Ask the Professor IV

Dear Professor Plum:

One of my employees has been severely underperforming, so next week I am going to have to fire him. Although I’ve been a manager for several years, I have never actually had to fire anyone, and I’m a little nervous about it. Is there any advice you can give me?
- Sheila E., Los Alamos, NM

Dear Sheila:

It’s a natural reaction to be nervous about firing an employee for the first time. It just means you’re concerned about your employee’s feelings, which can occasionally be a good thing for managers to be focused on.

Throughout my many years of managing others, I’ve certainly had to fire my share of employees. Quite frankly, you could staff a small company with the people I’ve had to get rid of. It wouldn’t be a very successful company, but a company all the same.

Whenever I had to fire an employee, I remembered one key rule of thumb: terminating an employee is no different than breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, so the same strategies should be utilized for both. It really just comes down to finding the technique that suits your personal style, and/or the particular employee you are firing.

Here are the core strategies you can use, and how they relate to both personal and professional situations:

1. Reverse psychology
In the dating world, this strategy can be summed up by the following phrase: “You’re too good for me.” It’s a great technique to use when you’re dating someone with a big ego, who will clearly believe that he/she is, in fact, too good for you.

So, when applying this strategy to firing an employee, it should go something like this:
“Andy, I really wanted to talk to you about your role here at XYZ. You’ve been with the company for three years, and during this time, I’ve really been able to identify what you’re good at. And the truth I’ve had to face is that we don’t do any of the things you’re good at here at XYZ. I just really feel like there’s a company out there that is so much better for you, and will be able to really appreciate and reward your talents. In fact, with your strong Internet surfing skills, I’ll bet there’s a dot com out there that is dying for an employee just like you. I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t give you the opportunity to find that company. So, as hard as it is, I have to let you leave XYZ and follow your true dreams. It’s just not fair for me to keep you here. Please pack up your desk and turn in your badge immediately. Thanks, Andy. Keep in touch!”

2. Laundry list
This is the technique people typically use when they have just absolutely reached their emotional limits with the antics of their significant other. So, the strategy here is to overwhelm the person with an extremely long list of things they have done wrong. By the time you’ve finished your list, the person you’re breaking up with is so angry at you that they have absolutely no desire to stay in a relationship anymore.

From a work perspective, this is a really good approach to use if your employee has been underperforming for a really, really long time, but you’ve never gotten around to addressing any of the issues. It allows you to vent all your frustrations at once, and fire the employee, thereby killing two birds with one stone.

A typical example:
“Sharon, we really need to have a serious discussion about your performance. I’ve put together a list of some of the things you do that are either direct violations of company policy or simply really annoy me.

For the past two years you have been coming in at least 20 to 30 minutes late every day. I have noted at least 15 occasions where you were not wearing nylons with a skirt, a clear violation of our corporate dress code. You eat smelly food at your desk which irritates your neighbors. You have been late with the sales report six times in the past two months. You park in the visitor’s parking lot. You still don’t know the difference between gross and net profit. You never take notes in meetings and then ask your colleagues what the action items were. You have never once remembered Boss’ Day. You take a sick day every time you have your ‘woman problem.’ You were clearly drunk at the holiday party when you knocked over three people while doing the Electric Slide.

Based on this, I’m sure you’ll agree that I have no other option but to fire you. No, you’re right, I didn’t ever mention these issues before, but you’re a smart woman, and clearly should have known that this type of behavior could not go on. Please pack up your desk and turn in your badge immediately.”

3. Avoidance
In the dating realm, this technique is usually executed through a series of unreturned phone calls and unanswered emails. It also often involves keeping the curtains drawn and lights off whenever he/she stops by to “try to work things out.” Eventually, the person you’re trying to break up with will take the hints and just give up.

The main difference when dealing with a professional setting is the first and most critical step: deactivating the employee’s ID badge and/or alerting security that this person should no longer be allowed into the building. Some employees only need to experience this first humiliating stage before assuming they have been fired. Some more persistent ones may try to call or email you, or they may try to contact HR. Just stick to your guns, delete all their emails before reading them, and make sure you have caller ID. Again, even the most tenacious employees get the message after a few months of no paychecks.

4. Replacement
I find this to be one of the most practical techniques to use in both the personal and professional worlds. In the romance arena, the replacement strategy can be summarized like this: since you don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings, you just start dating someone else on the side. You intentionally let your current boy/girlfriend find out so that they will end up breaking up with you. Then you don’t have to be the bad guy, and you have a backup already prepared.

In the job market, it plays out quite similarly. Let’s say the position you want to terminate is a Sales Manager. What you need to do is hire another person and give her the exact same title as the person you want to get rid of. Ideally this new person should be a slightly more attractive and younger version of the person you’re firing. Have the new person train under the bad employee so she can learn all the trade secrets. Be very vocal about praising the new person in public, saying things like, “I can’t believe how quickly you’ve caught on! It took Sarah two years to figure out how to read a P&L!” or “Gee, Kelly, if you keep up this great work, I don’t know how I’m going to keep the both of you busy!”

