THE BUSINESS BOOMER – #10 – (Part 2 of 2) – A Supervisor’s Legacy: (or Be Careful For What You Are Remembered For)

Robert was pretty frank with me all along.. from the interview to any followup discussions after I was hired, regarding my role.. and expected role.  I pretty much knew up front that the powers wanted Doris gone.. I was under no illusions.  But we all agreed it was a delicate balance between what was needed in our section for the company and Doris’s own emotions.  In spite of the fact that I was known within the world of the two aged people in my section as the “new kid” (I was in my 30’s at that point).. we managed to forge a good relationship (I made it a point to act as “student” with her.. and not a usurper of her authority) and it didn’t take but a couple months for my asserting interactions with other departments to find everyone preferring to deal with me rather than Doris.  Obviously my views and ideas were more progressive and I had a willingness at the time to turn things upside down for change if that what was needed.  Doris was known as not being a change agent.  The Millers, from top to bottom, constantly fed their employees challenges to change things for the better.  It was a great working environment that way.

But then the weeks turned into months.. and yep, the months turned into a year and a half… and I was still a supervisor.  By that time it was apparent that other departments would connect with me first rather than Doris (“Hey, Doug.. when they making you supervisor over there?”)… and while Robert would constantly feed to Doris that my absorption of greater responsibility was part of process to merge me into position, Doris was avoiding making a committment on an exact date to leave.  That’s when things did, in fact… get a tad topsey-turvey.

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As I mentioned earlier, Robert did keep me in the loop at all times regrding what was now being referred to inside his office as the “this Doris thing”.  Robert said that he was going to ratchet this up a bit and have some more chats with Doris.  This phase was going to address her seeming non-desire to set a retirement date and therefore the company must proceed with using me in the position for which I was hired… based on her original committment to the company to retire.  So to be fair, Doris would take a subordinate position as one of the high end clerks within the section, no loss in her current salary.  When Robert told me this it was obvious what was next.  “Robert… you know as well as I do that she will not be able to maintain the production requirements for that position.”, I remarked.  He replied, “Then we have to document everything as we do with any other employee.”  Bingo.  But now I was to take a different role.  Double bingo.

Robert talked to Doris.. trying to make her understand the relitive quandry her indecision has put the company into… and the need for the company to move on with the original plan.  About this time she was feeling “railroaded” to some extent.   She even asked for an audience with her old “buddy”, owner Jack Miller… and she got it.  Jack apparently did his job to try and convince her that it was in her best interests at this point in life to consider retirement as the company indeed had to move on.  Her years of dedication were admirable, but life moves on… yada, yada.  She reluctantly accepted the subordinate role.  But the story was not over.

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As Doris’ supervisor I was now responsible for making sure she kept to production standards, as I did with all the staff.  All through this “Doris” process, Robert and I kept exceptional paper trails of all chats with Doris.  Now I had to make sure we followed the employee manual on the performance level… showing no more or less attention than I would with any employee.  Robert and I, and I would guess Jack Miller as well, had no illusions that Doris would fail at maintaing production standards.  She may have been the section’s supervisor for 10 years but that doesn’t mean she could do the work in the trenches consistantly and accurately as the rules dictated.

Her and I had some early chats as she assimilated to her “new” subordinate position to make sure we still had a dialog and also to assure her that I was not any part of the decisions made by either Robert or Jack… so I had no idea about anything… other than I was asked to make sure I didn’t favor her as that might affect the other staff.  She was aware that included keeping to the performance standards.  I tried making our chats “supervisor-to-supervisor” so her focus would remain on company needs rather than emotionalism.  Was I playing her?  No.. I was “accomodating” her.  I am human, she’s human.. I was finding a frame of reference we could both focus on… and it wasn’t about her retirement or lack thereof.

