(c) 2014 Renata Manzo
Have you ever lived in a cageWhere you live to be whipped and be tamedThe Cage, lyrics by Bernie Taupin
Have mercy on the criminalWho is running from the lawAre you blind to the winds of changeDon’t you hear him any more“Have Mercy on the Criminal”, lyrics by Bernie Taupin
On Sunday, Billy and I went to visit his mom, who lives in South Alexandria, Virginia. As we entered her neighborhood, I noticed yellow ribbons tied around trees and mailbox posts. On the corner, someone had put a big sign, like the ones used outside of stores, which read “Hannah you are in our thoughts and prayers.”
It turned out that Hannah’s family lives just one block over from Billy’s mother. The trip to and from Alexandria was sobering indeed.
To survive you need a meal ticket
To stay alive you need a meal ticket
Feel no pain, no pain
No regret, no regret
When the line’s been signed
You’re someone else
Do yourself a favor, the meal ticket does the rest
It has been a while, hasn’t it? My last entry was in March, right before I started my job search. Because I can split my focus in only so many slices, I decided I needed to concentrate on finding a new job. By March I was feeling much better (but you should see me now!) and started my job search in earnest. I sent out over 25 resumes, and only got three interviews. But one is all it takes, right?
I almost didn’t send my resume to my new employer. It was for another tobacco company, and I wasn’t sure that is what I wanted to do. Plus, I could tell by the job description that it would be a step backwards in terms of my career (what career, I thought?) And, the pay was a steep drop from what I was used to. But I figured, what the heck?
I received a call from an HR manager almost immediately. After buying a new suit, having not worn one for years, and dyeing my beloved gray hair brown again, I embarked on a series of interviews, first with the GC and the one other lawyer in the company, then with the GC of the parent company in Denmark, and then finally with the presidents of the three U.S. subsidiaries for which I would provide legal services.
I was not sure how to take the GC when I first met him. He was missing something. What was it? Oh, yeah, I finally realized what he was missing– that giant rod up his butt that the lawyers at my old job all had secured firmly up their derrieres. Instead, he was personable and very forthcoming about everything– the good, the bad and the ugly. This man holds nothing back.
He was looking for someone with tobacco experience, and I fit the bill.
Long story short, I took the job.
Almost immediately, the other lawyer resigned.
Crap, what have I gotten myself into?
The other lawyer wanted to make more money, so he left. Too bad. In the short time I got to know him, I liked him a lot. But I could tell he was ready to move on the greener pastures.
Fortunately, the departing attorney knew of a lawyer from D.C. who wanted to move back to Richmond, and who also had FDA experience, which the company needed because of the impending federal regulations. More on that later.
Although I asked a lot of questions about the corporate culture, having been through the meat grinder before, I still had some trepidation about the new job. I think that’s normal. But during the first few weeks, I had trouble adapting to the lack of stress. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.
On the Friday of my first week, I thought it had. I received an e-mail from the GC with no subject line. Uh, oh, I thought. Here it comes.
To understand why I was concerned, you have to understand what I was used to. At my previous job, I saw the GC maybe four times a year. And her communication skills made a mime seem talkative. We rarely received a communication directly from her. Mostly they came through her management team, and it was hit or miss as to whether the message made its way down to the minion level where I toiled.
When we did receive an e-mail directly from her, you could almost hear the intake of breath from the other lawyers as it popped onto their screens. News directly from her was rarely good. Often, it involved new assignments for some of the lawyers. She liked to re-arrange the deck chairs about once a year, just to keep everyone on their toes. And the e-mail would be the first time anyone learned about the new assignments, including, I imagine, the lawyers who were being reassigned. (Maybe not, but I’ll never know because, as I’ve mentioned, communication in the law department there was tantamount to non-existent. Corps in a morgue have better communication skills.
So, on this Friday in May, when I saw this e-mail from the GC, my thoughts were racing around my head. Had I screwed up already? Had I stepped onto a landmine? Walked into a buzz saw? Had I pissed off a VP so soon? I hadn’t even talked to one yet. Boy, that was fast. I held my breath as I opened the message.
The e-mail contained only one thing– a link to a website. I clicked on the link.
It took me to the Krispy Kreme website. They were giving away free donuts on Saturday.
I just about fell out of my chair. The GC, the person who has the ear of the President of the Company, the guy (in this case) who deals with all of the most serious legal issues facing the company, took the time to send out a link to the Krispy Kreme website.
I felt like I had gone from the Twilight Zone to Romper Room. But not in a bad way, I promise you. I don’t mean to suggest that this place was like a kindergarten. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was finally being treated like a professional again, something I had not enjoyed since my days at H&W.
