Attacked – conflict and aggression in the financial world.
The names and details have been changed to protect the guilty, and confuse the innocent.
What do you do when someone attacks you? I don’t mean some yobo putting the boot in. I’m talking about someone in authority abusing and criticising you not, because of your incompetence or mistakes, but because of their malice or political ambition.
It began in the first week of a new contract on a new project. The methodology we were using required hundreds of forms to be filled in. Each form had a diagram showing the various data flows, then underneath, a text description. If needed the text description could extend onto a continuation sheet.
Electronic forms were available, but the diagrams presented a problem. The only software available denoted a process by a box with doubled lines, the methodology required a box with single line sides, and rounded corners. Big John and I suggested that perhaps we could change the convention and use double lined boxes. Project management stood firm against such foolish ideas.
“Too many projects have drifted into unprofessional sloppy practices in that way. Diagrams will be done freehand, to ensure standards are maintained.”
Hatchet, our team leader, added a rider. All diagrams would be done in ink, not in pencil.
“What about the changes?” I asked.
“We are using a modern methodology, which ensures that at each stage any errors are corrected before we go on to the next stage. You’re all being paid very high rates, we do not expect that truly professional personnel should make errors.”
There’s no answer to that, at least not a polite one. We got busy filling in forms, and drawing diagrams. After a few weeks we were spending most of our time making changes, in pencil.
Other problems arose instead. Big John was very competent, far more than Hatchet. What was worse, it showed! Big John would ask questions, and Hatchet couldn’t answer them, sometimes he couldn’t even understand them.
I had problems as well. In retrospect I think I was morally right, but not in a way that makes me very proud of myself. Hatchet had a habit of talking about when he used to be a probation officer. One thing probation officers don’t do is talk about their clients, especially about privileged information. I said as much to him, in public. He didn’t like it.
Trouble came suddenly. Three months into the project, Big John got a summons. He came back a few minutes later looking utterly disgusted. “They’ve given me the push, said I wasn’t up to it.”
He left four weeks later. Actually he was quite happy about it by then, he’d got another contract at a better rate.
I thought that was the end of it, I was wrong. I wasn’t up to Big John’s standard, but I had also been guilty of wrong thinking. A month later the axe fell.
It was my turn to have my forms reviewed, so Hatchet, Deputy Project Manager, and I retired to a conference room. The first few forms were accepted as satisfactory, then:
“Look at this, it’s terrible! Why haven’t you kept to standards?” demanded Hatchet.
I looked baffled at the form. My hand-drawing isn’t my best feature, but that didn’t seem to be the problem. He was pointing at the bottom of the page.
I’m sorry, I don’t understand, what’s the problem?”
“It’s tatty, just look at it! Here where your text description goes over onto a continuation sheet! You’ve left two blank lines at the bottom of the first page!”
He seemed to like exclamation marks. I tried to be reasonable.
“Well the next paragraph is five lines long and I thought it looked tidier to put it all on a new page. I didn’t really think too much about it, it seemed too minor a matter to ask about, but I’ll change it if you want.”
“You mean you didn’t think about keeping standards?”
I offered to change it, I apologised for breaking standards, and explained that I hadn’t been aware of the standard about breaking paragraphs at end of page. I didn’t ask him to show me the relevant paragraph from the standards manual, I didn’t think of that until afterwards.
“With respect though, I feel that words such as “tatty”, and “disgusting” are not justified. I’m not disputing your decision, I’ll change the forms at once, but I don’t think it is fair to use language implying unprofessional behaviour in a situation which I do not think warrents it.”
The DPM didn’t seem to want to get involved, so we carried on. After about a dozen more pages we came to another continuation sheet.
“Look you’ve done it again!” He seemed to think I had deliberately done it again to provoke him. “Why didn’t you ask about company standards if you didn’t know what they were? You’re supposed to be professional!”
We went through the same loop, he said it was tatty, I apologised, and offered to change it at once, but asked him not to use words such as “unprofessional”.
After the third time I made my mind up what to do. I had seen Hatchet get rid of one of the most competent analysts I have met, by smearing his name. I knew he didn’t like contractors, especially me. If I was next on the list, I’d rather jump than be pushed.
He continued to work himself up into a right temper. The next “tatty and disgusting” I excused myself, walked out, and went to the Project Manager’s office, to offer a termination of contract.
Unfortunately the Project Manager wasn’t there, so I had to go back to the conference room, and ask the DPM to step outside. It rather ruined the effect, but at least we got through the rest of the forms without any further remarks.
The next day I went straight to the Project Manager’s office.
I took the line that if my work was not satisfactory I felt ethically obliged to offer to withdraw from the contract, subject to the agency’s agreement.
The Project Manager waffled. He was sure no-one had intended to imply any unprofessional conduct. It was far too trivial to worry about. I was doing jolly good work, and he certainly did not want to lose me.
That was it really. Hatchet left me alone after that. After the contract was up, I got out as fast as I could. The last I heard, they were a year late on a 12 month project.
* * *
What should I have done?
I accept I was not as tactful as I should have been. Admitted Hatchet was a pain in the neck and his behaviour was dodgy ethically, he was still a senior member of the staff. Even if I was right, I shouldn’t have criticised him in public. I’ve got enough faults of my own, without looking for the faults in others so eagerly.
Equally I think Big John could have been more tactful. We have two responsibilities. Firstly to give the best of our professional judgement on the work we had to do, and secondly to accept and respect the decisions made by management, including Hacker. If those two clash, then it’s our responsibility to be as tactful and polite as we truthfully can.
Whether I dealt with it the right way or not I don’t know. Hatchet probably would have had it in for us anyway. Probably a better man or woman would have seen it coming, and dealt with it before it even became an issue. All I can do is try to learn from my mistakes.