Please dont ask for my opinion at work

---(from 2008)

This is probably more of a blog kind of post. I actually created a site to put these, but I haven't really spent the time to figure out how to do it properly. Either that or I would rather play wow.

In the capacity of my job working in the compliance department I get asked for my opinion on a lot of things. Assuming there are 100 things to know, ranging from how to clean the toilets based on OSHA standards to setting up a secure wireless network, I am probably qualified by my job and experience to answer 15 of them. Five of them with certainty, five of them with a high probability of being correct and five of them based on "Stuff" I did with other companies that no one else has done before at this company.

I wouldn't call this a great ratio of being able to offer a qualified opinion, but it does keep me employed and so far they keep paying me.

Now to clarify, there is a huge difference from being asked an opinion for the correct way to do a thing as opposed to knowing the policy, procedure or company approved way to do that same thing. Since most people don't know or don't care to know the correct way to do a thing, and it's part of my job to know these things, by default I look smart. A clever deception I assure you.

This has the down side of people assume I know what I am doing when I am really just quoting or translating policy. Which in turn means I get asked a lot of stuff I probably shouldn't have to answer, but do anyway? Herein lies the rub, so to speak.

As long as it's a work related item, I am there. Count me in, let's get the thing resolved and move on. Trust me, this is not a selfless act, and I am not an altruistic person by my nature. I do this for one reason, because if the person or group screws something up I am usually the person that has to go clean up the mess, document how the mess got to be in its current Mess-Like capacity, create a new policy to avoid future-mess or investigate the people that created the mess for some type of malevolent behavior. Hence, the better people comply with stuff, the easier things are for me.

Mind you I have no belief in the perfect work, nor does the Utopian work place exist, so I know I can remain employed indefinitely based on the failures, incompetency's and screw ups of others. I've been told I'm cynical, but how could that possibly be true I say to them"…

So yesterday there were two separate events I am going to illustrate on how this works.

The random supervisor makes and appointment to see me. That's a nice way of saying they dropped in, closed the door and said, hey do you have a minute, and there is something I want your opinion on.

What I wanted to say:

In other words you didn't bother to look this up in the policy manual, you didn't bother to check with HR or you simply can't figure this out and you want to create a trail of Blame should this backfire on you.

What I actually said

Sure, come on in

The supervisor starts out with this lengthy description of this one employee that works for her. Let's call the employee Jane. Well Jane is marginal at her job. Easy to get along with, shows up on time, does more than the minimum and doesn't make waves. My version of the explanation took 19 minutes less than the supervisors, with the same net facts. I don't care what car she drives, I don't care where she lives and I don't care that she recently started weight watchers.

The supervisor says that Jane requested to take three days off because her Aunt died and the supervisor wants to know if Jane can take her company paid bereavement days to deal with this.

The answer is really quite easy. The policy says that bereavement can only be taken for immediate family members. Typically this means mom, dad, children (god forbid), brothers and sisters. The variable is that it can be taken for other non immediate family members if they live with the employee. I don't want to get all cold and heartless on you, but I have seen people say they need to take three days off for their ninth cousin Elmo that died in a freak Meth lab explosion and they need to deal with some stuff. Oh yea, and they haven't seen Elmo for eleven years. In those cases we have had to indicate that the policy does not extend to anyone outside the immediate family and that they will have to get time off approved. It is almost always approved, but there is a difference in the event that causes us to make a decision.

Back to Jane, the supervisor says the aunt lived 100 miles away and was not really considered immediate family, but Jane saw the Aunt several times a year and more than just holidays.

I know I am getting set up on this one, but I've been around long enough to see this coming. I ask the supervisor what do they want to do. The question really being is are you going to stand up for your employee that is not a problem and not a star employee or are you going to deny them the time. As a company, we have no intention of being cruel to the people that work here. However, we are going to try not to get taken advantage of either.

The supervisor doesn't see through my ruse and sits there unsure how to answer. So I wait it out a minute. It was a very long minute for that supervisor. She eventually says, well since Jane hasn't been a problem, I guess I would say go ahead and let her use the time since this was a family member that was more than just a holiday visit. I explain that in this case the supervisor would have to advise Jane in writing that an exception to the policy was being made and that this was all the bereavement time the company would allow for the year. That should anyone else suddenly pass away, that Jane would be required to use her vacation time and it would need to be approved. The reason we do this is so later we have ourselves covered and the employee isn't blindsided by being told no in a difficult time.