Then the predictable (and inevitable) started to happen.  She couldn’t keep up with the work.  Following the rulebook (and keeping Robert informed each step of the way) I started with the verbal warnings… gradutating to the written warnings.  At each conference I would sit there with her and listen to her feelings about being “put out to pasture” and how the Miller’s were treating her so badly.  You couldn’t be human and not feel her grief at these meetings.  She would agree to the performance issues.. and I would do the obligatory “What can we do to help you work through this?”, and sometimes she would ask for some more training in one thing or another… we’d give her the time, and she would still fall flat.  Yeah… no question she was having a very tough time.. and I was the guy there pulling the trigger on her future there.

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Strange irony.. she hired the guy who would end up pressuring her to leave… nearly firing her.  I kept Robert informed.. who kept the HR manager informed… and kept Jack Miller informed.  It was after one of the final written warning conferences that she decided to take off for a few days as a result of some ailement.  It was then we heard that she had some sort of nervous breakdown, presumably as a result, or in the least a contributing factor, of her employment at Quill.  At this point it was out of my hands.

In the days/weeks that followed I had heard that she tried to file for Workmen’s Comp because her breakdown was work related.  In those days stress was not a Comp claim that could be made.  I think she got a lawyer and threatened some sort of legal action.  One day I was called into a meeting with the HR manager and a corporate attorney representing the company.  I provided whatever I could on the case.. and the attorney then asked what my degree was in.  When I told him it was in the Behavioral Sciences he immediately retorted something to the effect, “They will use that against us saying that you were playing mind games with her.”  Um… ok.  So now what?

I never heard about the outcome.  I never heard from Doris again because she never returned to work.  Others in the department who had contact with her said she was with her family and doing well.  Life went on… and I was supervisor and the company (and me) was happy it was finally over.

When it was about time for me to depart the company (a story in itself, but not for this post) it was all on basically good terms; I had a severence package I was happy with, and I was moving on.  I thought, well, what the heck… I should at least stop by the brothers’ offices and say my goodbyes to them (you never know.. so don’t burn your bridges).  Even though I was supervisor level I still had built a measure of a reputation that I was accepted to make direct contact with the brothers.  I went up to say my goodbyes to Arny… we shook hands.. he wished me luck (him being the finance guy we never had the need for a lot of time together).  My next visit was to Jack Miller himself.  We didn’t exchange a huge farewell; I respected the man for what he accomplished in life and I dealt with him more than the other two brothers.  He thanked me for my work, and also wished me luck on my new endeavors.  Next I went to Harvey.  Harvey was actually Robert’s direct boss.. operations president.  Harvey knew the Doris story as well.  I go into his office… now mind you, the Doris “thing” had been 4 years prior at that time. 

“Hi, Harvey.  I’ll be leaving today and I just wanted to come by and say goodbye and say thanks.” I held out my hand to shake his.  “Well, good luck, Doug.  I must say, I was most favorably impressed with your handling of that Doris thing.  You did very well.”, he said while returning my handshake.  “Well, thanks, Harvey.  I’m glad it all worked out in the end.”, I replied, all the while thinking.. that’s all you remember me doing around here?  “Take care of yourself, Harvey.”  “Thanks!  You too!”  …and out the door I left.   Yeah.. I was pretty much forgotten by the brothers within 15 seconds of leaving their offices, no question.  But it did take me aback that the only thing Harvey recalled about my 6 years there was how I somehow did well during a time I had to get rid of the person who hired me.  You know you made the right decision to move on in life when that happens.

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Lessons Learned and Other Reflection

All through that process I did manage to keep my cool in spite of what it might have appeared we were doing to another human being.  I would not have been so involved in the process had I not thought that Doris herself bore some responsibility for this even happening given her apparent commitment to retire after I was brought on board… then faltering to her own personal emotions about leaving the company.  She had due process all along according to the employee manual to talk to anyone to appeal her case for staying and she did exercise that to some measure.  She was not in personal financial need to stay.. in fact, she was well covered with profit sharing revenue until the end of time.

