Tea and Honesty

George knew this wasn’t going to be a friendly chat. Oh, he trusted Margaret, the HR representative he was having lunch with. She had always been straight and honest with him, demonstrating her professionalism at every turn. However, he also knew when she ordered a pitcher of iced tea, which she had just done, that this was going to be a serious conversation. It was her trademark to stay hydrated as she talked. Unlike her colleague, Maxine, who George didn’t trust at all, Margaret had earned his trust. He wold sit and listen to her, knowing she was doing it for his own good instead of her own need to feel powerful.

George also knew what this would be about. One of his employees, Cindy, had recently left the organization. As was Margaret’s practice, she had a conversation with the offboarding employee and wanted to speak with the manager about her findings.

George tried to preempt the conversation. “Okay Margaret, tell me how terrible a manager I am.”, he said, half jokingly. Margaret smiled, took a sip of tea, and replied, “Why would I do that?”

That set George back. “Well, that is why we are here, isn’t it? To talk about what Cindy said about me? That she left because I was a terrible manager?” Margaret smiled, took another sip of tea, and replied, “No, not at all. On the contrary, she said you were a kind person who was a professional but approachable.”

Now George was thoroughly confused. “So we are here to talk about how wonderful I am?”, he said hopefully. Margaret smiled again, “Not exactly.” Well, that was short lived, George thought. “Then why am I having to work with HR to replace an employee?”

Margaret took a long sip of iced tea and refilled her glass. “Tell me George, Cindy wasn’t hired by you, was she?” “No”, George replied, “she came over to me when two departments combined. She was with the other department.”

“I see.”, Margaret replied, “You also had a few new spots available to hire, didn’t you?” George nodded. “Where did you get those other new hires from?” George thought about it for a bit and said, “They were either existing employees of my department or people who I knew who I had worked with previously.” Margaret took another sip of tea and nodded.

“Wait a minute. Cindy isn’t accusing me of discrimination, is she?”, George accused. Another sip of tea. “No….at least not overtly. But the more we talked, the more I could see why she left.”, Mary offered neutrally. George took a deep breath, willed himself to relative calmness, and made his mind as open as possible to Margaret’s comments.

“Do you know what Cindy’s main duties were before the departments combined?”, Margaret asked. “To my knowledge she was the main client contact for many of our products.” Margaret nodded. “And when she came to your department, what were her duties?” George thought for a minute about his reply, and then said, “Well, as we had new responsibilities in the deparment, I gave her new duties to perform along with her old duties.” Margaret reached for her tea.

“In other words, you added to, or in Cindy’s words, ‘doubled’, her workload without any promotion or additional compensation.” George bristled. “We were under orders to save every penny we could to ensure the deparment was profitable. It was part of the reason why we combined in the first place.”

Margaret nodded. “Cindy mentioned to me that she addressed this inequality to you. Do you recall what you said to her?” George thought for a minute and said, “I told her we could discuss it later.” Margaret asked, “And in the two years she worked for you, did you?” George fell silent, then replied. “Once she brought it up again, and I told her she wasn’t ready for any promotion.” Margaret continued, “And did you give her a plan of action so she could get promoted?” Again, George fell silent. “No.”

Margaret contined after another sip of tea. “When the world shut down and our conferences with our customers went virtual, and after we opened up again, who did you choose to present to our customers at those conferences?” George answered, “Francine. I knew her to be experienced in speaking with our customers and knew our products.” “What did you ask Cindy to do?” George thought for a minute and said, “I asked her to monitor the chat when we were virtual and to sit at the product table when we were in person.” Margaret nodded, “Why?” “Cindy knew the products.”, George replied. Another sip. “So, in other words, you made a choice about who would be public facing and who would be behind the scenes”, she said as George bristled. Margaret quickly continued, “As is your privilege. Why did you choose Francine?” “I knew her capabilities better”, replied George. Margaret said nothing.

Margaret poured another glass of iced tea, and also offered one to George, who accepted it readily. “Tell me about career movement in your group.” George was afraid Margaret would bring this up. Of the four people in the group at present, three, including George, had received promotions. Cindy hadn’t. George had noticed Cindy’s change in attitude during this time, but didn’t address it to her, thinking she would snap out of it. When she hadn’t, and offered her resignation, he was genuinely surprised.

“So, what you are saying is that I am a terrible manager who mistreats my employees.”, said George, with a tinge of bitterness that wasn’t due to the unsweetened tea he was drinking. Margaret smiled kindly. “No, I’m not. CIndy made it very clear that you were just the end of the road. You were the last of a line of people who told her how wonderful she was, added to her workload, but didn’t think enough of her to move her up in the organization. She was being truthful about your kindness and professionalism. But even a kind slap is a slap.”

They chatted a while longer of other things before Margaret said she had to get back to her work. She and George hugged, and she headed out the door. George stayed at the table a while longer thinking about the last conversation he had with Cindy before her departure. She had said to him that she hoped he found someone who he thought worthier than her. At the time she thought she was just being snarky or melodramatic. He realized now that she was just summing up what she had been suppressing for the years she worked at the company.

He poured one more glass of iced tea, raised it in the air, and said quietly, “Thanks for the lesson, Cindy.”

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