January 03, 2006
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Boy, does this bring back memories.
It was the first time I had been hired for a real supervisory role, aside from a rather half-hearted string of assistant-manager stints at movie theaters while in college. I worked for a language school in Tokyo, had worked there fore nine or so months as a regular teacher. There were four local schools, and four supervisors, one for each school. Two had been forced out by union activity, and the other two were leaving anyway, so the school had to hire for the whole local chain. The four that had been there each had 40-hour-a-week schedules, 30 hours supervising and 10 hours teaching. Each was paid a rather handsome amount by language-school standards, I believe in the range of $50,000 a year, if memory serves.
When the word had been put out that they were seeking replacements from within the school, I was interested, of course. The pay was good, the hours no worse than I'd been working, with more desk hours, which at the time was attractive (it was the 50-minutes-teaching followed by 10-minutes-prepping cycle that could burn you out rather easily). So I applied. What I wasn't ready for was the idea that the school was planning to screw me over royally.
My first missed clue was when they planned to hire three of us instead of four. I should have guessed that they were planning to take advantage of the clean sweep to try to make a huge savings. This was in the early-to-mid-90's when the economy was dropping out and business was getting tougher. But instead I saw what the guy I was to replace was making and figured I'd be taking over the position, with the salary intact. Certainly, the school did nothing to disabuse me of the idea, said nothing about any change in status.
One of the reasons I got fooled was the liaison, the American head teacher for the whole company, call him John (not his real name). John, I realized later, would have been great on a used car lot--he had the same ethics but had a more wholesome, almost deacon-of-the-church image he presented. He engendered trust, was good at selling, had the palaver down and had a talent for stringing you along, making you believe that the check was in the mail, though he'd been telling you the same thing for months and it had never arrived. (I should have figured it out when I found out he was an Amway salesman on the side.) That, and I was still gullible at the time.
Another big clue we (I and the other two candidates) were going to get hosed came when the hiring process was about done. We were the final candidates, but the managers were keeping too much from us. They refused to tell us how much the positions would pay, for example. We knew we would be hired as "assistant" supervisors, but it was made clear that this was only temporary, and that after a probationary period there was the chance of formalizing the full position. It had also been made clear that while we were on probation, we would receive probationary pay. But they did not tell us what that probationary salary would be, nor what we would get once we passed probation--they left us to assume it would be the full amount. It turned out there were even more layers to it than that, in fact. But again, we were trusting, and fell for all the salesman pitches they threw at us, like them asking strongly and repeatedly if we were going for these jobs "just for the money." Truthfully, I could reply that I wasn't--the experience would be valuable, I knew--but there was no denying that the money would be nice. We knew what the previous guys had been paid, and the managers knew we expected to get the same.
When they asked us to make our final decisions, we asked how much we'd be paid. They said it hadn't been decided yet. Now, when have you ever heard of anyone not being told how much they'd be compensated before they were asked to commit to a job? But they had the power and we were gullible, and they had the money-doesn't-matter responses in their pocket, and they knew we wanted the jobs and expected enough. So we said "yes." And immediately after that, they told us what the pay would be, as if we wouldn't see that they lied a few minutes before when they said the pay hadn't been decided yet.
And the pay was dismal. Almost $15,000 a year less than the previous supervisors. More than that, we were expected to do more with a lot less time, a fact also revealed only after we'd committed. Where the previous four supervisors had 30 hours desk work and 10 hours teaching, we three were given 15 hours desk work and 25 hours teaching, each. For the supervisory work, a drop from 120 man-hours a week to just 45, about 1/3 as much time to do the same work. For about 30% less pay than the people before us.
If we'd been smart, we would have told them to shove it right then and walked away. But that would have entailed quitting altogether, a very hard thing to do, and there was still the prospect of full pay after the probation.
Here's another point. If you are told that you are being hired on probation, how long would you assume probation would be? Again, the fact that we still trusted them to be fair worked against us. We assumed the standard three months. I had never, ever heard of any probation being other than that period of timed without said time period being specified. We all assumed three months. And so, after three months, when we asked when the review would come, John replied, as if sincere, that the probation was of course one year, why would we ever assume three months?
Well, we were pissed again, and we groused amongst each other again, but the alternative would be to quit and we still weren't ready for it. By the end of one year, however, that changed.
This is where the Dilbert cartoon becomes relevant. You see, I performed very well not just in the first year, but in the first month. The previous four supervisors had worked 120 man-hours a week, and most of their work went into scheduling. The school's schedule was flexible, which meant people were changing hours frequently, and finding substitutes was a constant task. The previous supervisors had binders with clear-plastic slip covers for each page, with each teacher's schedule on a single piece of paper, the book full of all the teachers' schedules. If a sub was required, the supervisor would have to go through the binder, sheet by sheet. First they would leaf through to find teachers who had that day off, and would call them, one by one. If they could not find a sub that way, they'd have to start leafing through from the beginning, this time looking for someone who could tack two or three hours onto their current schedule, thus filling part of the sub time. They'd call each teacher on the list for each segment, and if they found someone willing, they'd tell that teacher to hold on and then start yet again with the binder list, this time looking for teachers to fill in the remaining hours. If they found no one to complement the hours filled by the first willing substitute, they'd have to start all over again. And since teachers were often unreachable by phone (this was before cell phones became ubiquitous), the process was extended even further.
