By Bob McCrillis
Rarely are Senior Vice Presidents summoned to the Human Resources department. Generally, the HR drones come to me – after making an appointment. But here I was, sitting in the holding area, waiting for my audience with the head of Human Resources.
My only companion in the outer office was a pretty young girl clutching what had to be her resume to her chest. I smiled at her. She glared at me. I quickly looked away, a very nice chest.
Stan Kwasniewski, the new head of Human Resources, had come to the bank from the consulting world. Jess Langford, the head of the overseas credit department, told me that Kwasniewski was a bleeding heart. The new HR guy took Jess over the coals for the way he fired one of his major screw-ups.
“He told me,” Jeff told me in the hall after a credit meeting, “that I should have had a nicey, nicey chit-chat with the dimwit, then show him how he could improve,” Jess fumed. “The kid cost us the loss of a ten million dollar deal. I don’t have time to counsel someone who makes that kind of mistake.”
While Jess could be a little quick on the trigger, I did get a sense of the kind of person Kwasniewski was. Hell, he had the nerve to scold a heavy hitter like Jeff, so I shouldn’t expect him to be a shrinking violet. For the life of me, though, I couldn’t think of any reason that he’d want to see me.
“Mr. Kwasniewski will see you now, Mr. Matheson.” The receptionist led me back to the executive’s office. Kwasniewski was tall and fit looking – probably played lots of tennis – he had that deep tan. His suit had to cost twenty-five-hundred bucks and was tailored beautifully. I was envious. Heavy black-framed glasses gave him a trendy-but-serious look that was only slightly relieved by his welcoming smile. All in all, a smooth customer.
“Skip,” he said, “I can call you Skip?” He showed me to a chair facing his desk.
“Sure, Stan, everyone else does – except my mother, of course.”
He smiled. “And what does she call you?”
“Oh, my God.”
“My teachers in school refused to call me anything but Reginald so I learned to fight at an early age.” I wasn’t here to make small talk and was still smarting a little from waiting. “So, Mr. Kwasniewski, what can I do for you?”
He straightened some papers on his desk before looking at me over the tops of his cool glasses. “I expect that you’ll see it as disappointing news, Skip.”
Oh, shit. They’re going to lay me off. My boss didn’t even have the courage to do it himself. He delegated the dirty work to Mr. Touchy-Feely. “Oh?” was all I said.
“O’Reilly’s departure leaves the Operations slot on the Management Committee open. You were one of the candidates for the position but we’ve selected another well-qualified candidate.”
All right, I’ve got class, there’s no reason to let him know how much not getting that job hurts. I imagined it went to one of the politicians that circle the management group. I’m only sixty. I’ll still have a shot. I can wait until the geniuses realize that you have to know something about operations to run operations.
“You’re right, Stan, that is disappointing but I can work with the new EVP – I’ll learn some things as well, I’m sure.” (like whose ass to kiss to get a promotion)
He cleared his throat and fidgeted in his chair. “You won’t be working with the new EVP, Skip.” Without giving me a chance to react, he continued. “We need someone with your skills to take over third party credit card ops in Cleveland. You’ll get the full relocation package. Your primary job is to get that shop cleaned up. You’ll have an incentive contract keyed to making progress benchmarks.”
“Yes, Gene mentioned that he thought you’d be a good man for the job.” He gave me a pasted-on smile as he invoked the name of the CEO. I was to understand that I couldn’t appeal the decision.
My mind racing, I sat silently. This was my moment to negotiate something out of this but what? My very own polyester suit accessorized with matching white belt, and loafers? To buy time as much as anything else, I asked who the successful candidate was.
“Oh, it’s an old colleague of yours, Denise Costello.” More phony smiling.
“Denise? Well, if it’s not going to be me, you couldn’t have made a better choice. She’s technically solid and good with people.” No harm in show more class. “But, Stan, Denise and I go back years. I wouldn’t have any problem working for her.”
“That wasn’t our concern. Denise made it a condition of accepting the position that you not be in her unit.”
This made no sense whatsoever. I’d brought Denise into the operations unit twenty years ago. I encouraged her to finish her degree. Transferring her to securities ops in the city was a big risk for me but I took a chance on her. Why would she have a problem working with me? We’d lost touch since then but I still thought I had a good professional relationship with her.
“I don’t understand. Denise refused the job if I kept my current position?”
“Yes. We’ve decided that she’s the best choice and felt you could make a contribution elsewhere.”
“But why? Maybe I should call her.”
“You shouldn’t do that,” he warned. “Any contact with Ms. Costello would be a very bad idea.”
“A bad idea? Why?” I blurted. I took a breath the asked, “May I ask what her reason was? You must have asked.”
Kwasniewski slid a report out of the stack on his desk, turned to the second page then read from it.
“Your actions when Denise first transferred to the city constituted obvious harassment. Your actions created a hostile work environment. It caused Ms. Costello to consider leaving the company.” He looked up at me. “She is unwilling to work with you.” He put the report down. “I have to say that I don’t blame her. Were this to happen today, you would expose the bank to huge financial liability. That’s not considering damage to its reputation as an employer.”
“She claims I sexually harassed her? Me?” If she’d claimed I embezzled from the bank, I couldn’t have been more shocked. “I’ve had hundreds of women work for me and have had nothing but friendly relationships. Hell, I’m the one who promoted Denise in the first place.”
