Design is a career that baffles me, along with consulting and hedge fund management, and waving the flag at a construction site. But I digress.

The Assistants by Camille Perri

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Keep Ya Head Up: Choices

My first performance evaluation came as a surprise. I’d been gainfully employed for years before I had one, so I didn’t know what to expect. It turned out to be the most positive version of a conversation I’ve had many times since.

“You come off as somewhat…” my boss paused before completing his thought. The rest of my performance review had exceeded my expectations, but he had said that there were some additional notes he wanted to share as well. “…somewhat aggressive.”

I blinked. He gave examples. I nodded.

“Ok,” I said, digesting this news. “How do we solve it?”

“I don’t think it’s a problem,” he said. “Sometimes it’s good. I know that I can give you an assignment and trust that you’ll get it done. You won’t drop it just because other people aren’t interested in working on it.”

I waited.

“But I want to make sure you’re aware. It can be helpful, but it isn’t always necessary. So you should decide when to be, and when not to be, quite so forceful.”

Candy Jar: Running on Empty

The candy jar at work remains a mystery. It is filled up sporadically with varied options. The rhyme and reason for who fills it with what is a mystery. Mars bars? Someone loves me. Strawberry-cordial filled dark chocolates?  Who did John* screw over this time? Unfortunately, much of the time there’s nothing to wonder at; the jar sits empty, its cheery orange lid covered in a layer of dust.

On a recent day a coworker walked purposefully toward the candy jar, and stopped abruptly in front of it. He held it up to the light and shook it, as though the clear plastic sides, which showed no candy within, were playing tricks on his eyes.

“Why is there no candy?” he called out, tossing it up forlornly. It was empty because he’d eaten the last of the candy two weeks early, and no one had refilled it since.

“I have m&ms,” I called back. “Do you want some?”

“YES!” he replied, in a tone far different from his usual funereal inflection.

He took a handful, and munching happily, asked, accusatorily, “Why are you hoarding candy?”

“I don’t think it’s called hoarding when I buy candy and eat it,” I suggested.

“It is if you don’t put it in the candy jar,” was the reply.

“Ooh! Can I have some?” pipped in a third coworker, ending our standoff.

I suspect that it’s my coworker’s love of candy, rather than the unpredictable nature of the jar’s filling, that leads to it sitting empty. The candy jar, and now my candy stash as well.

*I don’t work with anyone named John. Even though the security guard told me this week that his brother’s buddy John – handsome and tall – works in the same office. I’ll take his word for it.

Tips for Tipping

I don’t trust anyone, except for my hairdresser. I’ve trusted her since I was six, and two decades later that trust is intact. When I was in second grade my then hairdresser cut my hair shorter than I wanted it. She was, in fairness, following my mom’s directions. But I refused to set foot in her beauty station again. My mom only convinced me to go back by promising that a new person would be cutting my hair. She handed me over to Bonnie, and by the time Bonnie handed me back, with a lollipop of my choice, I had a sharp haircut and a steadfast bond. As I grew older, and my mom accepted that Bonnie was the only person I would allow to cut my hair, I went to the salon by myself. My mom sent me off with $15 and instructed me to come back with only $1. I explained to my mom that I’d come home with all $4, my math skills more than advanced enough to know the charge for an $11 haircut. No, my mom corrected me, I was to give Bonnie $3 for a tip.

I explained to my mom, who I thought also trusted Bonnie with her hair and her life, that the salon priced a kid’s haircut at $11. I’d stared at it for enough years to be certain. My mom broke it to me that while that was true, it wasn’t the right price to pay. I explained to her again about my trust in Bonnie. She told me that sometimes trust means paying more than what you’re told.

Hair dressers provide a personal service, my mom explained. They do something nice for you and they don’t get paid enough for it. She didn’t go into details about how some people are paid less than minimum wage – the tax rule that’s supposed to keep all of us out of poverty. She didn’t explain how those in the service economy who spend their day dealing with customers lack the infrastructure of organized labor to force work to a standstill until they are protected by the same privileges enjoyed by white-collar workers or unionized blue-collar workers. She didn’t explain how so-called pink-collar workers are unable to afford the means necessary to wage a campaign for better pay on a national-scale. Instead, my mom told me that some people do you a service and you pay them extra for it because it’s the right amount – no matter what’s written on a sign.

