Any memories from more than a couple decades ago would naturally seem like another world from now — even if our collective reality hadn’t gone and turned itself upside down, and even if I could more often remember what I did the day before yesterday. Most details tend to get pretty fuzzy after a while, but there are always those pivotal moments that stand out, for good or bad. Like the time a simple request from a friend altered the trajectory of my course in life — well, my career path, anyway, that is — for a while, at least.
This was shortly after my first attempt at figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up had fallen apart... turns out I have the heart — but not the stomach — for the social services profession much of my family is renowned for. There’s a more involved story there, and I’m sure someday I’ll tell it, but I’ll save that lengthy sidetrack for another time. It was the mid-90s, I had just given up my job at the County Department of Community Corrections in Juvenile Probation — and was trying to decide what to do with myself next — when the head maintenance engineer at a class A luxury high rise facility in downtown Minneapolis asked me for a favor, because he knew I was “good with computer stuff.”
Giving off the impression within your social circle of being one who is “good with computers” comes with so many strings attached... though I’m fortunate now to be able to pass that buck on whenever it comes to me these days — ever since I married the IT guy — but back then, whether the trouble someone within my sphere of influence was struggling with involved a software program, a cell phone application, or a hardware malfunction, I was often the first call for help made. This can be a frustrating position when your specialized area of expertise has a limited pinpoint focus not super relevant to most end user issues — I got very good at making referrals to more appropriate tech support resources. In this case, though, I was surprised and pleased to find, my friend was indeed seeking assistance in an area I could actually lend a hand with.
Being the left leaning, folk loving, gen X beatnik I was, I naturally wanted to help people wherever I could — and I was still stinging a bit from the tough realization that just because you have a desire to be a conduit of positive change, doesn’t mean every avenue of evolution is right for you — so the timing was serendipitous, too. The mechanic didn’t need to rebuild a PC or develop a new interface, though... all he wanted was only a simple database — one he could actually make sense of and use himself — and as a data analyst, that was a problem I was only too happy to help him find a solution for.
The process of creating the tool requested was educational and enlightening. As the scope creep of configuration complexities piled up, narrowing in not just the structure, but the way it was formed, the prime directive behind each of them was always the same — you can’t do that, it has to be this way, etc. — because of Fair Housing. It had been long enough by then since I’d take any civics tests, I had to be given a refresher — and was glad to get it from someone working in the trenches of the practical effects brought about by this insightful civil rights related act passed in 1968.
I have to admit, a part of me drooled a little. I often have plenty to say about the many ways the US has fallen on its face — referencing the last four decades in general, and the last four years in particular — but there was a time when we knew better how to get things right. Because of this law, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development guarantees to every person living in the states, one cannot be denied housing on the basis of any protected classes — which over time have been expanded to include: race, color, national heritage, religion, creed, gender, sexual identity, marital status, familial status, dependence on public assistance, or physical ability.* (*some of these are specific to established governance at the state level)
As a safe place to lay one’s head is one of the pinnacle foundation pillars of the hierarchy pyramid — and because I like to spend my days doing something that matters — the industry seemed a good match for my personal and professional interests. I couldn’t think of anything more essential than the assurance of providing anyone with the most fundamental basic need to offer me peace of mind about my contribution to society on a daily basis. So, after I got my friend up on his feet and running with a handy recording catalog, I began to look into jobs within the property management field.
I started out as the Director of Leasing at a class A property before I remembered I hate sales — but everyone has to pay their dues in the beginning, so I picked up what I could, and was eager to move on. From there I transitioned to the role of Office Manager, for 300+ market rate units in a middle class suburb northwest of the Twin Cities, which was more suited to my background. The job came with a one bedroom plus den corner apartment right across from the management building, where I had a first floor corner office with windows.
My first superior at that location was a compassionate, middle-aged woman — a 20-year veteran of the real estate trade — who took a kind of maternal approach with me, because I reminded her of her own daughter, around the same age with a similar sounding name and a comparable outlook on life. She started out as a teacher, a boss, and a mentor, but over time, she also became a friend. She was liberal, like me, but years in the business had worn her idealism weary, and my optimistic enthusiasm was a breath of fresh air, nostalgically bringing back her own starting out years, all fresh faced with starry eyes and the hopes of making a difference — she said I made her recall wistfully a time when she believed in possibilities, and it’s important to always remember where you’ve come from.