I think the job made Doris feel needed in life.  I also think she truly wanted more respect from the Miller brothers since she had put so many years into the growth of the company.  I personally think that had management put a more positive light on her impending retirement plans that much of this might have been avoided.  It would not have been any great effort to have had a small recognition dinner followng her decision to retire.  It could have been limited to a couple departments… done in the cafeteria; called it a company recognition for all her years of employment, or something.  The idea being she would have had some formal recognition and respect for being part of the company growth and the company would have made a very public event to firm up Doris’s retirement commitment (she’d be less likely to back out given all the public attention).  But the company was simply “tired” of her and wanted someone in her spot that wasn’t locked in the past and had more contemporary education and experience… and to do all this according to the book to avoid a lawsuit.

I was bothered by it all as it was happening.. not because I thought we were indeed “railroading” her or setting her up(we weren’t) but because I was the one who had to ride with her through all her poor performance disciplinary process… the private meetings and “counseling sessions”.  Some of those turned into emotional crying sessions for her when she realized she couldn’t do the trenchwork jobs.  When Robert first told me that he (after likely meeting with Jack & Harvey, and HR) would offer Doris to take the subordinate position I was the only one to say right off that she would never be able to perform properly in that position.  I had worked with her for 18 months so I had a good idea by that time what she was and was not capable of doing.  I honestly don’t think to this day that Robert, or anyone else along that chain, had given thought that she would fail in the subordinate position.  When I mentioned it Robert just kinda shrugged and said we’d have to cross that bridge if it happened.. and according to the book.  Their only goal was having her removed from supervisor and putting me in the role untethered to get on with business.

Robert was at least accurate in funneling my Doris disciplinary meeting progress reports up the channel, which is likely why Harvey provided his accolades for my contribution to solving “their” problem.  To them I stayed the course and stayed focus to the “greater picture” and pulled the trigger for them.  Yeah, to some measure I knew in the end this was a positive measurement of my own contribution to my career there.. and what guy at my level of management at the time doesn’t want the attention of the owners of the company.  But I didn’t do it “over the body” of Doris.  There might have been better ways to have handled it all by the company but Doris put herself through it, and I was sad for her for that… and while I might have been focused on the end result as a good company man I was not without my own feelings about it all.. and I made that known to Robert.

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As I mentioned earlier, I never heard from Doris again after she left work that day.  Others said she was doing well with her family.  I don’t know any result of her Workman’s Comp claim… although since then the laws have changed to include stress as a claim factor.

After leaving Quill I took out my profit sharing and bought a data processing business and expanded that and did well for the next 15 years.  I mentioned there were two supervisors under Robert.. myself and another fellow, Rick, on the Inventory Control side.  Robert seemed to enjoy playing Rick and I off of each other for various things hence we never had a grand working relationship while at Quill.  I ronically, situations changed, and when Rick was removed from his position and I was in limbo waiting for a severence decision, we did in fact, become buddies (we were both supervisors-without-a-country at that point).  In fact, when he left Quill shortly after me he worked for two firms and he sent a ton of work my way to my business.  We spent lots ot time together and I sought his advice many times on various business things.

In 1992, about 4 years after I left Quill, Quill’s lawsuit against the State of North Dakota reached the Supreme Court (Quill Corp vs. North Dakota).  The suit is famous because the Court ruled that if a mail order company did not have a legal presence in that state (called nexus) then the state cannot demand sales tax for sales made in that state.  For now that’s the law and the Court stipulated that Congress can change it anytime they want (it’s not an issue of Constitutionality but regulatory commerce).  It’s currently being challenged because of the success of internet mail order and states wanting to tap into that revenue stream.  I recall many a meeting where Jack Miller would rant about states wanting to tax mail order sales.  He was unsuccessful in getting the National Office Products Association, the large office products industry organization, to rally the troops to fight legally.. so he did it himself.

In 1998 Jack sold Quill to office supply chain, Staples, for something like $360 million.

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