Personally I think it was a good decision, not great, but good. The problem being that every time we create one of these exceptions to the rule, someone else will try to bend it further down the road. See the above Elmo and the Meth lab example.

I don't want to be black and white about the world, but policies are written for a reason. They should be a line in the sand. Not a catch all, but a solid decision point. Granted they should be updated based on business necessity, industry trends and other relevant things but adhered to as a rule.

So in this case, I really didn't give my opinion, I offered a way out to the supervisor, but at the cost of taking some responsibility and for doing the right thing. The supervisor walks away, calls HR and probably asks how to write a memo to Jane.

At 4:30pm that same day Bob comes to my office. Bob reminds me a lot of the guy from the movie Airplane that jumped into a scene with a flowery voice and said "There's a Sale at Penny's, there's a sale at Penny's". I think Bob has yet to leave the closet officially, but I really don't care, not really my business and doesn't affect his work. I have kind of a live and let live philosophy on a lot of these things (among consenting adults that is).

I need to give some background history on how we got to the point where Bob wants to talk to me. Go grab a beer and come back, it will be a bit of a read. Ideally somewhat interesting.

When I was originally hired in January it was in Department A. I was hired by Chuck to do a certain job. Let's call this play a horde mage in world of warcraft was what I was hired to do. I loved the idea of doing this, and they wanted me here. Win-Win.

Well a week before I start, Chuck calls and said they hired someone to come in and be my boss and build this department. At the time, I thought I was going to work for Chuck and play a horde mage. I don't meet my new boss until I get here. We will call him Al. Well I get to the new job and talk to Al about expectations and things like that. Al tells me he is really excited because he knows how much I like video games and has a lot to learn from me. This was not a good sign, he didn't say horde mage playing wow, he said video games. Some time passes, I do some traveling for another department that was in line with what Chuck told me I was going to do. I had fun, I got things done and the right people saw I was the right person for the job. This will be huge later, trust me.

Well a few weeks into the job Al says he wants me to focus my time playing Halo 3 on an Xbox 360 full time and since I like video games this idea makes sense to him. Al has no experience in video games and doesn't really understand why they even exist. He knows computers, but not games. He has never played computer games and doesn't see a lot of difference between playing a horde mage in wow on a PC versus playing Halo 3 on an Xbox 360. 32 bit graphics, things get shot at other people, there is jumping, it takes more than just dumb luck to get really good, some people use voip servers to group play, so yea, it's the same thing.

Red flags start going up in my mind. The company is small enough that I need to be a team player and adapt some of the things I may not know well so I go along with this, albeit reluctantly.

This goes on a bit more, but now Al is hitting me hard to focus more and more on a single element of Halo 3 on the Xbox. This wouldn't be a bad thing, but it wasn't what I was hired to do, it wasn't really what I was good at and most importantly, it wasn't what he was telling Chuck that we were doing. It was just the only way he knew how to talk to me.

I tried in vain to explain what I knew, what I was hired to do and that we were not getting our goals met because we were focusing on something that was not in line with what Chuck was expecting us to do. I could have done what Al wanted from home, and without having to drive in an hour each way. As it was he scheduled weekly status conference calls with the entire department, which was him and me. He would schedule a conference call with me and I say ten feet from him rather than say hey, let's go talk about where we are at on this thing.

There is a lot more to the story, but at some point I fell so far behind in what I was hired to do and became so frustrated knowing that I was going to look like an idiot when Chuck asked to see what I was doing that I said to Al, this isn't what we and I are supposed to be doing. He blew me off and said; well it's my goal, so we are doing it. I am not one to just up and quit a job. I don't think its professional and if you don't like that as an answer, it will bite you in the ass at some time later because you quit without notice.

I had it one day. I walked into Al's office dropped off my card key, blackberry, laptop and other stuff and said I was leaving. I quit. He was shocked and couldn't understand why. He asked why I was quitting and I said I have tried to explain this in the past and it has fallen on deaf ears and I left. I was shaking with the knowledge I walked out on a good paying job my entire drive home. I went over the hundreds of emails, the conversations everything. That was the longest hour of my life.

