I was in a depressed state before this meeting. Fed up with being criticised for no apparent reason. The early days were of learning a new job with its unfamiliar routines, but I was soon able to deliver all my tasks on time. At least, I thought so. This woman 'boss' appeared to dislike men and most of the staff in the group were women apart from myself and a school-leaver. Pressure had increased relentlessly with the continual 'not enough' and 'not soon enough'. This was fast becoming impossible to deal with and had resulted in massive stress levels. I am always very conscious of my demanding workload and schedule of delivery times and I do not like to fail. As far as I am concerned I hadn't.
"I've seen no improvement in your performance since last time," said Mrs Dark.
"None at all?" I replied.
"But you said there were no issues two weeks before my contract was renewed and now all of a sudden two weeks after it has been renewed the same old issues have apparently returned. I don't understand, so could you please explain that?"
No answer. I waited. Still no answer. I felt she was trying to play mind games.
"If I'd known there were problems with my performance, I'd not have accepted the renewal. I had already given you my view that I thought maybe I am not cut out to be an office assistant. It's not particularly challenging."
The expression on her face showed that she didn't like that.
"You now have only four clients to deal with and you still cannot cope. You are always behind."
"I am working as fast as I can. I always work as fast as I can."
"Why are you struggling?"
"I am not struggling."
I attend to the detail that often gets missed and I consider it one of my strong points. The work here should be more about accuracy than just speed and in the long term is much more effective without the need to search out and correct errors. If ever they are detected in the first place. As part of my work I scan the many pages contained in a client's folder for uploading to various centres and many of those centres were still in the process of being converted to an electronic system and not yet active. I sometimes felt that Mrs Dark just didn't appreciate the implications of going electronic. Perhaps I was missing something somewhere. The complete electronic file is stored on a central computer and is always available to anyone, anywhere and any number of times. The entire scanning procedure would become completely redundant. Backups would avoid problems caused by accidental deletions. That happens. Just like shredding active folders.
"It is simply the huge number of pages that need to be scanned and processed. On checking sometimes a scan needs to be done again as it's not a good copy and a folder can contain anything between forty and seventy pages. And there can be up to thirty or more folders. That's over two thousand individual pages that must be copied for just one centre. The copiers here only take one sheet at a time and it's a slow process. The limiting factor is the speed of the copier. Not me."
I didn't add that it was mind numbingly boring work.
"I think you can work faster," Mrs Dark informed me. "Two of us managed it last week and we did it quicker."
"Have you been timing me?" She wouldn't answer that. This woman was a real case and she's saying I am the one with the problem.
"Folders were missing and the appropriate client lists hadn't been sent over to each centre. These lists haven't been sent over for several weeks."
"That's not right. It can only be two weeks. The system would have collapsed completely by now if it was several weeks. Did you spend time trying to locate the missing folders?" She dodged answering again and made me feel very uncomfortable. Surely this woman couldn't expect any respect. "As you say there were two of you. Presumably, you split the workload so you could each use a different copier. There is only the one of me. It would be surprising if you hadn't done it quicker than I could. I try to plan ahead as far as can and I am very aware of my customers' needs, but I can only do so much. I was on sick leave and it was only a week or so before you informed me that the files should be uploaded on a Friday. I've been trying to reorganise my own area and do all my other work. At the moment some folders have to be physically transported to the centre and I have to factor in travelling time. This can be a round trip of over one hundred miles and that doesn't count my time at the centre. Only some files can be delivered electronically. I thought I had always carried out my requirements."
"But I need to know the status of your actions the same as everyone else's."
"Mrs Dark, I understand that. When we were still delivering paper notes to centres I'd always take them up by car on a Monday and no-one has ever complained before. Certainly not to me. Electronic copies can be delivered very much quicker by uploading them and travelling is obviously avoided. For those centres with active systems. Monday morning should logically now be faster."
"Even though folders can be available at the clinics on the Monday morning before they are needed," Mrs Dark explained, "they still have to be issued internally to the relevant people. This can create a rush there at the last moment."
What is it with this woman? Did she really think I didn't know this? I had a very intimate knowledge of the actual working of the procedure. What she was saying just wasn't happening.
