just not the way I had envisioned. I check my timer, watching the secondhand slowly take us to when this farce will end.

           I am losing hope when the answer swishes by me as the admin passes by to grab something from her desk. She passes by again with a giant tote bag that only women who are accustomed to receiving gifts possess.

           I stick my head out of my glass doors. “I am going to need you to change,” I tell her.

           She does a double-take. “Change what?” she asks. Your entire personality, I think.

           “That blouse,” I say, gesturing at the flowy sleeves. “It’s not work appropriate.”

           Melanie and Allison peek their heads from the break room as the admin starts to get worked up. “Why?” she blusters.

           “It might get caught in the machinery,” I say.

           “What machinery?” oblivious Melanie asks obliviously.

           “The Zoom Room. The milk frother. I mean, my goodness,” I say.

           “I don’t have another shirt,” the admin says after a moment. “I would have to go home.”

           “That won’t be a problem,” I respond. She meets me in the eye as she digs through her tote.

           “We’ll wait for you to come back,” Allison says.

           “That won’t be necessary,” the admin says. Hand still gullet-deep in her tote, she turns to me. “I have been thinking about how this role has impacted me: professionally, mentally, and physically. I wanted to communicate this experience with you, but words alone could never suffice–ah, here it is.” She pulls out a tiny parcel from her bag and hands it to me. “So I got you a gift that will let us savor this day together.”

           I unwrap the parcel—a Jolly Rancher. “I don’t get it.”

           “I don’t expect you to, just as how I don’t expect you to understand what it was like to be under your dynamic leadership. Every day was as exciting–tropical variety, if you will, as these candies are, and I wanted to give that experience back to you. This here is not just a gift. It’s an allegory.”

           “A thought exercise?” I say. How is it to experience my creativity from the backseat? So far, I am intrigued.

           “Yes! Let’s do it while I explain. You ask me to change? Well, I hope for exactly the opposite—never change. I got this Jolly Rancher because it reminds me of you, you know. Hard on the outside… equally hard on the inside. I have often thought about how to reply to your sweet words, the flavors of things unsaid sits on my tongue. I would say it is concentrated, like you when you triple-check my work for things to correct me on in front of all of my peers. It would be hard for me to convey the level of value I give to these interactions of ours.”

           “It’s hard for me too,” I say. Ha! If only she knew I didn’t value them at all!

           “Comfort is a cannibal to ingenuity, and you can say that I have been very creative these past few years. But why am I hogging the air like this? You know the drill. First, take the foil. Then, you unravel, open your mouth, and, from the bottom of my heart, suck it, because I quit.”