As one calendar year ends and another begins, we take the time to thank those in the service industry who work for us every day – our supers, maintenance staff, and the newspaper lady – by paying them a tip to make sure their pay fair.

Holiday Partying

For weeks beforehand, my office was abuzz with talk of the holiday party.

“Are you going?” asked the woman in the next cubicle.

“To the christmas party?” I asked. “Yeah.”

“You know it’s a holiday party not a christmas party?” she asked, gently. Sure, I nodded, taking in her ‘seasonal’ decorations of red and green snowmen which covered the walls of her cubicle.

At the party itself, I took in the red and green centerpieces and the playlist picked by someone with an overabundance of christmas spirit. I found myself a seat and leaned in to hear my coworkers gossip of parties past.When my group broke up, I got up to find a place to stash my coat.

“How’s it going?” asked my colleague, and our resident party planner, when he spotted me on my own. I was maneuvering between cramped tables in the basement of  a downtown bar, where people clustered awkwardly between the tables at which no one seemed eager to sit. The lighting was dim, the music loud, the ambiance uncomfortable – for those who were still sober because of those who no longer were.

“Good!” I exclaimed, my smile stretched to what I assumed he would take for an enthusiastic grin. In the fifteen minutes since I’d walked in, I’d checked my watch three times and was going for a fourth when the organizer had spotted me.

“Great!” he exclaimed in return, in what appeared to be genuine happiness. “Just remember not to have anything.” And with that he walked away.

Every year, my office has held a holiday party, organized and paid for by the staff. It includes a buffet meal and an open bar – as long as you’re drinking one of the four house specials. It’s heavily subsidized by the managers, so that everyone can afford the $25 to $35 cover charge. So, managers are put out by excessive expense they bear, staff are annoyed they have to pay, and people who keep kosher are allowed to attend for free as long as they don’t eat or drink, water included.

Happy holidays

Candy Jar

Most offices have a candy jar. Some have a bowl. Others have a dish. My old office had a drawer. While a drawer full of candy sounds awesome, the size made it hard fill it up at once – making any individual attempt seem paltry and stingy. In order to fill a candy drawer you have to stock up on enough chocolates, chewies, and drops to make the cashier fear that you’re trying to recreate the gingerbread cottage in which Hansel and Gretel were held captive. Which is why I tended to only bring in homemade treats – it’s much easier to fill out a desk space with napkins and such than it in to fill up a deep drawer.

My new office, however, has a candy jar. While significantly smaller than a drawer, it could still comfortably hold a small child. However, I am determined to win the affections and allegiance of my new coworkers. So, with candy sales abounding, I filled up the jar. My coworkers were thrilled with this new infusion of candy – I had strategically waited till the jar was emptied in order to gain maximum impact. I was happy that my plan to worm my way into their good graces had succeeded.

At least, I was glad until someone noticed that one of the candies had arrived in my bag – and then the jar – unwrapped. He made sure that I and everyone knew that he found this oversight unreasonable. He was still explaining the extent of his concern when another coworker leaned over him, grabbed the offending mini twix bar, and ate it. The fearless colleague assured us everything was fine and went back to work.

But the sanitary-conscious coworker wasn’t done listing his concerns about an unwrapped chocolate bar, as small and cute and tasty as it may be. Winding up his speech, he told me that he held me responsible for what had happened. I told him that if he didn’t appreciate my candy provisions, I’d stuff the jar with raisin boxes.

“You wouldn’t!” he said in horror.

“Watch me,” I warned him.

Thus is the battle for hearts and minds won. With lots of candy and a hint of dried-fruit menace.