"That's not how I understand it. Folders are collected from the post room by the consultants themselves. And I have already sorted them out into different sacks with their name on it. All they have to do is pick up the sack. Couldn't be simpler, though I suppose I could deliver the sack to their office. That would make their lives a whole lot easier."
This meeting had become another real battle for me. I had a lot of work to do and here I was defending myself. Again. Doesn't this woman have anything to do other than annoy just about everyone? The inefficiency of the existing system was quite incredible. Why didn't centres already have a copy of their client's notes? At the centre and not fifty miles away. Taking original folders to a centre and then having to bring them back later was incredibly inefficient. A complete waste of my precious time. And then to sit here and listen to all this. If those folders got themselves lost somewhere during the procedure they'd be gone forever. The central repository should have just the originals. If a folder went missing then the original would be where it's supposed to be. I would introduce a sign-out and sign back in procedure if I was in charge and then only copies. Everything could be tracked. Accountability. At the moment there is none. But I'm not in charge. No way. They could never pay me enough to do that. I studied her face. It was grim.
"The folders aren't needed until the Tuesday clinics," I continued, "and by taking them up on a Monday, it allows a whole day to fix any problems. And regarding the new procedure of uploading, just how secure is this?" I asked. "The attachments are in PDF format and are uploaded as a compressed file by e-mail. PDF files can be changed using the appropriate software that is commercially available. I use the transfer method I was shown, using a zip file. This may be compressed, but is not necessarily encrypted. Decompressing is very straightforward. This is confidential material and I can only assume it is encrypted before being sent out over a non-secure system. The security issue worries me. But I must assume the IT group know what they are doing."
Again, just silence as if she was actually thinking.
"When the scanned files are uploaded they are entered onto a secure server for general access," she eventually said.
That's fine for afterwards, I thought, but what about the initial upload to the secure server?
"The scans should have been uploaded on the Friday before you were ill," she added.
"Is that a new procedure? I've never even seen the old procedure. I have to assume there is one. I was never given a copy to read and sign. To prove I'd read and understood it. And I don't plan my sick days."
I waited for a response. Yet another silence.
"Regarding the eleven missing folders, at the beginning of the first week when I was ill, surely someone could have been assigned to deal with the clients under my care to upload relevant data. They were almost complete. I am very aware of my deadlines and responsibilities, but it is also a departmental responsibility to ensure they are all delivered."
"You don't give me status reports."
"Are you suggesting I give you a daily update or even more often?" I asked
This was not meant as a rhetorical question. Silence.
"I don't want to bother you with every detail of everything I do." I paused briefly before I carried on defending myself. "You say that client lists were not uploaded so they must have been completely overlooked. I was not here, but they were nearly ready to go. The folders that are in the process of being scanned are always piled up on my desk. Two piles actually. Done and not done. And I am sorry that this affected other client centres, but I cannot be held totally responsible for all this. I cannot plan for any sudden absence."
"You can. If tasks are done in good time, the problems won't arise."
Hadn't she heard a word I'd said?
"Does anyone know where to access your scanned data?" she asked.
"They are on my computer."
"Does anyone know your password?" A reasonable question.
"No. I don't want to give just anyone access. Passwords are for security. To keep away prying eyes and prevent anyone using my e-mail account to send messages, allegedly from me."
"Don't you trust your colleagues?"
"It's not about trust and I'd even be reluctant to give my password to you. It's about security. An unattended computer can be used by anyone."
I could see the problem though. Someone would have to search for the information. What is the file name to look for? The data would maybe need rescanning before it could be uploaded. And what about centres that were still not live? Who'd take the folders up if I were not here? In a way I was indispensable. Interesting.
"We had to scan some of your data again last week."
"It's clients' data. Not mine."
"Don't be flippant. This is serious."
It looked like she was irritated. But nowhere near as much as I was.
"Yes. I'm sorry about that. Operational changes are happening and when I'm later officially told of changes it's as though I should have already known and therefore implemented those changes. That's impossible. It would be different if I were going on planned holiday leave. I am formulating a check-list of actions to be done for planned absences. Even the small detail of re-routing incoming e-mails. I was ill though, but I do apologise for any of those actions I should have completed when I was here."
That hurt quite a lot. The double apology.
"I take your point that Friday would be better. More time to fix any oversights."
That hurt even more. Agreeing with this tyrant.
"Did you not appreciate that change must impact on file data?"