Being connected to people in the place they feel the most relaxed — which is how most people are in the comfort and safety of their own homes — can be a double edged sword. In each castle where everyone is their own sole monarch, people tend to react to every situation they way they naturally are — fundamentally at their core — once all masks and airs and facades are cast off like outerwear as people cross the thresholds of their own front doors. For this reason, you get the best and the worst of everyone you encounter, which also helps to explain how the nature of the industry itself can be a challenge to anyone hoping to maintain a liberal outlook while working in it.
But, to her credit, she had never backed off from her best intentions, despite having to occasionally reroute the means of getting there, which is pretty impressive, considering the disillusioning kinds of nightmares one comes across in that environment: abuse of services, misuse of funds, victim mentality and entitlement — at nowhere near the level conservatives would have you believe, of course, but it happens — not to mention some pretty bizarre, repulsive, and disturbing ways people can be capable of finding to violate a lease. Even when no one is toeing the line along the edge of a morality abyss, though, the routine issues faced everyday can still be hard on one’s spirit. Yes, there were certainly plenty of gratifying moments, but there’s nothing rewarding about having to put people out of their homes — whether for non-payment or other breach of contract — and yet, that wasn’t even the worst of it.
She told a story of one time, years earlier — in a different position at the beginning of her career — while doing a vacant unit inspection, knocking on a nearby resident’s door to ask about the pile of personal belongings he’d thrown into the hall, only to have him respond in a flustered huff, he shouldn’t be expected to tolerate that sort of revolting depravity in his home. When she didn’t understand, he explained — shocked she couldn’t see for herself the transgression of virtue taking place before her eyes — the pillows were mating. She requested he either please take them back inside, or offered to remove them for him, then thought nothing more of it, other than to be mildly amused at the situation and to wonder what sort of drugs he was on — until the next day, when she had to hire a hazmat team to address the aftermath of his next actions, which had been to repaint his apartment with his brains — apparently, he’d actually been off his anti-psych meds.
She has sorrowfully wondered ever since whether she could have saved him by making a simple call to a social services agency. She shared this with me as a warning, when I let her know — also mildly amused — about a report from one of my courtesy patrol officers, who’d indicated a resident complained about her flowers being too loud, explaining they were mocking her, asking whether they couldn’t be ticketed for noise infractions to make them stop. I learned then never to take lucidity for granted, nor to make light of others whose behavior might seem a bit off, as they may be struggling with mental health concerns, and to recognize the communal responsibility of taking immediate action to be of assistance whenever possible, because it very well could just save a life — though I wouldn’t expect anyone to thank you for it.
So many of her teachings I took away from that experience have had far-reaching impacts, relevant in many cases universally to a great deal of life outside the realm of property management. I could have happily sat at her feet and been tutored in work and in living for many years to come, always finding something new to take away from each message she passed along, always finding ways to apply the learning on a greater scale. But, alas, as such things often go, that scenario was not meant to be.
Midway through my third year there, my boss was relocated to the sister property of the one I worked at — for which she’d also been responsible — and was at the same time demoted to managing only that property, rather than both. She’d been planning for some time on taking a more active role onsite at the larger location — because it had been steadily becoming a hotspot of issues — and had been grooming me to take over the everyday operations of the location where we were both officed (which I was already effectively doing by then, just without the title). Instead, though, her role as onsite Property Manager was taken over by a smarmy, middle-aged, two-faced man — with half her refinement and none of her experience — who was good at people-pleasing and playing politics, but who knew nothing about the business.
He took me aside and asked me to show him the ropes, so I walked him through the operational documentation referred to as our “Bible” — as such things often are — which my former boss had given me free reign to rewrite, the more she came to entrust me with greater responsibility, and which I’d been steadily updating enough to say, “I wrote the book” on property operations for that site. He used that book, along with the knowledge I offered, as the resources to take a crash course in how to do his job, as instructed by yours truly. He told me he’d come bearing gifts from corporate — in the form of a hefty budget increase — for renovating and revamping our property and our way of doing business... and said because he’d heard great things about me from the “higher ups,” he wanted me to spearhead the project, dangling the carrot of potential for a promotion down the road as incentive.
I should have been suspicious right away. Since in three years I’d never been to HQ for anything more than a holiday party, I knew if anyone from the corporate office even knew my name at all, it was only because of the rave reviews offered up by my former boss, who’d just been demoted and removed from our office. But, I was young and naïve, full of hope and ambition, so I saw what I wanted to see, and not what I didn’t want to.