After a few months of this, the bad employee will typically quit. If she refuses to take the high road and resign, however, then you just need to say something like, “Sarah, I had no intention of firing you, but now that I have Kelly here and I know what it’s like to have a good employee, I just don’t see how you and I can continue this relationship. Please pack up your desk and turn in your badge immediately.”

Well, Sheila, I hope you found this helpful. All you need to do is determine which category your employee falls into, and then use the appropriate technique. And trust me, it only gets easier. Eventually, you may even come to enjoy firing employees. Until then, you may want to submit your request for caller ID as soon as possible.

Foster Files Part IV: Bullies

A few blocks away from the house I grew up in was a small creek that fed into a lagoon. My friends and I used to spend hours playing in the creek, turning over rocks and trying to catch bluegills with our hands.

One day, my friends Don, Stevie, and I were hanging out down by the creek catching crayfish. We found an empty coffee can in the creek and were using that as a bucket to hold the crayfish in as we caught them. While Don and Stevie were wading in the water, two boys saw us and came down to see what we were doing. They were on the opposite side of the creek from me, and I remember feeling a little worried as they walked over because I saw them pointing at my friends and whispering to each other as they came closer.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” one of the boys yelled.

Don looked over at Stevie, and then without looking up said, “Nothing. We’re just trying to catch stuff.”

“Well, who said you could do that? I didn’t tell you that you could catch anything here. How old are you punks?”

I told them we were eleven, and that we came down there all the time to catch things.
The shorter boy picked up some rocks and started throwing them into the creek next to Stevie, splashing water all over him. He said that since they were thirteen, they could tell us what to do. He tried spitting on Stevie, but missed. Then he told my friend Don to dump out the can with the crayfish in it.

Don looked up and said, “We’re not bothering anybody. We’re just catching crayfish.”

The boy sneered at Don and said, “I said, dump out the can or I’ll come down there and beat the crap out of you.” Then he picked up a big clod of dirt and threw it at Don’s head.
Don quickly dumped the crayfish out and started to walk toward my side of the creek.

“Ha! Look at the little sissy! What? Are you gonna cry? I didn’t even kick your ass – yet!”

Feeling slightly safer since I was a girl, and on the opposite side of the creek, I said, “Well, wouldn’t you be scared of kids two years older than you?”

The bigger kid said, “Hell, no. I’d beat the crap out of them, too.”

Hmm. Let’s see. Who did I know that was two years older than these bullies? Of course! The Fosters! This was my cue to call in the cavalry. Don and Stevie climbed up to my side of the creek and went home. I quickly ran over to the Fosters’ house and found Aaron and Sol sitting on the porch eating Popsicles. At the time, Aaron was twelve and Sol was about fourteen. Not quite two years older, but I figured he’d do just fine.

I told them that some big kids were picking on my friends and me down by the creek, and that they said they could beat up anyone – even older kids.

“But you could totally beat them up,” I promised.

That was all the encouragement the Foster boys needed, so they chomped down the last bites of their Popsicles and ran down to the creek with me. Before he left, though, Aaron grabbed a broken hockey stick that was laying in their front yard, just in case I had underestimated the bullies’ strength. When we got there, the two bullies were walking on the big rocks in the creek, looking into the water where Don dumped the crayfish.

After quickly sizing up his opponents, Sol was the first to act. He stepped down onto the rocks and said, “So why are you picking on my friends? They said you made them dump out their crayfish, and said you were going to beat the crap out of them.”

Before the kid on the rocks could answer, Sol quickly walked over to where he was and pushed him into the water. It was only about a foot or two deep, but got the kid’s shoes all soaking wet. The soggy bully jumped up onto the other side of the creek, and Sol and Aaron immediately followed.

“Jenny said you said you aren’t afraid of anybody, and that you’d even beat up older kids. Well I’m fourteen. Why don’t you come here and kick my ass?”

The bullies started to slowly walk away and said, “We didn’t say that. We just told them to put the crayfish back in the water.” Sol was never one for conversation, so he grabbed the tall kid by the back of his hooded sweatshirt and yanked him to the ground. Aaron went after the short kid and tackled him to the grass as well.

“You like picking on little kids? See how you like it!”

Then Sol grabbed a big handful of grass and dirt and told the tall kid to eat it. When he wouldn’t, Sol grabbed the boy’s head and shoved the dirt into his mouth. Aaron must not have been feeling overly creative, because he told the shorter kid to eat some willow leaves that were on the ground by the creek. Then he grabbed a whole pile of them and jammed them into that kid’s mouth.

As the four of them were wrestling around on the ground, I just remember quietly standing on the other side of the creek and feeling very safe and protected. Like justice had been served. But then something happened. As the boys tried to spit out the dirt and leaves from their mouths, the taller one started to cry. Not a lot, but a few tears were coming down his face and mixing with the dirt smeared on his cheeks.