The look he gave me made me feel like a bug on a pin. “It’s been my experience, Skip, that the worst offenders are, like you, unaware of how you make your female employees feel.”
“That’s bullshit! No one in the bank has done more to help women in their careers. In Operations, we were promoting women a decade before the rest of the bank. This is crap. If you people want me out, say so, instead of ruining a relationship with a girl that I’ve known for twenty years.”
The HR man consulted his papers again. “After you assigned Denise to the position in the city, she still reported to you, right?”
“Yes, all the processing centers report to me.”
“When you visited the managers of these other units, were they expected to entertain you?”
“Ms. Costello tells me that whenever you were in the city, you expected her to make herself available for dinner, drinks, and so on.”
“Well, yes, that’s pretty normal when your boss comes to town.” I couldn’t imagine that going to dinner would be a big deal.
“How often did you visit travel to the city to supervise her? As often as once a week?”
I nodded. “Might have been that often – especially that first year.”
“So you expected that she to go out to dinner with you weekly?”
“I didn’t make her do it.”
“You were her boss, right? And she was untried in the supervisory role she was playing? New in the city with few friends outside of the bank?”
“Well, yeah. I guess all that’s true.”
“And you’re surprised that she felt that going to dinner and drinking with you was a condition of her employment?”
“That puts a sinister spin on it. We were just co-workers going to dinner. There’s wasn’t anything else.”
He referred back to the papers. “Did you sometimes insist on a goodnight kiss?”
I could feel the heat rising in my face. “Look, we both used to drink pretty heavily…”
“All the more reason for her concern, don’t you think?”
“Concern? No, everyone drank back then.” This prick was really getting on my nerves.
“And these weekly visits continued for more than a year?” Kwasniewski would have made a good prosecuting attorney. “Long after it was clear that Ms. Costello was handling the job competently?”
“I don’t know about that.”
“When did you stop the visits?”
“Denise bid out on a job in the securities unit itself – and did a great job there.”
“Do you know why she left operations?”
“Sure. It was an upward move for more money. She’d developed good working relationships with the managers in the business unit. It was a good career move.”
“She says that it was to get away from you.”
That couldn’t be true. We were friends. All that time she thought I was coming on to her? He’s got this all wrong.
“Stan, you have to believe me. I never tried anything. I wouldn’t.”
“Skip, you were her boss, you expected her to entertain you every week when you showed up. You drank heavily and sometimes wanted a goodnight kiss. Are you surprised that she felt uncomfortable? That she was in a position that could lead you to demand something more?”
“I didn’t realize. She’s a tough kid. I would have expected her to tell me I was out of line.”
“And how would that have worked out?”
I sat silently replaying the dinners and the jokes, the conversations about life, our plans for the department. I never knew I scared her.
“Skip, because of your seniority and the good work you’ve done, I wanted to explain this to you personally.” He slid a blank folder across the desk to me. “All the details of the transfer are in here along with copies of the relocation policy. We’d like you to start out there as soon as possible. A visit next week to get the lay of the land would be good.”
“Do I have any choice?”
“Gene authorized me to offer you a package if you didn’t want to take the new position.”
“So, if I want to continue working for the bank I’ve given twenty-six years, it’s Cleveland?”
“What’s the package?”
“Eighteen months salary and benefits continuation, outplacement support. We’ll note that your separation was due to a reduction in force.”
What was I going to do? I knew the job in Cleveland would be ending as some point – we were already uncompetitive. They wanted me to spruce up the shop enough to sell it to one of the dominant players. The choice was unemployment here, where I have contacts, or there in a few months, where I had none.
“Make it twenty-four months with credit to my retirement plan and you have a deal.”
He looked at me for a minute, then nodded. “I’ll have the paperwork in your office before close of business. We expect your complete discretion in this matter. You won’t have any problem signing a non-disclosure agreement?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll sign the NDA and won’t tell anyone anything.” I stood and headed for the door then another thought hit me. “When you start looking for my replacement, take a good look at Cheryl Woods – she’s ready to do more.”
I was thankful that I hadn’t turned my office into a shrine to my years at the bank. Everything personal fit into a single box, which I slid under my desk until after everyone left. Then I’d sneak away like a thief in the night. Ahh, screw them.
A young woman from Human Resources delivered my paperwork about four-thirty. I signed and handed it back to her along with my identification and corporate credit card. Now it was just a matter of looking busy until my people cleared out.
I couldn’t get Denise’s complaint out of my mind. Had she really been afraid that I’d use my position to hustle her into bed? That was so far from what I thought was going on. Ignoring Kwasniewski’s instructions, I called Denise’s direct line.
“Securities Operations, Denise Costello speaking.”
“Denise? This is Skip Matheson.”
“Hello, Mr. Matheson.”
“I wanted to congratulate you on your promotion and…and to apologize. I’ve spoken to Kwasniewski and I’m so sorry. I guess I harassed you and added a lot of stress to your first job down there.”
“You did.” Her voice was as bitter-cold and unforgiving as an Arctic wind.
Hoping for more, I said, “I guess there’s nothing more to say.”
“No.” She said and the phone went dead.
Bob McCrillis was born and raised in a small town in Maine. He and his wife Linda have four grown daughters and four grandsons. The couple now resides in Bucks County, Pennsylvania where they are both deeply involved in an organization that uses therapy dogs to help children cope with learning difficulties and emotional stress.