It is ironic that in my profession it is deemed an advantage to be a ‘people person’. HR practitioners, and I am no exception, are professional know-it-alls – the very antithesis of the ‘people person’. As for myself, I have damaged my department’s reputation by pestering numerous women across the organisation – consequently adding a dark undertone to the benign euphemism.
And yet, despite my presence, the company for which I work is renowned for its ‘people’ initiatives.
‘Our people’ – how I feel for those poor devils.
They are continually bombarded by complex brand standards, baffling mission statements, and corporate visions of varying lucidity. And as if this wasn’t enough, the HR team insist on pouring their love all over the top – like some kind of infernal gravy – giving everything the same bland taste.
It was a Friday and I was running late for the People Planning meeting. Empty notebook in hand, I dashed to the optimistically named Executive Suite.
“Sorry, everybody,” I said, as I entered.
The room was packed. Men of uncertain function lined the walls, they had the look of quarry, motionless and watchful.
“How lovely of you to join us,” said a voice at the back.
I sat and opened my notebook. Lesley, the CEO’s PA was to my right, she offered a pursed smile.
“Right,” I said, clicking my pen, “let’s do some people planning.”
Janice, the HR director, took a sip of water watching me over the rim of the glass. She then commenced with a preamble about ‘the value’ our people add. As I nodded along, I looked at the assorted suits. Calculating the collective worth of these round-bottomed middle-men, I pictured us all trapped inside a giant abacus, as if in a demented ‘Human Centipede’ ripoff.
Given we worked in financial services, this would probably be viewed as our just deserts.
Janice called my name, snapping me out of my reverie.
She said, “I thought we should start with the People Paper, Marcello?”
“Oh, I thought we were going to catch up about that later.”
“No, it was for today – why, haven’t you done it?”
I clicked my pen.
Janice took another sip of water, this time I noticed a vein throbbing in her neck.
Later that week, I was out having a drink with Lesley, the PA. We were in a chain-bar next to the office.
“You’re very lucky, you know,” she said.
“Janice likes you. God knows why. I think you’re one of those people that’s good at looking good. How good you are is another question, of course.”
“Yes, and not necessarily a relevant one. I didn’t look good the other day, did I? You were in the exec meeting on Tuesday, did she mention the People Paper debacle?”
“She told them that ‘going forward’, it would be ready at the beginning of the month.”
“Ah yes, going forward, of all the corporate directions to go in, that is definitely my favourite.”
Lesley shook her head.
“You need to do something special,” she said.
“I have already, I got rid of that Time to Shine thing.”
An ill-fated recognition programme, ‘Time to Shine’ was a flop in every way. In an attempt to turbo-charge the talent, we periodically gathered the bemused staff in the canteen for tea and tepid announcements. There was the obligatory nod to those who’d ‘gone the extra mile’, as well as the arbitrary birthday announcements.
It was awkward at best, a morale-sapper at worst.
Lesley said, “didn’t they try to bring that back?”
“Yeah, Alisha decided to rebrand it – same stuff but they ran it a few times as ‘Celebrate and Communicate’.”
“You are joking.”
“It didn’t last.” I said, “when I think ‘celebrate’ I think champagne, not eating sandwiches and getting my ear chewed off about some meaningless staff survey.”
“Yeah, the thing I make every effort not to complete.”
“Amen to that, sister,” I said, raising my glass.
“Please don’t do that again.”
“One more?” she said, “my round.”
The music picked up and the lights dimmed, we were crossing over from the land of the after-work quickie, and into the country of the drunk.
I watched Lesley as she walked to bar, more precisely I watched her posterior. The mystery of the fourth drink, the mild buzz that is unremittingly positive. Returning with two large wines, she perched back on her high-stool.
“What are you smirking about?” she said.
“Nothing. No, actually, I’m going to say it.”
“Why didn’t we ever get together?”
“You and I – why didn’t we ever go out? I mean, you’re just super lovely and I, well, you know what I’m like.”
Lesley crossed her arms.
“Oh, my god,” she said.
I glanced across the bar at the distracted city workers, lost in their gentle small talk.
I said, “have I made a mistake?”
I reached out to touch her arm, but she recoiled.
“Jesus, Marcello, what’s wrong with you?”
“Is that a rhetorical question?”
“Wow,” she sat bolt upright, “I am such an idiot. I can’t believe I fell for this, what a fool. And I thought we were cool, just mates.”
She gathered her things.
“And after all the crap I took,” she said , “I defended you – well, at least I know now that it’s all true.”
Lesley walked out.
I looked at my full glass, at least she didn’t throw anything over me, I thought.
Scanning the bar, it was evident that no one had noticed. Still, why would any of them care? This kind of thing happens every day. Probably.