Then, the shorter one said, “We’re not thirteen – we’re only eleven. We’re in fifth grade. I’m sorry we picked on your friends. We were just joking around.”

Aaron and Sol could see that there was no more fun to be had with these two boys, so they gave them both one final shove goodbye, and then walked across the rocks to my side of the creek. As the Fosters walked home, I watched these broken bullies wipe their faces on their shirtsleeves.

Revenge didn’t feel like I thought it would. I thought I’d feel happy that someone taught these mean kids a lesson. They threatened to beat up my friends when we weren’t doing anything but minding our own business, having fun on a summer day. But watching them just made me feel kind of sad. And guilty.

I still thought the kids deserved to be scared since they were so mean to me and my friends, but seeing them cry, and admit that they weren’t as old or as tough as they claimed to be really bothered me. I guess I learned something that day that most adults already know – bullies are just scared little kids, desperately hoping that no one calls their bluff.

Open Sesame

A few years ago, I developed an allergy to, of all things, sesame. This wouldn’t seem like a very debilitating problem, but you would be amazed at how many foods contain some form of sesame these days. I don’t dare eat unfamiliar Asian food, and did you know that almost all Mexican molé sauces contain sesame seeds? I didn’t, until one unfortunate birthday dinner at a gourmet Oaxacan restaurant.
But worse than dealing with the actual allergy itself is dealing with the looks of pity and disgust I receive from waitstaff when I tell them I am allergic to sesame. It’s like I just told them I have leprosy. First comes the eyeroll, then the deep sigh, then the dramatic search for the red pen to highlight “allergy” on the order pad. I went to a Korean restaurant once and there were truly only two items on the entire menu that didn’t contain sesame. And they were both squid. I mean, allergies aside, what if some people just don’t like the taste of sesame? I guess it’s kind of like trying to order something without garlic in an Italian restaurant.
I’ve decided to start my own support group for people who, like me, are battling their own inner allergy demons. Some place where people can go and not be judged for their body’s weaknesses. A place where people can find a buddy – someone to call on lonely nights when they’re thinking of ordering shrimp fried rice.
As part of my efforts at demystifying food allergies, I am sending out a plea to all celebrities in the world to finally come out of the closet and admit that they have allergies. There are other disabilities that seem to be ultra cool to admit, so why not allergies? Dyslexia, for example. That was the learning disability du jour a few years ago. Tom Cruise is dyslexic. Whoopi Goldberg is dyslexic. Even Theo Huxtable was dyslexic. Suddenly everybody’s dyslexic!

“Oh, we should really give him the Oscar. It must have been extra hard for him to learn his lines.”

So why is it hip to have trouble reading, but not hip to have trouble digesting shellfish? I’ve had it, I tell you. I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!
I want to try and help people shake the stigma that is associated with allergies. I just feel like a loser when I have to special order everything at restaurants. I guess it goes back to my childhood – anytime I think of a kid with allergies, I remember Francis – the weak, pasty-skinned boy with slouched shoulders and oversized glasses who was constantly grasping for his inhaler. He always had to be the scorekeeper when we played softball because he was allergic to grass. But I want to fix all that – I want to change the face of allergies, and make it chic to be lactose intolerant.
I defy you to name a celebrity that will actually admit to having an allergy (seasonal allergies don’t count). You cannot do it, because allergies are equated with the ultimate of nerdy dorkdom. I am quite certain that loads of celebrities and public figures have food allergies, but their publicists know that it would be committing career suicide to leak that to the press. Celebrities would rather cop to a heroin addiction than admit that they carry an epi-pen around in their purses.
In fact, I believe there has been a massive conspiracy to cover up the allergy-related deaths of several major stars. I am convinced that Mama Cass was actually allergic to Dijon mustard, but somehow her agent thought that choking on a ham sandwich would make for a less humiliating explanation for her death. And Elvis? Drugs? Please. There’s only so long that you can pump your body full of peanut butter and bananas before that lethal combination throws your system into overdrive. This Hollywood conspiracy is an outrage!
People just don’t take allergies seriously, which they certainly should in this litigious society that we live in. I was at a sushi restaurant with some friends about a month ago and told the waiter that I was allergic to sesame, and asked him to make sure there was no sesame in any of our food. I began eagerly gulping down my tuna sashimi and caterpillar rolls when suddenly my face started to burn and my head started to itch.
“Huh. That feels like an allergic reaction,” I thought, “but it can’t be, since I specifically requested no sesame in anything.”
So, I stepped into the bathroom and sure enough, I had hives forming on my stomach, arms, and neck. When I came out, I asked the waiter if there was sesame in anything he served us, since I was clearly having a reaction.
“Well, there’s usually some sesame oil mixed in with the spicy tuna paste, but no sesame seeds. Geez, you must really be sensitive. Most people are just allergic to the seeds.”
I like to call that strategy the “blame the victim” technique. I’m sure that same defense would hold up well in court: “Well, sure I knew little Timmy was allergic to peanuts, but I gave him peanut butter, not peanuts. Geez, he must have been really sensitive. I’ve never seen anyone swell up quite like that.
Apparently, I need to educate waiters all across the greater Chicagoland area because clearly at waitstaff school, they do not teach them that all oils come from the ingredient they are named for. Sesame oil? Comes from sesame seeds. Peanut oil? Comes from peanuts. Olive oil? Comes from olives. Baby oil? Comes from… okay, I seem to have found an exception to the rule. But you see my point.
So now when I order food, I have to tell waiters that I am allergic to sesame, sesame oil, sesame seeds, sesame bread, sesame paste, sesame sticks, sesame extract, and sesame flavoring. I’m sure there’s a loophole there somewhere that I’ll unfortunately stumble upon someday as I lay writhing on the floor, choking on my own swollen tongue: “I didn’t know you were allergic to toasted sesame seeds. Most people are only allergic to the raw ones. Geez, you’re really sensitive.”
Anyway, now I’m focusing my efforts on organizing the first branch of my new Al-Anon support group. All I need is for one celebrity spokesperson to come forward, and soon, everyone will start claiming their allergies. I’ve got my eyes on Woody Allen right now, but his publicist has clammed up. If anyone is allergic to shrimp, it’s got to be Woody – I know a fellow “allie” when I see one. At our first meeting, we will be serving bottled water and wheat gluten free crackers. And the best part is that when you reach the one month mark of being allergic reaction free, you will receive a key chain with a bronze Benadryl on it! I just know that eventually these key chains will be more en vogue than the ubiquitous red Kabbalah bracelets, mark my words.

