Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Psychic warfare with my boss

The workplace wizard strikes!

I became a bureaucrat in the early eighties. It was a detour on my journey to the classroom that lasted half a dozen years. Despite my initial trepidation, I found my time in the California civil service surprisingly enjoyable and worthwhile. It probably helped that I was in a small state agency that worked closely with legislation and legislators. As a former legislative aide, I had skills that were appreciated by my coworkers. Since the agency had only a handful of employees, we were often called upon to be flexible in the tasks we performed and to do a variety of different things. In addition to being the in-house expert on legislation, I was also the resident computer guru at a time when desktop computers were a new presence in state offices.

Civil servants can, of course, stay in one office or agency for an entire career, from the day they sign on to the day they retire. We can be remarkably stable. Our bosses, however, are remarkably temporary. I had three bosses in my six years.

It's the nature of the beast. State service is a layer cake, founded on a broad base of essentially permanent employees. The topmost levels are the at-will employees of California's elected constitutional officers, the executive branch leaders that include the governor, attorney general, treasurer, controller, secretary of state, etc. These elected men and women get to choose their own aides and lieutenants, assigning them and dismissing them as they please. Civil service protection is for the lower levels of the layer cake, not for the icing on top.

My first two bosses were admirably suited to their positions, but each one moved on to greater challenges just when I was getting used to them. The third one was a rather different case. The arrival of “Laura” was due to a bad bit of timing. The top position in our agency came open just when it became necessary to move Laura from the office in which she had worn out her welcome. She was a victim of her own success, a legislative secretary who had inveigled her legislator into marrying her. This may have been a faux pas. While it's permissible for a legislator to carry on a passionate affair with an employee, a legislator cannot have a spouse on the office payroll. Laura's career was truncated the moment she said “I do.” She had to get out of the legislator's office, preferably out of the State Capitol entirely.

That started Laura's years of wandering in the desert. Her new husband called in some political debts and incurred a few more to get Laura some top-level appointments that were exempt from civil service requirements. These positions paid more, but were correspondingly more precarious. Laura had been an effective and skilled legislative secretary; she was a frustrated figurehead in her series of temporary appointments. Her reputation preceded her and we had no great expectations when she moved into the executive secretary's office.

We were pleasantly surprised to discover that we were in for a honeymoon period. During her first months as our executive officer, Laura seemed content to let us do our work. We'd brief her before our agency's routine meetings and give her draft remarks with which to address the legislators and constitutional officers who attended our hearings. It worked well until Laura became restive and decided she wanted to exercise her authority. She felt that the office staff was too independent, having been selected in advance of her arrival and feeling no personal loyalty toward her. Laura looked around for an opportunity to replace one of us with a more biddable individual.

I'm sure I was considered for the chopping block, but Laura eventually decided on a different victim. She drew a bead on Mary Lou, our staff services analyst. Mary Lou was the lowest ranking member of the office staff and thus the most vulnerable to the boss's wrath. My personal perspective was distorted, because I viewed Mary Lou as the office goddess of information. Although I had been appointed to a higher-level position by virtue of my graduate degree, I was the new kid on the block. By contrast, Mary Lou had already racked up years of service and knew everything one needed to know about getting things done in a state agency. Sometimes I thought she had memorized the enormous State Administrative Manual. No one needed to page through SAM; we could just ask Mary Lou.

Even a low-ranking civil servant like a staff services analyst is protected by civil service rules against capricious dismissal. It would be necessary for Laura to “build a file” against Mary Lou. Given that Mary Lou was an experienced and competent worker, Laura would have to resort to various tricks to make her look bad. At last our boss would be able to draw on the game-playing skills she had perfected at the State Capitol.

Having recruited the office secretary to her cause with promises of preferment and promotion, the executive secretary began her campaign of entrapment. Laura would dictate to the secretary a directive for Mary Lou, which the secretary would type into Microsoft Word and print out on the laser printer for Laura's signature. Instead of then delivering the directive to Mary Lou, however, the secretary was under Laura's orders to hold the directive till Mary Lou left for her lunch break. The plan was simple. The moment Mary Lou left the office, the secretary would place the boss's directive on Mary Lou's desk. When our staff services analyst returned to her office she'd find that the boss had assigned her a task and given her a minimal amount of time to accomplish it.

There are few secrets in a small agency. We knew right away what Laura was up to. Mary Lou showed me some of the snap assignments that she had barely accomplished before the boss marched into her office to demand the results. She was sure that Laura's campaign would eventually produce incidents where Laura could file reports of unsatisfactory performance in Mary Lou's personnel file. Eventually Mary Lou would be subject to discipline or reassignment—or would flee in self-preservation. What to do?

