Even with 40 years as a New York City professional, I cannot help my 23-year-old daughter Meg, who’s recently gone back to working on premises, navigate her career.
Too much has changed over the decades, and I’m not just talking about technology. For the last quarter century, I have worked off-premises as a freelancer — #WFH in today’s COVID vernacular, so I do not/cannot understand what the day-to-day of office life really entails, especially in the past couple of years.
What I’ve come to understand is that Human Resources is more powerful and much more involved in situations that arise between employees or employees and their superiors than when I was a younger woman. I’m not qualified to say as to whether this is good or bad; I assume as with anything else there are pros and cons. Some days it must be a relief that HR, acting like an involved parent of adult children, can be turned to for backup, while other days the department probably oversteps making more of a problem than the circumstances merit.
When I graduated from college set on becoming an advertising copywriter, I joined a major New York agency as support staff, considered the company’s training ground from where it promoted its new crop of writers, art directors and account executives. There was a guy who was even lower on the org. chart then those of my ilk, (receptionist, if I recall) who went to “personnel” to make his career intentions of being a writer known. It was explained he’d have to move into a secretarial/assistant position from his current one and then wait his turn to be plucked for the job he wanted.
Taking matters into his own hands, the upstart found an art director whose writer had just left the agency, offered to step in to help her craft some headlines between answering the phones, impressed the Creative Director, and got the job.
I actually witnessed the head of HR storm off the elevator screaming at him for going behind her back and not following protocol (which was merely a face-saving move on her part), before escorting him to his new office. She had absolutely no say over the Creative Director’s decision.
Look of Disbelief
Several years later when I too had become a writer, I worked in a group where my colleagues and I believed our boss was not behaving on the up-and-up. We marched en masse to HR and were told unceremoniously that we were like “students complaining about the teacher” and if we continued we shouldn’t let the door hit us.
The look of disbelief that crosses the faces of Meg and my 26-year-old son Luke when I share accounts of my 9-to-5 life of yore is followed by their counterpoints, which always begin with the word, “Nowadays.”
Apparently, reporting co-workers to HR — whether it is regarding sexual harassment or the fact that someone’s bracelet jangles too loudly to suit the person at the next desk (I kid you not) — is a part of the daily grind, and that those in that department have come to gain a lot of sway in all areas of company business.
I feel like a 50s housewife when Meg tells me of an assignment she’s doing with an office-intrigue tale chaser, and I tell her to, “Go ask Dad what you should do.” I fear I will steer her in the wrong direction, as for the past two and a half decades I have received my projects via phone, fax, messenger then email and returned them in kind. I always felt grateful to be spared watercooler gossip, pettiness over who had one more pencil than someone else and backstabbing of all stripes. The downside is of course that when I removed myself from the on-staff workforce I could no longer speak from experience about how things are done, or as Neil says: “You have no idea what goes on.”
So, when it comes to advising Meg, I rely upon what I do know will not go out of style regardless of how advanced IT gets or who is in power: say “please” and “thank you;” be on time, have a positive attitude, control your emotions. And foremost, that one’s paycheck is not a gift; you have to earn it, so do your job.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of two novels and the upcoming “The Last Single Woman In New York City.”