Hi, my name is Jenny, and I have allergies. I’m allergic to penicillin and sesame. I haven’t had an allergic reaction in over one month…

For Immediate Release

CHICAGO, IL – September 9, 2004 – Amidst rumors that the Run Jen Run blog is being discontinued due to the author’s newfound financial freedom in the form of a real job, has interviewed the founder to confirm or deny these outrageous claims.

Several readers have expressed some concern that Jenny’s new job will interfere with her true priority, which clearly is this blog. While flattered by the concern, Jenny told Blogger representatives that she wanted to calm any fears people may have, and give her solemn promise that she will work hard to ensure that nothing changes. “I refuse to let some job interfere with the routine I have worked so diligently to establish for these past few months,” said Jenny, CEO and author of Run Jen Run. “No job is ever going to prevent me from singing karaoke, tap dancing, blogging, drinking scotch, eating Pop Rocks and Coke, staying out until 2:45am, waking up at 10:27am, picking up hitchhikers, fighting the power, running with scissors, mixing bleach and ammonia, or sticking it to the man. I mean it. I’m the same Jen you knew a few months ago. But now I will be able to look my landlord in the eye when he comes pounding at my door.”

According to Jenny, these four months of unemployment have given her something she never had before. “I’ve gained knowledge that you can’t learn in any corporate seminar or online continuing education course,” exclaimed the newly employed blogger. “Now, I’ve got street smarts. I’m a scrapper. I can make one bag of ramen noodles last for three days. I know which phone booths typically have forgotten quarters in them. I remember exactly which friends are most likely to forget that they lent me money.”

A recent interview with the author confirms that now that she has tasted this kind of ultimate freedom, she cannot be caged into some corporate routine. Jenny went on to say, “Oh, I’ll play the game all right, but just don’t try to lay some heavy set of rules on me. I’ll chew off my own leg to escape if I have to. But just on the outside chance that my new boss doesn’t admire my conviction and decides to send me packing after a week, can I borrow $10 and a pack of smokes? I’ll pay you back, I swear!”