I figured out pretty quickly I wasn’t really in charge — which wasn’t a huge surprise, since I hadn’t been involved in any of the planning stages leading up to such drastic, sweeping changes across the board (you can be sure things would have gone differently if I had been). I wasn’t that bothered about it, as not being the one who signed on the bottom line meant I didn’t have to be held accountable for those areas where my project management recommendations were either inadvertently overlooked or purposefully ignored — like, whose idea was it to spend $6,000 on a purple leather sofa, anyway??? No, the effective impact of our respective roles would be, I would do all the work — coordinating with vendors, getting bids, setting parameters, making deals, writing contracts, purchasing materials, overseeing labor, paying for services — and he would take all the credit for the entire process of getting the job done.
Part of my expectations in this “restructuring” project included reorganizing the various responsibilities of my entire staff of 72 — from the leasing team, to caretakers, maintenance, grounds, security, and amenity programs workers, both full and part-time — in order to make the most of our “labor assets,” during which, I suggested multiple transitions to who did what, so as to operate more efficiently, and most of my recommendations were implemented immediately, not the least of which included many tasks related to my own job, which were siphoned off in pieces to other team members who’d demonstrated the skills and capacity to take on some of those roles, in smaller chunks. The assistant manager reported to the office manager (who was effectively the property manager), the office (property) manager reported to the property manager (who was effectively an asset manager), and the property (asset) manager reported to corporate, who reported to the owners — mostly, invisible, silent partners comprised of obscenely wealthy conglomerates, and other uber elite types. There were multiple levels of redundancy built into this system, and in a booming market, those can make for a comfortable safety net to manage coverage of workflow in all settings, but when times are tight, running leaner is more financially sound, and generally considered the prudent move.
At some point, after the second time my workspace was relocated — first, I was booted out of my corner office only to have my assistant move in, and set up at a miniscule kiosk in the main office just outside my door like I was some sort of secretary (because my new boss said as the main spokesperson of the property, I was the first line of defense for handling all resident issues, and he wanted me to be more “accessible” to residents as they came in), and then, I was moved into the new groundskeeper office where the pool closet used to be (it’s just until we finish the renovation, promise!) — the handwriting was on the wall, and I realized, I was organizing myself out of a job. Don’t get me wrong, I understood it was a business decision, and I even knew it was the right call — after all, I had made it myself, sort of. But, even so, it was still better to know what to expect, so as to be properly prepared.
Accordingly, I went to the new head honcho on site and asked him, directly, whether I should be looking for other work, as it didn’t seem like there would be anything left for me to do once all of this was said and done. He gave some explanation about an exciting new role that would make better use of my creative nature — great things are in the works, you’ll see! — but I think he could tell I wasn’t buying it. He took me by the elbow, looked me in the eye, spoke my name with great sincerity, as if he could hardly believe he had to say so, and swore to me these words which have forever since been permanently emblazoned in my brain, never to be forgotten — “I would sooner cut off my left foot than to get rid of my hardest working employee.”
MISFIT MANOR side note:
When I was telling my husband this story, about the time I got to this part, he began nodding, like he knew what was coming, so I asked him what that was about. He asserted, “You got damned by the ‘Official Vote of Confidence’.” Possibly making note of my inquisitive look — like a confused puppy with its head cocked to the side and one ear up — Minion went on to further explain, in sports (because every analogy with my husband involves either sports, crime fighting, or history references), every time a failing team’s GM gives a press conference, assuring the media he feels secure in the knowledge the team’s manager has been doing fine work so far, is the best man for the job, and he has every conviction the team will rally and come back around to a strong winning streak next season, that will be the last public statement you hear from the team, before the very next one, in which the owner announces the team manager has been replaced.
/end cut scene
That was Friday. On Monday, he fired me. Publicly, and with great spectacle.
And I don’t even mean not-so-quietly, letting me go with appropriate procedures, perhaps only circumstantially within the presence and / or earshot of the small handful of folks who would normally be in the office at the time anyway, but who were not appropriately asked to leave. No, he called a sudden meeting in the party room of most of my subordinates, bringing in active manual laborers, taking them away right out from under the work they’d been in the middle of doing — including the painters, who didn’t even work for the company, they were outside contractors who happened to be onsite at the time (which just further underscored how little he understood about the way things worked there). Then he proceeded, with exaggerated theatrics, to tell a tall tale — in the fashion of a prosecutor on a law story TV show who had just revealed the smoking gun to nail the final blow into the coffin of the accused — about how I was hotheaded, blatantly insubordinate, and had a list of resident complaints against me a mile long, and my continued employment with the company would be a liability to the corporation and the property owners.
The room was quiet. Everyone was in shock. No one had any clue what to say.
