Coffee heat rising

Bartleby, the late, great scrivener

Deus ex machina, my stress-manufacturing personnel problem has resolved itself, because the Problem quit.

For almost four years, I’ve had to deal with my own Bartleby. It’s been four years of hassle, grief, and resurgent annoyance that peaked, for me, about a year ago with a stress attack that landed me in a hospital for 12 hours of poking and prodding while ER doctors tried to figure out whether I was having a heart attack or merely taking a long dive off the deep end.

During those four years, I’ve learned from Bartleby. Bartleby taught me a lot about stress and a lot about management.

First, I believe I’m right in saying the “time is money” metaphor is off-kilter. In fact, stress has more in common with money than does time. Stress is like interest and principal on a debt. The more stress you pay down on a problem up front, the less you will have to pay over time. The less you invest up front, the more stress you’re going to owe over the long run.

Like the narrator in Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, I felt a lot of empathy for my Bartleby, an older person who had been alone for several decades. As an older mind, I know how difficult it is to keep up with the fluid changes in computer technology, that failing eyesight and slipping memory create daily challenges—more and more of them with the passing days. As a single person who also lives alone, I know the odd twists and eccentricities we develop as solitary beings.

But a manager’s job is not to be empathetic. A manager’s job is to keep an operation running and see to it that everyone in that operation can and does function productively. That is not to say a manager should not try to be kind; only that a manager can not let kindness get in the way of the job.

By the time I fully appreciated that my Bartleby was wrong in the nonexempt job for which I had hired her, the six-month probationary was almost over. My request that she be dismissed hit HR exactly one day after her probationary period ended.

To fire a nonexempt state employee, a manager has to go through the tortures of the damned. The process involves a series of disciplinary reports, each of which must be reviewed in detail and approved by an HR representative, followed by a series of committee hearings. Some employees will quit in the face of the onslaught this involves. However, if the employee is smart and knows how to work the system, she or he will recognize that there is no reason to quit. So, the process can stretch out over a year or more. Much more.

With all the back-and-forth between me and HR, it took six months to prepare the first disciplinary memo. Writing this document was agonizingly stressful. It required me to articulate frustrating and difficult matters and then to rehearse them, over and over, through revision after revision. Meanwhile, I did feel empathetic and indeed I often felt sorry for my Bartleby. These feelings added to the stress of working up a disciplinary statement, because they added a load of ambiguity and guilt. As time passed, the stress built.

Did my Bartleby resign when faced with several pages of complaints and demands about performance? No. Bartleby preferred not.

My Bartleby evaded dismissal by correcting everything described in the disciplinary memo. But the problem was, for every correction a new eccentricity or incompetence developed. When it became clear that six months of anguish had come to naught, I made the a decision to try to accommodate Bartleby’s oddities. She was, after all, laboring under a disability: she clearly had mental problems, some of them evidently cognitive issues related to age. Did I not have a duty to accommodate her disabilities?

Well, no. That was a mistake.

What I actually was doing was avoiding stress that I should have confronted, accepted, and taken on in a timely way. Had I “invested” the stress required to demand competent performance and to report and discipline incompetence, I would have saved myself and everyone around me—Bartleby included—a great deal of grief.

Bartleby’s incompetence increased everybody’s workloads. Admins in other parts of the unit quietly took on her responsibilities, because in her inability to do routine tasks she created more work for others. It was easier to simply do the tasks than to try to tutor her through them and make her undo the fiascos she created. I found myself spending evenings and weekends redoing assignments I had given her and undoing messes she had made.

About eighteen months ago, after she infuriated one of our client journal’s authors with an episode of screaming incompetence that involved habits she had repeatedly been warned about, stupidity and arrogance of monumental proportions, and astonishing absence of common sense, I removed her from all functional tasks and started assigning her busywork. This kept her out of everyone’s hair except mine; I took on the function of firewall between Bartleby and the rest of the world.

At the request of my boss, who correctly observed that my annual reviews of Bartleby’s performance were altogether too mellow (not to say “cowardly”), I decided to use the busywork as a training device and a well from which to draw support for a 2008 annual review that would honestly describe the incompetence with which we had been dealing for some time. I would review each of her make-work projects and explain, in writing, every error she had made and what she needed to do to correct it. This resulted in my repeating myself over and over and over—but now I had a year-long record of the fruitless repetitions. It also doubled my workload, because I had to reread documents I had edited months before, many of which had already gone to press; I had try to figure out what Bartleby was doing and articulate every single error, every incident of stubborn disobedience, and every misapprehension. Meanwhile, of course, I had to keep up with the new work that flowed across my desk every day.

A year of negative memos full of examples of errors and bêtises, each one repeating the same instructions over and over (mostly “learn Chicago style” and “learn how to use Word”) must have convinced Bartleby that I intended to fire her. Rather than accept that, she decided to resign.

Melville’s solicitor, the real Bartleby’s employer, never did get around to demanding adequate performance, but continued—as I was doing—to accommodate the eccentric employee’s bizarre behavior out of empathy, guilt, confusion, and downright flummoxing. The disaster that ensued was and was not the solicitor’s doing.

In the case of my Bartleby, however, the long-drawn-out ordeal was entirely my fault. I made two enormous mistakes:

1. I felt sorry for my Bartleby and I allowed that feeling to influence me; and

2. I tried to evade the stress I should have accepted at the outset, the stress that would have been entailed in cracking down on my Bartleby from the beginning.

By deferring stress, I only bought more stress for myself and all my coworkers.

I suggest to you that there is a metaphor here, one that works: stress is like interest payable. The longer you put it off, the more you pay.

It’s a money metaphor that applies in any situation where you could make things better over the long run by “paying” to address problems up front. It applies to parents who indulge their children and teenagers instead of insisting on civil behavior. If you don’t help a child to learn what is responsible—how to earn your way in life—you will end up with a young adult who will bring vast quantities of grief home to Mom and Dad. It applies to the predicament we get ourselves into when we run up debt to indulge our wants and then find ourselves over our heads—if we’d “invested” some stress early on to get our spending under control, we would not have to expend so much effort and grief later to get ourselves out of debt.

Stress is money, my friends. Soylent Green is people. To Serve Humanity is a cookbook.

Ah, Bartleby. Ah, humanity. Indeed.

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