# # #

The Naked Truth

All this time away from the hustle-bustle of corporate ladder climbing has made me re-evaluate my priorities. Before I dive back into the world of trying to convince people to buy things they don’t need, go places they’ve already been, and use things they don’t want, I’ve decided I need to create something all my own. With that in mind, I’ve determined that I need an outlet for my underutilized creative energy, so I’m going to take an art class.
I like to think that I have just enough artistic ability to allow me to appreciate that which I can never create. Nevertheless, every so often I try to keep the right half of my brain stimulated (or is it the left? I always forget.) by taking some sort of art class like drawing or painting or film.
I’d like to try another figure painting class, but I guess I’m still a little gun shy from the last time I dealt with a live model. It was a few years ago, before I moved to Chicago. Although I had never even taken a life drawing class before, I decided to jump right to the head of the class and take a figure painting course I saw listed in the local art school’s continuing education program.
Almost immediately, I began to rethink that decision as the instructor asked everyone to go around the room and discuss why they were taking her class. Nine out of the ten people in class were either full-time art students, or art teachers eager to get some highly coveted studio time.
I had never worked with a live model before, at least not one that was, you know, naked, so I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. Do they walk into the room naked? Do they come in fully clothed and then slowly strip while we wait? Am I supposed to make eye contact? How much do I tip? Is it inappropriate for me to smoke a cigarette and drink Harvey’s Bristol Cream? Fortunately, the first model came in wearing a robe, and then waited for the instructor to set up the chair in the right position while she told her how to pose.
During this class, I learned that there is a severe shortage of male models willing to pose nude, which I guess surprised me a little. This means that the ones who do pose nude have acquired a pseudo-celebrity status in the art world. Everyone in the biz knows their names and availability.
I happened to take this class during the Nude Male Model Drought of 1999, so there was really only one guy on the scene. I’ll call him Ray because I blocked his real name out, along with most other memories of that class. But I do recall that Ray was severely balding, but completely disguised that fact by growing the back of his hair really long, in a sort of homage to Hulk Hogan. Other than that, he was just a regular looking guy with a pot belly, which actually made for a fairly interesting subject matter.
So where, then, is the problem? Well, the class started promptly at 6:00pm every Thursday, and I worked about 30 minutes away. I rarely was able to leave work with enough time to go home, change, get my art supplies, and make a peanut butter sandwich to last me until 9:00pm when the class let out. By the time I would race into class, all the prime spots to set up a canvas had long been staked out by the other students. This meant that the only spot that was consistently available was facing the model dead-on.
Ray had a tendency to choose poses that involved sitting back in his chair, putting one leg up on a block, and the other leg straight out. If you were one of the shrewd students who was able to establish a side view, this pose made for a highly interesting composition. If, on the other hand, you were relegated to my undesirable real estate, the pose left something to be desired. It was kind of, well, dirty.
I know, I know – grow up, Jenny! The human body is a beautiful art form that has been celebrated through paintings for centuries. I get all that, but there was just something a little creepy about having to spend three hours looking at this guy in his naked nudeness. I didn’t like the way he was so comfortable sitting there spread-eagle, all unclothed like that.
I mean, come on, even Adam had the decency to sport a fig leaf. In my opinion, being uncomfortable in one’s own skin is important. It sparks our instinct to put on clothes. It serves as a self-preservation sort of reflex, kind of like pulling your hand away from an open flame. You don’t have to think about it – you just do it. Shame is good, and really the only thing that separates us from the animals.
But really, worse than having to paint Ray in rather unflattering poses for three hours a week was what happened during the breaks. He would step off the platform, drape his robe loosely over his nakedness, and walk around to look at our progress.
There is something uniquely unsettling about touching up a painting of a nude creepy man while said nude creepy man is hovering over your shoulder saying things like, “Wow – interesting composition” or “I really appreciate the bold strokes you use.”
But after a 10-week long class, I must admit that I did come away with a much stronger appreciation for the human form, and a pretty solid understanding of color theory. Unfortunately, I also came away with six nude paintings of some strange nude man in random nude poses.
I stored these paintings in a pile in the back of a closet for a few years, and frankly, had forgotten all about them until I started packing to move to Chicago two years ago. When I found them, I was suddenly faced with an agonizing dilemma – do they stay or do they go?
Here were my options:
A. Take the paintings with me to Chicago, possibly allowing a bunch of grunting, sweaty movers to think that I’m obsessed with some bald pot-bellied naked man.
B. Throw the paintings away, possibly allowing a bunch of grunting, sweaty garbage men to think that I’m obsessed with some pot-bellied naked man.
C. Destroy the paintings, possibly allowing some nosy neighbor to peek in my window, witness me slashing up the canvasses, and think that I’m dangerously obsessed with some pot-bellied naked man.
D. Hang the paintings on my wall in Chicago, possibly admitting to myself that I’m obsessed with some pot-bellied naked man.
So I did the only thing a reasonable person could do in this situation: I hid the paintings in the attic of my old house, slipping them behind a stack of old drywall and insulation. Now the next tenants can find them and think that my old landlord was obsessed with some pot-bellied naked man.

Work Jen Work

Labor Day – the day we recognize and honor the contributions of workers across the country, and the traditional signal of the end of summer. It is only fitting that shortly after this most celebrated day, I get to utter those four sweet words that have been swirling on the tip of my tongue for the past four months: I got a job.

Yes, it’s true. Run Jen Run is Done Jen Done with the agonizing and demoralizing process known as the job search. I have just accepted a job offer and am now in my final week of inactivity before I get to start my cool new job, where I will wear some snazzy new shoes, walk into a tall fancy new building, that I will commute to via a slick new train, and where I’ll interact with stimulating new co-workers.

So what do I do now? What if I’ve forgotten how to function in a corporate environment? I’ve spent so much time telling people what I can do for them, what if I burnt out the part of my brain that controls my ability to actually do those things? Now, after selling myself for four months, I actually have to deliver the finished product. Some assembly required.

Frankly, I’m far more worried about going overboard when I start the new job. I have felt so idle and ineffective for this whole summer that I’m about to bust out of the gates at the first chance I get. I may have to reel myself in so that I don’t freak out my co-workers.