He’d only been there a few months, and he had his own house in some other town a half hour away, but everyone else in that room had come to know me over the course of the last 2½ years — not just by watching me in action professionally, but also because of my onsite presence within the facility where we all lived, and where we were neighborly to one another even during non-working hours (except for the painters, who had also become friendly with me, as we interacted the most). Since they all knew he wasn’t talking about any variant of the person they knew me to be, they recognized his entire charade for what it was — nothing more than a dog and pony publicity stunt to assert his dominance, create division, and instill fear. I was grateful that day for the silent, stoic support of my staff and service providers.
I hadn’t been caught off guard by this turn of events, though, as I’d been expecting to be terminated due to budget cuts, although I was not expecting to be fired for cause — and certainly not so dramatically. My own former boss had been quietly dismissed just a few days earlier, just as she came back from a long overdue vacation — during which an “analytical” team from the corporate office had gone into her office with no warning, rifling through her files, and basically ransacking anything they came across according to their own agenda no one knew anything about — but the total lack of respect helped me come to understand maybe there was a good reason she’d decided she needed a break for the first time in over a decade, and she probably wasn’t even that disappointed to get the news. It seems, my impression of who the company was may have had more to do with her shouldering most of the burden of their BS baggage she’d been bearing on her own for far too long — I guess maybe she just didn’t want me to become jaded about how things really work too quickly — that would happen eventually on its own, given enough time.
I’d remained unruffled while he thundered on like a Southern Baptist minister, clearly enamored with the sound of his own booming voice. I just quietly stared at his feet the whole time. When he finally realized everyone was just blinking back at him with shaking heads and gaping jaws, and only then seemed suddenly uncomfortable with the silence, he asked me if I had any words in response.
As nothing was going to change, I didn’t see the point of arguing. I said only,
“No. I’m just surprised how well you’re standing without your left foot.”
Then I went to my closet office and began packing my things, which I was only able to do because he hadn’t even had the foresight to coordinate with HR to have my final paycheck ready, with maintenance to have my personal items put together, or with courtesy patrol to have an escort prepared to walk me from the office. Maybe he chose to keep the entire plan close to the vest until the last because moment because he didn’t want to deal with the awkwardness of “in-house” personnel being asked to go against their own, or maybe he just really didn’t have any idea how to do any of that, nor even, for that matter, any notion that he should have. I later found out, he hadn’t even had permission to fire me, not that it much mattered, by that point.
My assistant manager got up and ran out of the room, crying, and later slipped into my office to give me a hug and a kiss and bitch about how ridiculous that whole circus was, and the painters came in also to add their respective WTFs. It’s funny — no one else had ever heard of any such complaints — there were no email messages, no voicemail recordings, no notes in any resident files, and no anecdotal stories from anyone who worked there of cases where they’d been in the presence of anyone who’d come in to complain about me. Apparently, all these mysterious “resident complaints” had been delivered verbally in person, and directly to him only — despite having spent most of the last several months since he’d arrived either tooling around the property grounds in his giant Cadillac, or holed up in his office with the door closed, having given me instructions to “hold his calls.”
The first time he’d said that to me, I took a deep breath, went and made myself a cup of coffee, as well as another one for him, and brought it in to him, setting it down on his desk as a peace offering to break the ice. Then I sat down casually across from him, and suggested with a smile since he was new, we should have a quick heart to heart to clear the air. I opened with some exchanged pleasantries, and we swapped a bit of personal chit-chat, before I explained I was happy to share this moment, and to take messages for residents who wished to speak with the property manager when I wasn’t able to help them myself, but I wanted to make sure he understood I was not his secretary, and it was not my responsibility to make him unavailable to the very people whose home living experience it was his job to manage.
That was his first day. It was a good conversation, and we were both lighthearted about it, as I joked with a wink that he shouldn’t expect me to fetch him coffee anymore after that, and he laughed, but from that day on, his door was never open if he was in the office, and he never told anyone where he was going when he left — unless he came to me directly, I was on my own, and I confess I didn’t mind that. In hindsight — since first among the many grievances he’d listed as my terminable offenses, he declared on his first day I’d defiantly refused to follow orders (?!) — I guess it turned out in the end he’d been the kind of man all along who was never going to accept having a woman working under him who didn’t know her place.
Moral to the story, I suppose — beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing bearing gifts. Or, more accurately, when the caring, competent, confident, capable woman you work for is replaced with a selfish, boorish, loud, arrogant, clueless man, it’s time to dust off the résumé and start networking. This would be the first of my professional bouts with sexism at work, but it would not be the last, because, wouldn’t you know it — as anyone who’s met me will likely attest — even after all this time... I still haven’t learned my place.
LJ Idol | Season 11 • Week 29 - Topic: THE GLASS CLIFF
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