When I think of the good people at work, I think of my colleague Jess. I would say she has saved me. Not in a Coldplay way – it is more practical than that. She has saved me from boredom.
The banking sector is no fun unless you have collaborators, indeed, you cannot make it alone. There is a dearth of jocularity in our company. I am reminded of this every time I interview an icy public school boy. When recruiting administrators for my own team, I feel I am making a Faustian pact. Our chilly air-conditioned office has the same sinister aspect as a David Lynch film. My job offers are disingenuous, my mouth is saying ‘welcome to the team‘ while my blackened heart is saying ‘fire-walk with me‘.
Countless administrators have been crunched up in our machine. Only Jess had survived. After a year or so she was promoted into a training role. She now teaches junior employees how to survive. As for the managers, she knew exactly what they wanted, and fed them until they were stuffed. Her sessions on ‘soft skills’ were essentially tips on silent assassination. The company was in a state of perpetual war and Jess drilled them on how to slay the enemy – the HR way.
Last week I attended one of Jess’s popular courses ‘managing poor performance’. I was meant to review her delivery –‘Go, then feedback to her‘ was my ghastly instruction. Now that ‘feedback’ is a verb, I cannot help but think it is almost always forced. Despite the nauseating imagery, I got it. A senior manager had expressed some minor concern, so I was being despatched to kill my friend.
“You’re looking smart,” Jess said, “who are you trying to impress?”
“Do I have to be impressing someone?” I looked around. “Ok, it’s Daisy. Is she still coming?”
“Yes, but I’m not putting you together.”
“Come on, sort it out.” I clicked my pen. “I’m assessing this, you know.”
“Yes, I know. That’s why I’m keeping you free of distractions.”
She pointed at a corner table.
“Don’t try and sneak over to join her. I’ll only move you.”
I nodded and pretended to write something in my notepad. Daisy walked in with Owen from the third floor -they were laughing. I looked up with a smile, just as the frivolity had tapered off. Jess directed them to a table on the far side. They sat together and began a close conversation. He touched her elbow and she looked away smirking. I caught her eye and offered a tiny wave.
Jess opened aggressively. ‘The business cannot tolerate poor performers’ she said. Lest they drag us into the mire, I thought. It was pure pantomime but effective. Owen nodded. The other managers sat up, a few made notes. I wondered who was being earmarked for annihilation.
After twenty minutes we were broken into groups. Jess told us to move tables and I suggested a swap with Owen. I pulled down some flip-chart paper and laid it out before Daisy. The other person in our group was Sandeep, the chipper IT assistant. He nodded hello, then began dividing the pens.
Our group task was to examine a list of objects onboard a hypothetical life raft. We were going to sink unless we jettisoned five of the twelve items. As a former navy man, I figured I had the advantage. Scoring out the life-preserving equipment, I emphasised the importance of navigation.
“I’m not sure,” Sandeep said, “we should probably think about staying alive.”
I said, “That’s fine, Sandeep, but what about a bid for freedom? We should be sailing towards land – we can’t do that without a sextant.”
He put his pen down. “Fine, you’re the expert.”
I looked at Daisy as she pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. Leaning close, I said, “I used to be in the navy.”
“I know, you said.”
Jen stopped us and started going through the answers.
“Contrary to what you might think,” she said, “experts say the best thing to do is concentrate on survival. Given the immensity of the sea, there is no point in trying to head for land. You are better off conserving your energy and looking after yourselves until you’re rescued…”
Sandeep shook his head. I put my hand up.
“Jess, what about the sextant? Surely, we would still need to navigate.”
“Do you know how to use a sextant?”
“Well, no, but…”
The class started laughing.
“Oh dear,” Daisy said, “it looks as though we’re sunk.”
Owen and Sandeep exchanged glances. I looked at Jess then started writing in my notepad. She raised her eyebrows so I added a little vigour to my scribbling. But if I am honest, I had no idea what to write.