"I only knew that changes were going to happen, but not how specifics might apply to me."
Either scoring good points or bad points. I couldn't tell by the expression on her face. But I was certainly scoring something. She didn't like me and I certainly didn't like her. I found her very manipulative and overbearing. I held her gaze before continuing.
"I'd spent over two hours searching through filing cabinets for those missing folders and the only places that remained were the thirteen sacks of material awaiting shredding. I was very conscious of the time constraints and all my other outstanding duties. I conveyed my concerns to my supervisor before I started any further search." I'd never ask this woman for help. I doubt if she was capable of giving it anyway. "This resulted in a piecemeal assistance by several of the women as clearly it was now becoming critical to find and get these files uploaded." I imagined she realised the urgency. "In the end this took nearly five hours and then only nine of the eleven files could be found."
I was going to add that perhaps we were all being incompetent by not getting this done quicker, but then I wondered if it was only me being incompetent and in need of help from several capable women. But I kept my mouth shut, keeping the competence issue to myself. I was fuming.
She ignored all that I had said and just moved on.
"Did you then simply forget about the last two missing folders?"
It felt like a real onslaught. I waited for a moment managing to just about keep calm.
"No, I did not simply," and I emphasised 'simply', "forget about these folders. I received no offer of continued help to find them though I was very appreciative of the assistance I'd had. Those two missing folders could now be absolutely anywhere. It was only my responsibility to find them. Not look after them. I was expected to trace them by myself and still meet all my deadlines and attend to my other duties," I persevered. "What do you suggest I should have done? I was running out of very limited time." And patience.
"If you did your tasks earlier you'd not be so short of time."
"I usually manage to do most of my work without help. There would be no problem if information is where it should be, but often it's not. My main concern is why folders were to be shredded when they were still active? Had they been previously scanned? I couldn't find any trace of either the original folder or an electronic copy. No hard copy should mean there is an electronic copy somewhere. I looked, but I couldn't find anything. I was not time-wasting. I was almost certain there was no electronic copy as I hadn't ever made one, but I still had to check to be sure. I couldn't make a copy as I could not trace the original. And why are files not where they are supposed to be? I would only shred a file if I knew it had already been scanned and I could locate the electronic copy. I cannot assume a file has been scanned. I'd have to check thoroughly before anything gets shredded."
I waited a moment for a response.
"If you know that folders are sometimes wrongly located, then you should allow yourself more time for when this happens. You don't allow yourself any time for when things don't go to plan."
"A wrong location for a folder is not the same thing as maybe that folder being destroyed. And why are so many folders not where they should be? There is never any indication of the whereabouts of a file or even if it has been removed. I will always return a folder when I have finished with it since it's the original. I think original files should never actually be removed. Only copies. Destroyed active files that have no electronic copy will still be needed in the future. Someone's personal history destroyed. There is no indication whether a folder has already been scanned or not. Obviously, a lot of time could be wasted looking for something that can never be found. There is absolutely no folder management. There is not even any particular person responsible for the entire area. And the area contains very sensitive and important data. I am not making excuses. I am giving you explanations for an implied laziness and incompetence. I am not lazy or incompetent and I take particular offence at the suggestion."
"I am not suggesting you are lazy."
"You've just said that you think I cannot cope and don't work fast enough. So, how else am I supposed to interpret that?"
"I consider you do not complete your lists."
I took a slow intake of breath.
"Do you mean my things-to-do list or the client lists?" This woman was so vague and ambiguous. And irritating. "I have always delivered the client lists on time to those that need them except for the reason I've already covered. Absence through illness. Is that why you interfered while I was at lunch last week? During the break I'm forced to take."
"How dare you speak to me like that! Your work had to be completed."
In a peculiar way I was enjoying attacking this woman. So that she could feel what it was like. I suspected that she was too used to getting her own way and I felt she was struggling. Perhaps she was out of her depth and it was really quite ironic and she had claimed I was the one struggling. So much for her mind games. This woman was like a monkey crawling all over my back. Horrible. I detested this woman. I ignored her protestation and wondered if she had any friends.
"It was the next task on my list of outstanding work," I exclaimed. "It was about to be done, but you decided to jump in and do it for me. That's what I call interference. It's certainly not helping. Anyway, I'd never asked you for help. And why were you examining my diary?"