No, what I mean is this, and this was the toughest thing for me to get used to–
My new boss has a sense of humor.
“For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” Luke 9:25, ESV
If the place was so awful, why did I stay? Well, first, working for a tobacco company means dealing with some unique legal issues. Intellectually, it was a great job.
Third, I loved my clients. The folks I supported in the business were hard working and dedicated. They were so much fun to work with. They provided the humor that my own department lacked. These people became my true friends. More importantly, they appreciated the work I did for them. They invited me to their social events, including their department Christmas party. As far as I know, I was the only lawyer ever to receive an appreciation award from the leaf department, and I received two of them. Their support kept me afloat for years.
Finally, it was the golden handcuffs. Simply put, they paid me a LOT of money. Between the base salary, the bonus, the stock and the stock dividends, I was able to give my family an enviable lifestyle. I bought a vacation home at Smith Mountain Lake with my brother, sent my children to expensive private schools, and went on family vacations to places like Alaska and Italy. We bought a huge brick house so my mom could move in with us.
It is difficult, to say the least, to walk away from that kind of money. Most people call it “golden handcuffs,” but to me it felt more like iron wings. I couldn’t leave because who else was going to pay me this kind of money? My family got used to the lifestyle and they relied on me to provide it. My husband was “Mr. Mom.” He took care of the house and the children. He did all the grocery shopping. He took the kids to their doctor’s appointments and their sports practices. I felt I owed it to my family to keep working at the company.
Unfortunately, the high I got from the bonuses and the stock lasted about a day. The rest of the time, I relied on the interesting work and the clients to sustain me. Eventually, however, I got worn down by the culture. I could no longer swim in the toxic soup.
DISCLAIMER: These are my opinions and do not represent the opinions of any organization. The events described in this blog did occur, but the names have been changed and some of the details altered.
No, the fit I’m talking about is cultural. There were many red flags that warned me about the culture when I arrived in the law department, but I chose to ignore them. I should have listened to my intuition. The gut never lies.
Red flag number 1: I found myself working in the same building, on the same floor, and in the exact same location as I did when I worked for the previous owner. How was that a red flag? I got laid off from my former employer. Twenty years later I found myself back at the same place. It was a bad omen. I convinced myself that this time it would be different. And it was. It was worse.
Red flag number 2: My computer went down and it took a whole day to fix it, and no one cared that I couldn’t get any work done for an entire day. I’m paid to work and I take that quite seriously. When I was at the law firm, we billed in either 15 or 6 minute increments. If the lawyers weren’t billing the clients, the law firm didn’t make money. So, when there was a computer problem, the IS department sent someone up immediately. Not at this job. I had to call the help desk in India.
When I called, it took about 10 minutes (no exaggeration) to verify my name and location. The service agent, who didn’t know English very well and had a thick accent, could not find my name in the system. Apparently the name Scruggs is very difficult to comprehend. He kept spelling it wrong.
Then it took another half hour to explain the problem, at which point the agent Googled the issue to try to find a solution. I am not lying. He told me so. After about an hour on the phone, the agent gave up and escalated the issue to desk side support, which are the people located in Richmond, not India. Desk side support did not show up until up the next day. Productivity was obviously not one of the company’s values.
Red flag number 4: No one in the department seemed to be very happy. I’m a friendly person and one of the things I like best about living in the South is that people are friendly; they say hello to everyone. But not here. Walking down the hallways, I noticed that the lawyers didn’t say “good morning” or “how are you”, etc. The administrative staff, on the other hand, was very welcoming.
Red flag number 5: No department Christmas party. This may seem like a minor thing, but to me, it says a lot about the management and the department culture. It is the way that the head of a department tells her employees that she appreciates them and the work that they do. I think it has a big impact on morale, which in turn impacts productivity. Low morale means lower productivity. When employees don’t feel that their work is appreciated, they don’t feel loyal to the organization. This translates into more sick days, more surfing the web during business hours, and probably more stolen office supplies.
In early December, I attended the quarterly lawyer’s meeting–just lawyers, no staff. The meeting started with a nice lunch (which was eliminated from future meetings) and then we sat through four hours of presentations.
Around 4:30, the rest of the law department (admins and paralegals) came into the auditorium. GC gave out a few recognition awards to the staff and then wished us all a Merry Christmas. My God, I thought. This is it. This is the Christmas party. There wasn’t so much as punch and cookies for the staff. Not even leftovers from lunch. I was shocked. Every other place I had worked had some sort of Christmas party. In my previous in-house job, the General Counsel had everyone over to his house.
The stage was set for my downward slide. The amazing thing is that it took six years for me to hit bottom. (You may be wondering why I stayed so long if it was so bad. I’ll explain that in another entry).