Digital dueling

I modified my office routine a bit. First thing each morning, having arrived after my pass through the State Capitol to collect the day's legislative records, I'd log on to the office computer system from the back office. We had a primitive network linking some IBM desktops. Security was virtually nonexistent on the shared hard disk. We used the same directories and swapped files among the various workstations. I became extremely interested in checking each morning with a global directory listing sorted by date. Then I'd peruse all the files that had been altered (or created) in the last 24 hours, with particular attention paid to the Word files. I generally refrained from printing out any incriminating evidence, but I read certain files carefully.

Then I'd repair to Mary Lou's office. She was sure to be in, well before the boss had bothered to arrive. I'd check that the office secretary was not hovering near and then make my report:

“Vasconcellos. Assembly Constitutional Amendment 69. Latest version of bill and latest analysis of fiscal impact by the Legislative Analyst's Office.”

Mary Lou would listen carefully, smile, and make a few discreet shorthand marks on her notepad. She could now plan her day to ensure she had the necessary components assembled by noon to answer Laura's next challenge. When she returned from lunch, there was the imperative memo from the boss demanding that Mary Lou drop everything to get the latest version of ACA 69 and its current LAO analysis.

Laura marched into Mary Lou's office at 1:30 and demanded to know whether Mary Lou had discharged her latest assignment. Mary Lou calmly handed the boss a neatly paper-clipped sheaf of papers, ACA 69 with its analysis and a cover memo by Mary Lou noting that the measure had not been amended since the previous month. Laura accepted the packet with a frown on her face, turned on her heel, and marched back out.

The ACA 69 incident is real, one among several similar incidents in which Mary Lou suddenly became capable of instantaneous prodigies. It sticks in my mind because it was an especially delicious coup. Mary Lou didn't even need to run any errands to get the necessary materials because I already had them in my legislative files. What's more, I ambushed Laura myself later that afternoon, my own ACA 69 file in hand, sweetly inquiring whether Mary Lou had provided her with everything she needed. Laura fixed her irritable gaze on me and, as if to defend the task she had assigned to Mary Lou, said, “Yes, yes. It was quite useful. I learned a lot about the current version of Vasco's proposed amendment.”

My smile didn't waver as I flourished my file. “Oh, good,” I said, “although it's a bit of a surprise. You see, we've had that analysis in our files since last month. See? Your initials are on my copy of it, indicating that you've already read it. But never mind. I suppose it's a good thing that Mary Lou provided you with a refresher.”

Laura favored me with a sickly smile, ducked her head, and retreated into her private office.


The work of our agency had a natural ebb and flow in synchronization with legislative sessions. When the legislators had fled Sacramento, we had a chance to catch our breath. While I was sometimes chained to my desk on weekends when the legislature was in full swing, during recesses I could attend to the occasional outside project or actually consider getting a life. During the slack periods, I would sometimes tell my immediate supervisor Bill (not Laura) that I would draw a couple of days' worth of comp time from my heap of accrued weekend hours and be at home editing manuscript or writing. Bill would cheerfully wave me off and I'd vanish for those days. After all, I always treated the office to lunch when my royalty checks came in. It was a win-win situation.

On one of those occasions the legislature was not entirely inert. I needed to dip into my comp time to catch up on neglected projects, but the legislature couldn't be ignored. No major hearings were scheduled, but amendments might be filed and new analyses might appear. Not to worry: I'd enlist Mary Lou, who by now had jumped through enough of Laura's hoops to be especially familiar with legislative amendments and analyses. I turned the legislative portfolio over to her for safekeeping and told her to ring me up at home if any complications arose. The boss, of course, made sure that they did.

Mary Lou phoned me: “Laura has called a meeting for tomorrow.”

“Really? Whatever for?”

“She didn't say, but I think you're in trouble for not being in the office.”

“Why is that? I cleared it with Bill before I took off.”

“I think that she thinks you should have checked with her first.”

“It's a perfect lose-lose situation, because then she'd complain that I'm not respecting the chain of command by bothering her over something Bill should handle. Or, worse, she'd say ‘no way’ and I'd be stuck at the office twiddling my thumbs.”

“There could be something else that set her off. She rummaged through my desk again when I was out.”

“Do tell! You think she saw it?”