“Uhh, Dave? Who’s the total spaz you hired in marketing? She just introduced herself to all 800 of our employees, individually. And then she read our annual reports from 1984 to 2003. And now I think she’s scanning all our old marketing plans and posting them on the Intranet for easy access. Nice hire, dude.”

I can’t help it if I’m a bit eager to get started on this newest chapter in my life. If you’ve ever gone to an animal shelter, then you know how I feel. Let me tell you a little story about a dog I once knew, that may help illustrate my situation. Chopper ran away from his previous owner because he found the home to be an unhealthy environment, and one that didn’t appreciate all his talents like Frisbee catching and newspaper fetching. He ended up in the animal shelter, and sat patiently in his cage every day, desperately waiting to find a new home.

Chopper was older than a lot of the other dogs in the shelter, a little mangy, and had been kicked around a bit by his previous owner. Some days, people would come over to his cage to pet his nose, but then they quickly were drawn in by the lure of the fat-bellied German shepherd puppies in the corner. Chopper never stood a chance.

For over four months he watched them walk by, peek into his cage, and turn away without so much as a, “Who’s a good boy? You’re a good boy!” Chopper tried to adopt many different personas, hoping that one would attract an owner: the happy-go-lucky black Labrador type that families love, the demure and sophisticated Afghan Hound that would be a status symbol, the strong and outspoken Rottweiler that was fiercely loyal and would protect the family, the spunky and high energy Jack Russell Terrier that made everyone laugh.

Nothing seemed to work, but Chopper never gave up. Sure, he felt depressed and desperate at times, and occasionally contemplated leaving with a family as bad as the one he had escaped, but he never let the families see that. He just worked on keeping his cage clean and his teeth white, and barked enthusiastically at every family who walked by. Eventually, his tenacity paid off and he found the family that needed a reliable and experienced Frisbee catching, newspaper retrieving mutt. And the best part of the story is that this kind family also agreed to let Chopper wear jeans every day, immediately contribute to a 401k with company match, and pay Chopper more than he had ever made at that mean, nasty house he ran away from.

So why am I telling this story about some silly dog? Well, there’s a lesson to be learned here. Sometimes the search for a new home takes a long time, and you may sit in that cage for months, staring at families walking out with their new puppies, wondering why they didn’t pick you. But as I have discovered, with enough time and persistence, every dog has his day. Ruff!

Clear Indications That I Need a Job Very, Very Soon

  • I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about winning the lottery, but can’t bear to part with $1.00 for the ticket.

  • The breadcrumb-to-meat ratio in my meatloaf keeps increasing. I’m only a few weeks away from making meat-scented bread.

  • I came in the other day to find my cats eating Kleenex because I had to buy them generic cat food instead of Science Diet. True story.

  • When I flipped on the Maury Povich Show the other day, I found myself actually caring who that lady’s baby’s daddy was.

  • I switched from Starbuck’s lattes to White Hen drip coffee. Oh the humanity!

  • I bought potpourri.

  • I have rearranged my living room furniture seven times in the past month, but I only have a love seat and one chair. They just keep swapping places.

  • I am spending too much time role-playing job interviews with my cats. On my last interview, I hissed at the recruiter, coughed up a hairball, and then started licking my shoulder.

  • Now when I watch The Price Is Right, I actually know how much Tuna Helper costs.

  • Yesterday I walked past a half-eaten bag of McDonald’s french fries on the ground and for a split second thought, “Huh. I’ll bet some of them are still good.”

Foster Files Part III: Grounded

The Fosters were the kind of family that always had broken down cars in their driveway and old mattresses behind their garage. As kids, playing in old cars was a blast, but I never really understood the true appeal of an old mattress, until one weekend when both my brother and I were grounded. Matt was 14 and I was about 12. I don’t really even remember why we were grounded, but it must have been something pretty bad, because my parents rarely grounded us.

One summer day, Ruth and Aaron Foster stopped by to see if my brother and I could hang out with them later that night. They wanted to go to a movie and maybe hit the video arcade for a few games of Galaga. I had to tell them that unfortunately, both Matt and I were grounded, so there was no way we could go out with them.

Now, the Fosters were very single-minded, so when they got an idea in their heads, they pretty much wanted to stick with it. Their immediate response was to tell us to just sneak out. Sneaking out was standard procedure in the Foster household, but it really wasn’t all that difficult for them since their parents never seemed to really care where their children were.

My parents, on the other hand, were active members of Neighborhood Watch, and my mom was the Treasurer of the PTA. These were people who took pride in knowing where their children were at all times, so sneaking out was a bit more difficult for us. Besides that, my mother was a bit of an insomniac, so she would always have to watch TV or read on the couch until she fell asleep, and then sometime around 2:00am she would wake up and head upstairs to her bedroom.

So, although a daunting task, my brother and I were never ones to shy away from a challenge. The Fosters hatched a plan that, at the time, seemed airtight. At around 9:00pm, my brother and I stuffed our beds to make it look like we were still in them, just like we had seen all the kids in movies do when they’re running away from home. I had a ventriloquist dummy that I decided would suffice as my body double, so I shoved him under my covers with a few additional stuffed animals for legs.