"We'd already agreed some time ago that I could do that."
"You didn't give me any choice. You told me it was company policy that allowed you to do that. I didn't challenge your authority at the time."
Mrs Dark said nothing, but did not look at all embarrassed though I did see arrogance. And annoyance. Admitting to secretly looking through my diary and not being at all bothered. I was far from convinced she could do that. Maybe it's the boss's privilege. Or at least she thought so.
"When that unscheduled meeting was called last Monday I had not completed my work for the day and had to carry on for almost an hour in unpaid overtime to catch up. You called the meeting unexpectedly and I did an hour's work for no pay, yet you are now blaming me for failure. I had already got all the Tuesday lists prepared and would do the Wednesday and Thursday lists on the Tuesday. I had it all worked out, but you nearly torpedoed my plans. Nearly, but I managed to save them. And all the other tasks for that day. I simply forgot to upload the information on Monday evening and I don't accept that this was my fault at all. The delay caused by that meeting would have made this too late anyway. I had a choice. Continue my work and abandon this meeting or attend the meeting and neglect my work. You put me between a rock and a hard place."
"You should have uploaded on Friday so that this sort of issue does not happen. It gives you more time."
"So you keep reminding me, but I have so much to do and all coming in at unpredictable times."
"Some tasks will always need to be done. Every week."
"It won't happen again. Leaving me out of the loop makes my job impossible at times and that was why I decided to attend the meeting. To sit in on the loop."
"Your colleagues feel they are always having to do your work for you."
She'd jumped ahead again.
"What exactly are they doing for me?"
"Well, like last week and those lists we all had to do. The client lists were all done for you."
"I was ill on Monday and Tuesday. I wasn't here. But only a moment ago you said you had done it."
She ignored that.
"They need to be done at the end of the week. On a Friday."
"As I just said, I know that now, but as I also said earlier, no-one has ever complained before so I did not realise there was a problem. And now you tell me there is one. Or two. Or ten. Procedure seems to have been changed without telling me. It is obvious that now uploading the electronic files avoids physically taking the actual folders and I refuse to accept responsibility for something I could not possibly know about. I've been let down very badly by being kept in the dark. And I hold you personally responsible for that, Mrs Dark." I was just about at my limit.
"I've told you before not to speak to me like that."
I really hated this woman. Totally unreasonable. And bloody stupid.
"What else do my colleagues say they do for me?" I managed.
"They're always having to answer telephone calls for you."
"I refute that. I handle all my own calls as I have done for a long time. Except when I am elsewhere like trying to locate lost folders or finding out answers to questions. I have never asked anyone to answer my telephone when I'm not there."
"They complain that when your 'phone rings someone has to answer it. It becomes an annoyance."
"In this office, phones are ringing all the time so why is my 'phone especially annoying?" I challenged. No answer. I waited through a heavy silence before continuing. "This could only be for a short period and very rarely. I can't be in two places at the same time. And if I'm off sick then how could I answer my phone? What am I supposed to do if I cannot answer a query? Am I not allowed to ask for advice? Should I give out a crap answer? I won't do that. Perhaps you can give me examples of when I'm supposed to have passed any calls to someone else?"
I felt sure she'd noted my use of the word 'crap'. I meant it, though.
"I didn't say passed over any calls, just that you weren't there to answer your phone," Mrs Dark retorted. "Perhaps you shouldn't try to action the call immediately. Say you'll get back to the client and hang up. It would give you time to find out an answer."
I thought that was quite a good idea. I'd try it, but I didn't say that though. "So, what else do my colleagues say they have to do for me?"
As far as I knew she was making all this up. No names. No examples. Just her word for any of it. Nobody had ever complained to me. Going behind my back? Probably, but I had no evidence of that. It was the sort of thing she'd do and I knew there were many complaints about her. Maybe I should just add my own and then move on.
"You forget to update the database and spreadsheets when a client phones in."
"I don't accept that. To my own knowledge I have always updated the spreadsheets and databases. Even if I have ever rarely forgotten, any oversights are always corrected. I can guarantee that. I am constantly cross-checking data for conflicts and there are lots of those. It's in my nature to check. When I find them I put them right if I can. I'm informing you now, the database and most of the spreadsheets are full of holes and I can't correct everything. I don't have the time and it's not my job."
"You are becoming obsessed with checking."
I sat there with my mouth open. I couldn't find the words to answer such an absurd statement. When I'd recovered slightly, I followed up my earlier comment. I was really angry.
"I've seen other colleagues forgetting to update the database and enter wrong information. I've managed to catch many of them and put them right and that always puts me behind. Sometimes I feel like the boy trying to plug the dyke with his fingers. It's too much. It's impossible. I am not even going to try any more. I've had enough. I caught most of those errors and corrected them and I don't get any credit for my thoroughness. And you consider me obsessed. This department could collapse at any time. I think it's inevitable. The information has to be right and it's not. There is no room for mistakes. I can only recall one instance when I received an e-mail reminding me to update the database and spreadsheets. Maybe there was another and I can make mistakes, but I am very thorough and rarely make any errors that I fail to detect or put right. Many people access the database and the spreadsheets, so what evidence do you have that any of the errors are mine?"
"I'm not saying the errors are yours, but some must be."
"Why? What errors? I don't make many mistakes. Probably, none at all. I just put them right. Can you give me an example of my failure to update a spreadsheet or database, so I can check this out? And I will check it out." I had no idea how I might do this, but it was my turn to bluff.
"I haven't been digging, but if you want I can bring in a list of your deficits next time."
She had just dodged a bullet. Or so she thought.
"Yes, that would be very helpful to me," I agreed as I expected her to have trouble doing that. "By the way, you have brought up performance issues before, like last May. Miraculously, I had improved by the end of June. Just before my contract was renewed. But you feel like I've slipped back again. Now that the contract has been renewed. I remember saying at the time that I felt that I was not cut out for this administrative work." This felt like I was back in my old school days when one question out of ten was answered wrongly. The focus always seemed to be on the minor failure and never the major successes.
"I am very capable of greater challenges than being an office lackey." I felt like a male football in an all-women team. I knew nobody else working here had a university degree and I constantly felt I was resented.
"Have you ever heard of time management?"
"Of course. I did all years ago in my school days. The time allocated to prioritised tasks. The higher the priority, the more time and the lowest the least."
"So, you are familiar with good working practice."
"Yes, good working practice, but not when there is just too much work for one person to deal with. Someone was very objectionable to me recently, implying I had lacked something in my education. She couldn't figure out how I could be so deficient. She implied I am stupid. And from someone who has worked only in administration for years. She should be good at her job by now with all those years of experience. Everyone else has been here a lot longer than me, so they all have more experience than I do in this environment. But nobody shadows me. Except you. This woman imagines she is qualified to tell me I'm deficient? She knows nothing about me. Who does she think she is? Bloody arrogance. So devoid of humility."
Mrs Dark was obviously bottling up some comment, but said nothing. She'd probably only support the women's struggle anyway. The twenty women against the one-man struggle. Yes, I'm certainly struggling with that.
"Incidentally, I've been all through the thirteen sacks and listed all the folders designated for destruction. I think it's quite likely some folders shouldn't be there, but I have no time to check that out."
I paused, though the silence made me feel as though I was digging myself the hole she'd bury me in. I felt I had nothing to lose so persisted.
"I understand that various sets of notes are still lost and that my list of unaccounted folders was never forwarded. My list is only for folders I was interested in. It simply required a list to be attached to the sacks. As a result someone could make another unnecessary search of the sacks not realising one had already been done and the ones that I'd found. I should have done this. All the recovered folders have been put back where they should be."
"Mmm, that's a good idea and when the system is completely computerised, shredding won't be the issue like it is today."
That sounded like an admission she knew about inappropriate shredding and that it had all happened before. It couldn't be praise. Perhaps she was still trying to play mind games.
"There has never been any acknowledgement, or thanks, regarding this so I assume that no-one has ever been informed of my lists or the folders' relocation. As far as I know missing files have still not been located and never will be. This is a very important flaw that I have identified. Someone had thrown out active files to be destroyed. I wonder how long that has been going on. I would have thought an investigation would by now have been launched to be assured this does not happen again."
"Don't dare to tell me my job." She was seething.
"And I am being castigated for revealing a problem that may have been covered up."
"There's no cover up here."
I ignored her objection.
"If people were to do their jobs rather than looking for jobs elsewhere this place might be more efficient." There was one occasion that I'd seen her doing the very same thing. Looking through external job vacancy websites and she'd have no idea that I'd noticed that.
"There are two ways I see of approaching this," I offered. "One is to work fast and probably make more than an acceptable number of mistakes producing faulty information that must be corrected. If the errors ever get uncovered. The other is to be a little slower, but attentive to the detail. The devil is in the detail. A database can only be as good as the quality of its information. Some time ago I came up with a theory and it's really quite simple. It states that the speed of an operative plus attentiveness is a constant. Fast and careless or slower and greater accuracy. If mistakes aren't made then they don't need fixing. This describes efficiency and effectiveness." I broke off to hear any comment.
"The IT guys will tell you garbage in, garbage out. This increases the overall time by the need to scrutinise information, find an error and correct it. And who does that? The extent of the damage caused by faulty information can only be imagined. Forwarding unchecked work is potentially disastrous. I am careful and attend to the detail and then when the detail is checked mistakes are less likely to be missed. They will happen, but they will be made by others. Those that I find, and some may even be my own, are corrected before I pass them on. Mistakes do not leave my desk. Quality and not quantity is my standard. So, I'm a little slower, but I don't pass on mistakes and I cannot work any faster than I already do and maintain a high standard. I produce quality work and neither am I sloppy. I make no apology for being attentive to detail and my conscience is clear."
Clearly the woman was rattled. A man with a brain. Perhaps she imagined I wanted her job. She must be crazy.
"You must work faster to keep up," said Mrs Dark.
Had she not heard anything I'd said?
"We have reducing staff levels to deal with an ever-growing workload and only some of those staff are ever replaced," I complained. "People are continually leaving. That cannot continue without consequences. Like the medical secretary who always assumes the information to be typed up from notes is accurate. Any consultant who does not like someone confirming an irreversible action is demonstrating breathtaking arrogance and a totally unprofessional attitude."
"Wait a minute. You can't talk about consultants like that."
"Why not? They're not gods, you know. Imagine a surgeon conducting an amputation or the removal of a kidney. Accurate notes are critical. If the wrong limb or organ is removed, the consequences would be devastating. For the patient. Patients are real people and not just names on a sheet of paper."
"Yes, you are right there," Mrs Dark replied.
I was truly shocked by that. Momentarily back-footed. She'd agreed with something I'd said and I also had the feeling that she'd meant what she said. Was she letting slip a more human side? I still don't know, but it showed she might be listening. I doubted it though. This monkey would get no bananas from me.
"I do not want and certainly don't expect praise from you for just doing my job. The best job I can do. And all those that don't do theirs properly means I have to do more and more. But neither do I expect unreasonable criticism. I am not perfect and can make mistakes like anyone else. I know that. I am not stupid. All you ever seem to do is lay into me with your demands. I can do a good job, but only if I am informed of all the changes that apply to me and left to get on with my job. I have no problem with weekly status updates, but every day is just too much. It feels like harassment. I am a team player, but I refuse to just follow the group when I know there is a real problem. And then to be accused of letting the team down. I see this in absolutely the opposite way. I feel I am protecting the team by standing up for it. I was threatened some weeks ago with a written warning. After five weeks this never transpired."
Was the intention to hang me out to dry?
"I asked a moment ago that you bring in the list of my deficits next time. Those that you say I have. I must insist that you do that. It does sound quite substantial."
"I won't compromise my standards for your idea of speed and with more experience I could do my job better. Clearly, I'm not suited to this kind of work. It'll probably not be a surprise to you that I find my job dull and virtually pointless. It's demoralising to do my best and still get chewed out all the time. I am also very aware of my clients. These people who deserve my best attention. They get that from me. Someone was incredibly careless by putting active files out for shredding. I think it was only through my attentiveness and thoroughness that most of these files were rescued. Those two missing files concern real people. That this information could be so flippantly tossed aside irritates me enormously though I am satisfied that I've done my best to fix this problem. The one that I did not create. But time pressures mean these people are discarded. I find that horrible. But that's me. And I like me. And you talk of priorities as though people can be considered just another inconvenience."
I wanted that list of deficits. It had become very important even though I'd had enough of this woman's concept of ethics and the ridiculous work ethos here.
My turn to play mind games.
© Louis Brothnias (2012)