“Oh, yes. Her face has been flushed all day. I'm sure she slipped into my office when I was out on an errand. She's been so distracted she hasn't even tried to ambush me. I'm sure she blames you.”

At last the boss got one right. I had given Mary Lou a copy of How to Work for a Jerk and suggested she leave it in her desk rather than take it home. I knew that the boss would eventually find it during one of her snoop sessions. Apparently she had.

The next morning the office secretary waved me over as I walked in. Although she was the boss's dutiful henchwoman, she was concerned that I had wandered into the bull's eye intended for Mary Lou alone.

“You need to be more careful. Laura is really pissed at you. She says you're insubordinate!”

“Really? Let's see.” I flipped open the dictionary on the secretary's desk. “Insubordinate, insubordinate. Ah, here it is. ‘In-sub-or-di-nate. Not submissive to authority.’ Well, damn if she isn't right. Don't worry. I can't imagine she'll make a habit of that.”

I left the secretary with her mouth gaping open. Mary Lou caught up with me outside my office.

“She's already in. We're supposed to see her at nine. It's just you and me and it looks like you're the one in hot water. It may be up over your head.”

“I've been in hot water so long it feels normal. And if it's already over my head, what's a few feet more? I'm not going to worry about it.”

Mary Lou did not seem particularly comforted by my air of insouciance. At nine o' clock I collected Mary Lou from her office and we strolled into Laura's inner sanctum. We sat down in the two chairs in front of her desk. Laura wasted no time in giving me a warning shot across my bow.

“It was very nice of you to come into the office today, Zeno.”

“No problem. Mary Lou said you were calling a meeting for this morning, so of course I'm here.”

“You left the legislative portfolio with Mary Lou while you were absent.”

I liked the word “absent,” as if I had been naughtily playing hooky and liked to shirk my responsibilities. A proper response would have been, “Listen, you trumped-up whore, I was here every day, all day, for the three-day Memorial Day weekend. I didn't see your fat ass in here then!” That, however, would have been intemperate and completely uncharacteristic of me. Instead I said:

“Yes, I did. Mary Lou knew that she could call me if anything came up, but she was able to handle it on her own.”

Laura stuck the needle in: “Yes, Mary Lou did a very good job of taking care of your legislative portfolio while you were gone.”

I smiled broadly at the boss and flipped open my steno pad. It normally sat on my desk next to my phone and served as a log of my calls and conversations, but I also carried it into staff meetings and the like. Laura's face froze into a mask of confusion as I grinned, pulled a pen from my pocket, and began scribbling on my pad. The smile was still on my face when I glanced back up at the boss and tilted the pad toward Mary Lou so she could see what I had written:
Laura: Mary Lou did a v. good job taking care of my legislative portfolio while I was taking time off.
In a beautiful and almost perfect synchronization, the corners of Mary Lou's lips curved upward while Laura's unfroze and curved downward. Both women knew exactly what had occurred.

The boss had just given Mary Lou a strongly positive evaluation in the presence of two witnesses, one of whom had just made a contemporaneous written record of it. My notes would be an extremely awkward counterweight to her efforts to build a file against Mary Lou—clear, explicit praise of a supposedly incompetent staffer.

“Okay, we're done!” snapped Laura.

Mary Lou and I left Laura's office and I closed the door behind us.

“I can't believe you got away with that!” exclaimed Mary Lou.

“Got away with what, Mary Lou? The boss called a meeting. I showed up in time. She said things. I took notes. What's the big deal?”

The great escape

Laura was sacked after only two years as our agency's chief executive. But I was gone before she was. Some of my days off had been strategically chosen to allow me to travel to job interviews at various California colleges. I finally got a nibble. The job offer was not ideal. The appointment was limited term, not tenure track. However, I was ready to take the risk, hoping that it would help to be on the spot when a future tenure-track position opened up. And that is indeed how it worked out. Laura had motivated me to go do what I really wanted to do.

I owe her so much!


The Brutal Gourmet said...

Oh, that was beautiful, Zeno. I just love working the system against the oppressors!

Josh said...

This story makes me so happy. My office mate was wondering what was going on with my laughing!

Anonymous said...

"That started Laura's years of wandering in the dessert."

Typo or pun?

Stories like this are why I read this blog.

Zeno said...

Why would you think it was a pun, Billy C? Just because Laura left the legislative staff to begin a nomadic life in the icing on top of the civil service?

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

I want to be you when I grow up.

It'd prolly improve my chances of marrying Sastra, too.

Tualha said...

Good new video on this general topic: