healthy lunches.

I knew, of course, that it was going to happen – work was going to get nutty.

I’d seen some signs of it.  The incessant smoking and drinking in the office.  The complaints from employees.  The 4PM meetings that lasted til 8 or 9.  The whole Cinnabon thing, and the subsequent dinner with the salesman in Las Vegas.

But things were definitely beginning to get weird, as my “new guy window” began to close.

The “new guy window” is something that every new employee gets.  It’s that window of opportunity that you have when you first start a job, where everyone treats you great, where you can make mistakes, where you can ask for things and, because they want you to be happy, you get them.  This window generally lasts a month or two, so it’s to your advantage to get in, work hard, and get up to speed quickly – so you can figure out your “wish list” items quickly, and ask for some of them right away.

I got planogram software.  I got a thermal transfer printer and an ad agency to design new retail packaging.  I got to hire a publicist for $850 a month to do PR for the company and for me.

But when I suggested a friend of mine for the open position of National Sales Manager, things got strange.

Naturally, Fred wanted to bring my friend in for a meeting.  So we made the travel arrangements for my friend – we’ll call him Neil – to come in late one afternoon, meet us for dinner, then have a full day of meetings the following day.

Neil arrived at the airport and rented a car, then drove to his hotel and checked in.  After work, I met him at the hotel, where we had a drink at the bar and I briefed him on what to expect.  And then, we went to dinner.

Dinner was weird.  The restaurant was a tiny little Italian place in a strip mall, the kind of place where you’d get a plate of bad spaghetti for $4.99, and a diet Coke with the paper still on the end of your straw.  Certainly not the kind of place you’d bring a prospective employee.

Over dinner, as Fred smoked (he even smoked during dinner, while we ate, and when his wife made a comment that it would be more polite if he were to wait until everyone was finished, he responded “Fuck you” with a smile), he began to get irritated with the fact that his company wasn’t bigger. But as Neil began to make some points about how the company could improve its position, Fred became agitated and began to disagree with Neil.

Pretty soon, I was trying to diffuse a full-blown argument.

By the time dinner was over, I was actually sweating from the stress of stepping into the discussion any time things got contentious.  It was early, maybe 9:30, when we got back to the hotel.

“Well, that was interesting,” Neil said.

“Umm, yeah.  Sorry about that.”

“You realize I could never work for that guy,” he said.

“I do.  I’m sorry I made you come all the way out here for no reason.”

Neil had gotten a bad deal at his former company.  He was a sales manager who worked from his home office in Los Angeles.  When the company conducted a round of layoffs, Neil received an email basically stating that the company would, unfortunately, have to lay off some employees.  A few minutes later, he received another email that said that he, himself, was being laid off.

So yes, he was laid off by email.

He was, however, a talented guy who would surely be an asset to our company.  That he didn’t get along with the owner was not something I could have predicted at the time – I just wanted to put together the best possible team to achieve my goal of launching a new retail product line, and selling it into the wireless market.

What really threw me was the next day, when Fred appeared in my office door.  “Come to my office,” he said.

I obliged, following him down the hall and into his office.  I sat and looked at him.

“Why on earth would you think a guy like that could work here?” he asked me.

I sort of stared for a second, and stammered “Because I’ve known him for three years, and I know he’s a talented guy.”

“He’s a nice guy,” Fred said, “but you can’t possibly think he knows what he’s doing.  Can you?”

“Yes, I do,” I said.  “With all due respect, I know the cellular business pretty well.  I know his skills, I know his reputation, and I’ve worked with him on some pretty big deals.”

“Well, last night was a tremendous waste of my time.  Don’t waste my time like that, ever again.

Somewhere in this blog, I describe the animosity I have toward the phrase “ever again.”  It’s a phrase that adults use with children – “Don’t throw your food on the floor ever again.”  It is not a phrase that adults should use with other adults.  Particularly in a professional setting.

But I didn’t want to start a fight with my boss this early in my tenure with the company.  So I just said “I’m sorry that you two didn’t seem to hit it off well.”

“Don’t think we’re paying for his travel,” Fred said.

“Excuse me?” I stammered.

“No fucking way I’m paying the costs to get him out here for that huge waste of time.  I paid for dinner last night.  The airfare, car rental, and hotel?  That’s his responsibility.”

“Fred, you can’t do that,” I said.  “We invited him out here for an interview.  It’s customary to pay his transportation and lodging costs.”

“Where does it say that?” he asked.  “Show me the book where it says that.”

“You can’t be so unprofessional,” I continued, patiently.  “You can’t ask an employment candidate to take two days, fly cross-country, stay in a hotel, and fly home at his expense.  That’s crazy.”

“Just the same, I’m not paying for it.  If he has a problem with that, tell him to talk to me.”

“Fred,” I said, “This is my reputation here.  This guy has been a colleague of mine.  We’re probably talking about a thousand dollars here.”  I was thinking of my unemployed friend, and telling him that he was going to have to pay this bill.

“Do you think I care about your reputation?” he said.

“You should,” I countered. “I work for you.”

“I don’t.”

I got up and walked out of his office.  “I’ll deal with it,” I said, as I walked out.

“Have a nice day,” he said.

As I walked by his wife’s office, she flagged me down.  When I walked into her office, she gently closed the door and whispered to me “When you get the bills from Neil, bring them to me.  I’ll take care of them.”

I don’t know how she did that, but she did.  The company had a policy where every bill – every one, right down to the bills for vacuum bags and toilet paper – had to be approved and signed by the owner.  Nobody at the company had the authority to buy anything.  I was probably the #3 or #4 person on the totem pole, and if I wanted to get pizza for my staff, it had to be approved by the owner.

The lunch room was the most morose place on earth, I became convinced.  Gradually, around 1:00 or so, people would file in and sit down around this huge table.  Eventually, Fred would come in and sit down, while his wife made his lunch.  Everyone ate in silence.  Once in a while, Fred would grill someone about their job, right in front of everyone.  Nobody wanted to talk.

Eventually I decided I wasn’t going to eat there.  Just like I did at my last job, I was going to eat out every day.

Unlike my last job, though, I couldn’t bring my lunch and put it in the fridge, and then eat it in the car.  If I did that, they’d ask me why I brought lunch but wouldn’t eat with everyone else.

The problem was that there was no place nearby where I could grab a quick bite to eat.

So I began eating lunch at the gas station.

That’s right.  I began eating lunch at the gas station. I would drive to the gas station around the corner and go inside to the small, mini-mart that they had.  I’d buy a bottle of Diet Pepsi, a bag of Combos, and a package of Hostess Cup Cakes.

That was my lunch.  Every single day.  I would eat it in the parking lot of the gas station, and read the New York Daily News.  I’d make Dromedary phone calls from my cellphone, and then go back to the office.

Every Saturday, I’d clean a week’s worth of Combos bags, empty Diet Pepsi bottles, and Hostess Cup Cake wrappers out of my car.

Occasionally, I’d treat myself to a bag of Skittles.

By March of 1996 I was waking up in the morning, driving two hours to Westchester, working like a dog, eating junk food from the gas station for lunch, getting back home at 8:00 at night and eating whatever food I could pull together without much effort, which usually meant a can of Spaghettios, a microwaved burrito, or something else like that.

I was the most unhealthy, rapidly expanding product manager in the cellular business.  My old boss had told me I wouldn’t last two weeks in the industry without him – I didn’t realize he meant because I was going to die of malnutrition.

One day Fred pulled me aside and asked me why I no longer ate lunch with everyone.

“You know,” I explained, “I really like to get out of here for an hour or so, just to clear my head.  It helps me to focus better when I get back. It’s really good for me to just have a few minutes to myself each day.”

“Well, I’m not going to tell you what to do,” he told me, “but I’ll tell you that I think it sends a bad message when you go out to lunch.  We’re a team here.  When you leave and do your own thing, I think it’s bad for morale.”


~ by Al on October 22, 2009.

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