When I started working (and was given two of the four schools to manage), I found it was impossible to do the same job with the reduced hours. I essentially had the job two people had done in 60 hours weekly, and had 15 hours to do it in. Their system was impossible with the time they gave me. After two or three weeks of working dozens of unpaid overtime hours and still being swamped, I invented a new system out of sheer necessity. Staying late at the office several nights, I redesigned the sub-finding system with a computer using a spreadsheet program.
Instead of having a binder with separate pieces of paper for each teacher's schedule, I made daily schedule sheets with everyone's schedule for each day of the week on one page; each row would contain one teacher's schedule for that day. Teachers were lined up, sorted by starting hours. All the teachers with the day off were at the top; all the working teachers listed below, with teachers starting early nearer the top, down to the teachers working late at the bottom. Each teacher's phone number and availability info was right there. When one teacher called in sick, took a personal day, took a vacation, or otherwise got time off, all I had to do was pull out the sheet for the day in question and immediately see (a) who was fully free and (b) how I could divide the shift between the remaining teachers. That last point saved the most time: in advance, I could build scenarios and groups of matched teachers who could fill slots, thereby limiting the number of people I had to call, allowing me to focus on the most likely combinations first. Usually, just by asking a few people strategically instead of almost everybody in alphabetical order, I could fill the slot. A task that would have taken hours became a quick activity.
I then made up sheets such as these for the other supervisors as well, and kept them up-to-date. As a result, our jobs suddenly became doable; had I not come up with that solution, the school would have been forced to give us more desk time or hired more supervisors. Right there I saved the school tens of thousands of dollars a year.
That was not the only thing I accomplished, either. I settled the school down from its union jitters. The union had dissipated when the sole holdout had left for greener pastures, but there was still a great deal of friction between management and teachers. I helped allay a lot of that by making further refinements to the supervisory position, which allowed us to throw out a lot of rules the teachers hated. I made it so that the teachers would not have to request time off more than a month in advance. I refined the paperwork so the school saved more money and the teachers did not have to fill out so many forms. I had a lot of east-west liaison knowledge under my belt, and smoothed a lot of the Japanese-management-and-western-teacher friction that had contributed to the prior union mess. And so on.
So when the one-year probation period ended, I knew I was sitting pretty. Every time John had come by, he had nothing but praise; when I asked if he had any comments on how I could improve, he always remarked on what a great job I was doing. I knew I had not made any screw-ups worth mentioning, and I had made a lot of major accomplishments. The promotion and raise in pay would surely be mine.
What an idiot I was.
When the time for the meeting came, John again mentioned what a good job I had been doing. Except... the Japanese office manager, my immediate supervisor, had noted several months before that I had made a mistake. Frankly, I do not recall the exact details, but the incident was one where this manager and I had miscommunicated. We never had found the root cause, and it was likely a language error. But it had been between just the two of us, had cost nothing in productivity, and had been all but forgotten a few days later. But John brought it up as an "example" of my poor management skills, proving that I was not ready for a full supervisory position. When I asked for even one other "example," John refused to do so. When I pointed out that I had asked him if there was anything I was doing that needed improvement and he always said I was doing great, he dodged the question and said it was upper management's decision. When I pointed out how much I had achieved, John stressed the importance of trust with upper management and so forth. But in recognition of all I had done, John said he would personally push for me to get a $100 a month raise.
In short, I was Alice in the Dilbert cartoon. I was getting royally screwed. Served me right, for trusting them after they exhibited such weasel-like dodges from the start, but it hurt no less for that realization. I let them screw me, and should have known better. From that point on, I knew that keeping a job was far less important than maintaining my dignity and self-respect. I should have been ready to fold and leave the table after the first signs that they were being dishonest with me. But for most people, quitting is like failing, even if the fault is not your own. And the uncertainty of finding a new job is frightening. Both of these combined are enough to make you withstand far more than you really should. I learned that lesson. Fortunately, the next serious job I got is the one I have right now, which is the best I've ever had. The conditions are great and my relationship with my employers is excellent. But I'll never again place myself in the situation I suffered before.
Knowing all this, you can likely now understand my reaction to the Dilbert cartoon. To be of immense value to a company which then uses a stupid, useless, piddling charge to deny one the rewards the company owes. But maybe its something you can't truly feel unless you've been through it.
Anyone got stories?
Posted by: Paul at January 4, 2006 04:32 AM
Posted by: Brad at January 4, 2006 10:47 AM
Posted by: Luis at January 4, 2006 11:55 AM
Posted by: Paul at January 4, 2006 02:44 PM
Posted by: Mike Leonard at January 5, 2006 12:13 PM
Posted by: Luis at January 5, 2006 01:29 PM
Posted by: inlandchi at January 6, 2006 10:11 AM