I called my wife and told her I quit. She was supportive and concerned about bills. But she was supportive. I know I drank a bottle or two of wine that night and passed out playing my horde mage later. That was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made in my working adult career.

The next day, somewhat hung-over I started the process of reconnecting with friends I used to work with, checking on potential jobs and seeing what was out there. Nothing productive happened; I was still in shock from my decision. I felt better about it, but it was a tough decision. It would take some cutting into the emergency funds if this goes past a month, but I knew something would manifest itself, it's just that it might not be the ideal scenario.

The following day I got a call from Debbie at the place I just quit. I have known her for 15 years. She and I used to work for another company. At one time I actually worked for her. I have a great deal of respect for her because of her knowledge and integrity. But she is a stubborn pain in the ass also. She was in a senior management position at the prior company.

She asked what happened and why I quit. I explained the story. I wasn't cruel and I didn't embellish but I did tell her the facts. She said she wanted to talk to some people and get back to me. I figured this was some kind of exit interview or something and didn't think much about it.

Well the next day she calls and says that the senior management (four out of five of them) totally understands why I quit and want me to come back into a different position and not working for Al. I was blown away. I figured I had burnt the bridge and put land mines for fifty miles between myself and the company and chased the baby seals with a chainsaw. This was just insane, I quit and they want me back.

It turns out I had impressed the right people and they found out Al was sending me on wild goose chases because he didn't know what else to do. Again, there is a lot more to the story, but they not only hired me back, they gave me a raise. I ended up taking a two week vacation without pay, but I went back to the old company, got an office, a promotion, more money and some actual respect. My new job is not playing a horde mage in wow, its playing an undead mage in wow on a pve server. Close in one regard, but very narrow in another. But it's what I know, and it isn't Halo 3 on the Xbox 360.

So back to Al. He doesn't like me, at all. He isn't a dick to me, but I can tell he doesn't like me. I am now at the same management level as he is. I know they asked him all sorts of stuff about me. Whatever he told them, I was still offered a job and came back.

A few months go by and Al hires Bob in my old job. They hired someone closer to what Al wanted and someone that was in line with what Chuck wanted also. But a different position than what I did. Using the same example, they hired someone that has some Halo 3 experience and someone that has played wow, but not a lot of specialization either direction. Bob is also a lot more of a yes man than I would ever be.

So I'm happy, Al's happy, Chuck's happy, Debbie's happy, we're all just one big happy family. All except for Bob it turns out.

Ok, finally back to Bob dropping into my office at 4:30pm yesterday. It's not that I don't like Bob, it's that I don't really deal with his department and honestly I don't really know him well enough to trust him or his intentions being as he works for Al and I know Al doesn't like me. Bob has some very solid knowledge of our industry so I can respect that.

Bob walks into my office, sits down and closes the door and says, so why did you quit? Did you not get along with Al? What were they asking you to do, play wow, or Halo 3, or what? How did Al treat you? I want to know as much about Al as you can tell me, I have to make some decisions.

And then he just sits there waiting, and expecting me to answer.

Talk about asking for my opinion and its totally subjective and talk about pulling the grenade pin and dropping it under my desk. This could just be suicide for me to even respond to him. I don't really have a good way to get out of this and I don't really want to tell him anything that can put me in a bad place. It just isn't a good idea to go back down that road. What the hell am I going to do?

It was a long minute to sit there. It felt like the earlier story but this time I was the supervisor and had to make a decision on what to do. I had to figure out in the fleeting moments of this minute if I was being set up or was I going to say the wrong thing. I have a history of telling things the way I see them that has caused problems for me in the past. I found out, as Jack Nicholson said in "A Few Good Men" that most people cant handle the truth, let alone my personal spin on it.

By nature I don't like office politics, but I have become proficient at ensuring I am in the right place at the right time and talking to the right people. There is a school of thought that says, its all about who you know, and then there are those that say its all about what you know. I think it's a mix of the two of those most of the time, but it can be extreme to either side other times.