Thank god my parents never made a habit of checking in on our rooms at night because a) no one would have believed this was me and b) if they had pulled back the covers, they would have found a demonic grinning ventriloquist dummy, and I’m certain they both would have had massive coronaries on the spot.

Next, the Fosters dragged a ratty, stained, rain soaked mattress from their back yard down the alley, and into our yard. They threw the mattress on the ground next to our sunroom, and then threw stones at our windows. This was our signal to come out onto the sunroom roof. My brother’s bedroom was in the remodeled attic, and my bedroom was directly below his on the second floor. Right outside of my bedroom window was the roof of our sunroom.

It was easy enough for me to step out onto the roof since I just had to climb through my window. My brother, on the other hand, had to hang out of his third story window and drop about five more feet to land on our slanted sunroom roof without tumbling off the edge. In retrospect, I’m sure he could have just quietly snuck out of his room into mine, but dropping from his window lent a real Mission Impossible feel to the evening.

Phase One was complete. Now we had to jump off our sunroom roof onto the mattress, and skulk off into the night. My brother was wise beyond his years even at 14, and he knew that if he jumped first, I would chicken out and climb back into my room. So, he made me hang off the gutter and drop onto the mattress first. I was a little freaked out by this, and had a hard time letting go, until I heard Matt scream, “Let go, you big baby! You’re gonna rip the gutter off!”

That was all the positive encouragement I needed, so I let go and dropped down onto the mattress with a resounding slosh. My brother quickly followed, and then we were off on our adventure. By this time, it was too way late for us to get into a movie, so we decided to buy snacks at the corner grocery store. After fueling up on Twizzlers and Funyuns, we spent the rest of the night carousing around the neighborhood, playing ding-dong ditch, and climbing onto the roof of the Catholic high school that was a few blocks away.

As it got close to the time my mom would be heading up to bed, Matt and I crept outside our living room windows to see if she was still on the couch. She wasn’t, so we waited outside for about another 20 minutes just to make sure she was in bed, and then went back in through the front door. We snuck back into our beds, filled with pride at the stunning caper we had just pulled off.

Yes, this plan was airtight all right. The Fosters dragged the mattress out of our yard and back into theirs, and no one was the wiser. Airtight. That is, of course, if they had actually remembered to drag the mattress back. Which they didn’t. The next morning my brother and I went about our business like any other weekend, until we heard our mom yell for us to come outside. We pulled ourselves away from the TV long enough to catch a glimpse of her through the sunroom windows.

Oh crap.

So of course, Ruth and Aaron never took the mattress back. It lay exactly where they left it – on top of the smashed up pile of leaves and petals that used to be my mother’s flower bed.

Oh crap.

Matt and I must not have been overly observant as kids, because we never really paid much attention to the fact that there was a big flower bed outside of the sunroom. Nor did the Fosters as they plopped the water-logged mattress down on top of them.

Just as we were almost ready to be released for good behavior, we each had another week tacked onto our sentences. The good thing is that my mother just thought we were jumping off the roof onto the mattress for fun. She never figured out that the mattress was just a means to an end, and that we had spent an entire night running around the neighborhood like a bunch of hooligans. Had she known that, I might have spent the better part of my youth staring out that bedroom window, scratching lines in the wall to mark time, and holding on to the distant memory of the thrill I felt that day I let go of the gutter and tasted freedom.

Call Off the Dogs!

The great Hot Dog! Bubble Gum mystery has been solved. And let the records reflect that I single-handedly cracked this case in less than 72 hours. I’d like to see CSI top that one! After unsuccessfully trying to utilize complex forensic evidence to identify the criminal mastermind behind the Hot Dog! Gumming, I decided to get back to the basics. I hit the streets with my list of suspects and kicked it Columbo style. Nothing fancy, no DNA evidence, no crime scene re-enactments, just good old fashioned grilling.
I was always so impressed with the way Columbo could trick the suspects into confessing their crimes just by asking them simple questions. As you’ll see from my exchange below, I think I would’ve made the Lieutenant proud:
Me: “Hey, did you send me some gum in the mail?”
Suspect #1: “Me? Ha! I don’t even know your address. Nope, wasn’t me.”
Me: “Okay, thanks.”
Me: “Hey, did you send me some gum in the mail?”
Suspect #2: “Yeah – did you get it already? I thought you’d get a kick out of that.”
Me: “Ah ha!!!! Caught in your own web of lies! Why don’t you tell that one to the judge?! Hope you know how to play the harmonica, because you’re gonna be singing Folsom Prison Blues for a long, long time. ”
So I know you’re all dying to know – who did it? What twisted psycho could have plotted such an evil crime? To those of you who know her, this will probably come as a bit of a shock, but it was Natasha, in the library, with the candlestick. And the frightening thing is that I wasn’t her only victim. She sent a similar package to Seamus. The disturbing thing is that Seamus just happily ate the gum as soon as he opened the package, without ever giving a thought to who might have sent it. That kind of trust is just begging to be taken advantage of.
Now that the mystery has been solved, the Natasha I once knew is gone forever. I can’t look at her without thinking of the torturous mindgames she put me through. From this point on, she will be known as the Unagummer. I just thank god that she was stopped before she gummed again, or worse, moved on to something more dangerous like taffy. All in a day’s work.