How To: The Series

Most people in powerful positions – and lots of people in powerless positions – must undergo a background check between being offered a job and being given a contract to sign. But some of the most powerful people in the world don’t give HR anything but their social security number before their start date. Those people are politicians, and for them a background check is nothing more, and nothing less, than their constituency’s scrutiny.

In my generation one of the largest and longest-lasting figures on the national stage has kept his seat for over forty years. Between elections – of which he won a 23, consecutively, – Baby Boomers came of age, the Greatest Generation faded away, and Millennials began voting. His city burned and was rebuilt. His district moved – geographically stretching north and demographically expanding to include people who didn’t look or sound like him. During that time his district went from being a drug-dealing stronghold to a bastion of economic development to a gentrified neighborhood. Yet, through it all, his district hold one thing to be true – Representative Charlie Rangel was the right man to represent them. A junior congressman, a friend to the civil rights movement, a leader of the most powerful congressional committee, or a man censured by his colleagues, Rangel held his seat and helped his people. Want to know how he’s done it? He’ll tell you about it with his signature smile. Or you can read selections of how to do things so that, like Rangel, you’ll never have a bad day.

Breaking Down Negotiations

My first job offer wasn’t for a position I wanted. Thankfully, I had an interview lined up for a different job. I told the initial offer that I needed time, but would get back to them – hoping that I’d get a second, better offer. I did get a second offer, but while the position was more interesting, the pay was worse rather than better.

Knowing that I wanted the job, I told the woman who offered it that while I wanted to accept her offer, another position had offered me a better salary. She didn’t understand – because my phone was broken. There was something wrong with my phone’s speaker so that you could only hear every third word – and that was when my reception was impeccable. So, I repeated myself once, twice, and again until she understood that I wouldn’t be accepting her job offer because I had another offer with better pay.

“So money is the issue?” she asked.

“Yes,” I agreed. “I want to accept your offer, but I really can’t accept a lower salary. If you could even just match it…”

“You really need to get a new phone,” she told me. “I can’t hear you. Listen, though, don’t do anything, I think I can make this work. Can I get back to you?”

“If you could get back to me within the next week, yes, absolutely,” I agreed.

“What?” she asked. “What did you say? It’s hard to heard you.”

“Yes!” I enunciated clearly.

“Ok, I’ll get back to you later today,” she said, and ended the call – to our mutual relief.

She called me back a few hours later and offered me 5% more money. I took the job, and kept the phone. Apparently, a broken phone is one of my strengths in a negotiation.

“Everyone wants someone to make their life easier”

-Sharon

I read the job opening and was conflicted. The posting was for a senior position in my department. If I applied and got it, the job would have been a promotion for me. So, on one hand, I wanted to apply and be promoted. On the other hand, I knew that there were more qualified applicants – both internal and external – who had greater experience and were a natural fit for the position. I wasn’t sure if I should bother with the application, if I would even be a contender for the position, or if filling it out would be a waste of my time and open me to mockery by my superiors.

I talked to Sharon, a go-getting corporate employee, about it. She told me not to be an idiot – to apply for the job, as the upsides far outweighed the downsides. I agreed, halfheartedly. Sharon, somewhat appalled, mobilized her resources – and my own logic – to convince me.

“Could you do the job?” she asked. Yes, I could.

“Does your boss trust you to do a good job in your current position?” Yes, he did. To the extent that when he delegated projects to me, he took them off of his own to-do list. Which always made it a pleasant surprise for him when I handed in the finished project that he’d forgotten was underway.

 “Do you know what is needed to do new job well?” she continued. Having spent over a year in the department, I definitely knew what the job entailed – and what it did not.

“That is your strength,” she pointedly informed me. “You don’t need a new skill set. You need to tell your boss how you doing this job will make his or her life easier. No one wants to spend time looking for a new hire. No one wants to spend time and effort training for a job. They want someone they can trust to do the job right.”

She watched me nod, confirming that this was true for my workplace as well as hers.

“So you need to tell them how promoting you will make their lives easier. Everyone wants someone that will make their life easier. That is your skill set.”

Sharon was right. I got the job – and learned a lesson.