So Bob is sitting in my office, its now 4:31pm and he let loose with all canons. Its time to respond. I decide that I'm going to take the high road but leave a few clues along that road that the prudent person would pick up on. While my personal experience with Al was less than exciting, Al does know a few elements of our industry extremely well. They didn't hire him because he is an idiot, they hired him because he knows his sh*t in some very important aspects of our business. Yea, I think the guy is a dick and has the personality of a presto-log, but that isn't the point.

The one other element I haven't mentioned was that when they brought me back my new boss said I was to not talk about anything having to do with my leaving the company and coming back, as it really wasn't anyones business. So all Bob knows is what Al told him or what the rumor mill had going on.

I lean back in my chair and start with my response to Bob.

Bob, i'm not sure what you want me to say. There are some confidential issues that would be inappropriate for me to respond or speculate on. I will say this, there was some miscommunication on both sides during my first incarnation with the company. I think those gaps were closed and the affected parties have moved on"…

Bob interrupts me

Right, but what about Al were you doing what you were hired to do?

I respond, to a certain extent, no I was not. But I'm not going to get into that because it isn't relevant to your position with the company and what you were hired to do. While I am sure there are some similarities between what you are doing and what I did, I simply don't know enough to comment, and that isn't the issue to begin with.

Bob doesn't really like that answer either and says to me that Al is having him do things that are not in line with his understanding of the position and what he is good at. For a moment I must have dropped my poker face and given a substantial tell. Bob looks at me and says, and I know you know what I am talking about.

I switch back to corporate mode and tell Bob, that is between you and Al, I cant help you with your relationship with your supervisor and how job duties are explained or prioritized. You need to talk to Al about this, and if that isn't working, you need to see if you can find some time to talk to Chuck about this. But I am not the person that you need to speak with on that subject.

This didn't phase Bob, he kept up his attack. Bob says to me, well yea, i know but Al is a dick and I am tired of doing things that aren't what I was hired to do. I didn't spend 15 years in the industry learning {Stuff} to come here and do {other stuff} that isn't why I was hired.

My only response to Bob is that he needs to work this out with Al and I leave it at that.

At some point Bob realizes he isn't going to get much more out of me on the issue.

Bob changes gears and tries the end-around. He starts telling me about his personal life, which honestly I don't care about one way or another. He tells me about the company he worked for before and his relationship with prior bosses and how he handled communication issues. I know what he is attempting to do, but I see it coming before Bob gets finished I let him know that this is a new company, we are a newer player in the industry and none of us have been here for a long time. If he has an issue with how things are done, he needs to address them through the normal chain of command. While admirable that he was able to navigate the murky waters of a prior corporate existence, it doesn't change the fact that he is here and needs to handle this in the same way.

Bob knows he hit a road block and doesn't know where to go.

I decide to throw him a bone before I depart for the day. I say, yea, there were some things I was doing that you inherited, some of them make sense and some of them took a long time to complete with little or no benefit to the company or what we were doing at the time. If you have a suggestion and you don't think Al is listening, you need to find a way to say it differently. Yea, some of the projects I was working on were not what I thought I was hired to do. Yea, I didn't make the best decision on how I communicated them to Al and I don't think my departure was the most professional way to leave a company.

I continue building to my closing statement. So, your choices are rather clear, accept the way things are and move on, attempt to change them in some positive way or another and be creative about it, or leave. There just aren't any other options. You cant stay and be miserable, well you can, but then you would be an idiot. So Accept, Change or Leave, but make a decision. The only way this is going to get better is working towards the common good. If you don't need the money, then leave if you don't feel like working through this. If you need the money or the job, then seriously deal with it. But I suggest if you do make a decision, don't go down the road I did, you might not be as lucky as I was.

Bob can see I closed the loop and the conversation is over. He gets up, says thanks and walks out of my office.

I think I answered enough of his questions that he knows what I went through. I don't think I said anything that will haunt me into the nether worlds and I think I left enough clues that he can make some decisions.

Turns out its 5:00pm and I feel like going home. It took around 30 minutes to have the conversation, I think I gave enough of my opinion to be safe and didn't cause problems, so I pack up and head home.

So yea, if you want my opinion, you might get it, you might not. But understand the question and the context of what you are asking before you sit down and ask me anything.

Ps – I don't work in Washington, but I do indirectly work in the medical industry, in a non clinical way