Ask the Professor III

Dear Professor Plum:

I have recently been promoted to a management position, so I’m still new to having people reporting in to me. Some of my employees have been coming to me to discuss issues that I consider to be personal, not work related. I want to be a caring manager, but where do I draw that line?

- Kenny G., Boston, MA

Dear Kenny:

Congratulations on the promotion! The fact that you’re coming to me for advice already tells me that you’re going to make an outstanding manager.

It is inevitable that when you begin managing people, eventually you will run into a few employees who want to share too many personal details about their lives. I admit that this can sometimes be a challenging problem to deal with. Fortunately, you have come to the right person, Kenny.

Early in my management career, I, too, had a hard time dealing with one particular employee. This employee – we’ll call her Tina – had a tendency to share stories with her co-workers that were highly personal. Whether it was a disturbing anecdote about the homeless man who used to expose himself to her when she worked at a hardware store, or a graphic description of the oozing lump on her back, she always found a way to interject the most inappropriate details into a seemingly normal day.

On one particularly stressful afternoon, Tina came into my office to discuss some issues she was having with a customer. We had what seemed to be a productive discussion about the client, and then Tina started to walk out. But just as she reached my doorway, she turned back on her heels and started to tell me a story about her son. She told me that she was really frustrated with her son and had to ground him because she caught him urinating all over their bathroom walls. What made this so exceedingly disturbing was the fact that her son was 17 years old.

It was at that moment that I perfected my best approach for dealing with similar situations, so this is where you’ll want to start taking notes. I put my head down a little, hugged my arms around my body, and started rocking slowly. Then, I just stared at the floor and let myself go to my happy place. For me, that place was a forest on a clear, autumn day. I could almost smell the pine, feel the leaves crunching beneath my feet, and hear the chickadees chirping.

Kenny, your happy place may be somewhere entirely different – it may be a sunny beach or a ski slope – but that’s why you have to approach managing people from an individual perspective.

You’ll find that when you consistently utilize this technique, eventually the offending employees finish their stories and walk away. But remember that consistency is the key. In order to successfully manage a team of people, you must acquire these simple survival skills and coping mechanisms. Only then will you be a true leader.


Dear Professor Plum:

What are your thoughts on office romance? I have started to develop feelings for a co-worker, and I think he might be interested in me as well, but I’m a little worried about dating someone I work with. It’s a big company – over 800 employees – if that makes a difference.

– Hope D., Omaha, NE

Dear Hope:

Oh, what a can of worms you have just opened up, my dear. And believe me, I’d love to be able to tell you that this is the one topic with which I have no personal experience, but I’d be flat-out lying to you. This is a very tricky topic, so I’ll try to break it down into the key components.

I will begin by saying that I understand the temptation to date your co-workers. Most people spend far more time at work than they do with family or friends, so it’s just logical that you might start to be attracted to someone you’re spending that much time with.

As with any tough decision, you need to calculate the risk versus the reward. Office romances are not always a bad thing, but you have to make smart choices. One critical choice to make is what department you should target for your dating pool.

Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the pros and cons of each department that I have personally had dating experience with:

: They can get you a bigger monitor.
Cons: If you break up, they can easily hack into your computer and send a defamatory blast email to the entire company from your user ID.
Risk Level: High

Pros: They like to read.
Cons: If you work in a department that is responsible for meeting budget goals, accounting can make your life miserable.
Risk Level: Low to Moderate

Finance is really just Accounting with attitude and bigger salaries, so please refer back to the Accounting guidelines.

Pros: They tend to be very stylish.
Cons: They are typically egomaniacal and think they run the company, so you’ll constantly have to listen to them drone on about how no one in the company understands the brand platform, blah, blah, blah.
Risk Level: Moderate

Pros: They are on the road a lot, and they can make a lot of money.
Cons: Sales people typically lack discretion, so expect your breakup to be broadcast at the company picnic.
Risk Level: Moderate

Human Resources
Pros: You won’t have much competition.
Cons: They will never call you back.
Risk Level: Insignificant

Customer Service
Pros: They will always try to work things out with you.
Cons: They will always try to work things out with you.
Risk Level: Low

If you are looking to date someone within your own department, my personal recommendation is that you only date your direct supervisor or his boss, because then it really benefits you not only from a personal level, but also from a professional level. Sure, dating an employee can be very empowering, but ultimately you may have to fire that person, and then they may be hesitant to continue dating.

If you follow these simple guidelines, you’ll see that interoffice romance is really as simple, as fun, and often as messy as shooting fish in a barrel. Best of luck to you, Hope!