Month: December 2013

Lessons in HR from a Miracle on 34th Street

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Despite my Scrooge-like demeanor, I’m a sap when it comes to Christmas. The lights, the tree, baking cookies. I even enjoy Christmas music, at least for the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve). My favorite part of the lead up to Christmas, however, are the movies. I make it a point to see certain classics every year – It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Elf (yes, it is old enough to be a classic). The best by far, though, is The Miracle on 34th Street.

If you’ve never seen it – and I’m talking about the 1947 version with a very young Natalie Wood and an Oscar-winning performance by Edmund Gwenn – it’s about an old man who gets a job as Santa at Macy’s Department Store who happens to be named Kris Kringle and claims he is the real Santa Claus. After a run-in with the store’s psychiatrist, he goes on trial to prove his sanity or be institutionalized. Meanwhile, he befriends the daughter of a single mother, who not only doubts he’s the real Santa, but doesn’t believe in Santa at all.

One of the reasons I like this movie so much is that it is a modern-day parable for all that’s wrong with Human Resources.

Kris gets hired on Thanksgiving when the man hired to play Santa is drunk right before the Macy’s Day Parade. I can’t help but wonder what type of interview process this Santa went through. After all, being drunk first thing in the morning is usually signs of a serious problem. This might have been spotted during the selection process, or discovered in a background check. There’s every likelihood he had arrests for public intoxication or drunk driving on his record (I know back then the laws weren’t as strict for this sort of thing, but they still existed).

After Kris is hired, he turns out to be an excellent fit for the job. Children and parents love him. When a girl who doesn’t speak English comes to him, he converses with her in her native Dutch. His whiskers are real. He does a fantastic monkey impersonation. Most importantly, instead of pushing toys that the store has too much of, which the toy department manager suggests, he sends customers to other stores if it is something that Macy’s doesn’t have in stock. This turns out to be great publicity for the store.

Despite all this, he is sent to the company psychiatrist for testing, and there are those who want him fired. Because anyone who thinks he is Santa must be dangerous. It doesn’t matter that he otherwise seems more well-balanced than most people, or that the doctor at the retirement home in which he was living says that it is a harmless delusion.

What company needs a psychiatrist? I doubt there are enough mentally unstable people working the counters at Macy’s to make this a justifiable expense. In their defense, this was probably just for the movie. I can find no evidence that they ever had one on staff.

To make matters worse, the test administered is ludicrous. The questions seem designed to measure Kris’ intelligence, not his mental health. Unfortunately, workplace testing today isn’t much better. Rarely does it determine whether someone can do his/her job (see my previous blog post for more on testing at http://wp.me/p3ovkQ-1i).

Even if the test were valid, and Kris does have delusions of grandeur, that doesn’t mean he isn’t fit to be Santa. I have worked with a number of people with some level of mental illness. Some had days when they couldn’t get out of bed. Others would rant at coworkers. There were those who believed everyone else was out to get them. A couple I even thought might be a danger to themselves and others. And even if they weren’t, we didn’t lock them up. Instead, we tried to get them the help they needed. They had an illness, after all, and require treatment. I know that back in 1947, the attitudes towards mental illness were different, but even so. They have this man who does a great job and they want to get rid of him because he’s different. Like so many in the workplace today, we don’t measure coworkers, staff or supervisors by how well they do their job, but by whether or not they fit our narrow description of what a good employee should be. We don’t play to their strengths, but focus on their weaknesses.

I can’t help but mention that those who want to get rid of Kris are jealous of him. They resent his success, his good-nature, his positive relationship with their boss, Mr. Macy. While never stated in the movie, it’s clear that this resentment leads in part to their treatment of him. The psychiatrist in particular is an unhappy man who seems to abhor a man as jolly as Kris.

The only one who seems to get it is Mr. Macy. He rewards Kris for doing a fantastic job. Even though he admits to believing Kris is Santa, Mr. Macy probably wouldn’t care if one of his employees thought he was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and wore antlers all day long, so long as they made him money.

Maybe that’s why he’s the one in charge.

Ode to a Mentor

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I met Nina Pavlov through my first job out of college at the Kroch’s and Brentano’s Bookstore in Skokie, Illinois. A year before, I had gotten the job of assistant manager. It had nothing to do with my degree, but I had worked retail throughout college and high school. It was in the middle of a recession. I had bills to pay and couldn’t go on long without health insurance. They didn’t pay well, but I learned a lot and they had good benefits, including the ability to check out any hardcover book in the store – a great perk for a reader like me. It was a stepping stone and sometimes you just have to take advantage of the opportunities that come along (are you listening new grads holding out for you dream job?)

The store manager left. He was high strung, and couldn’t handle the pressure that came with the long lines and ringing phones that were retail. Often I would end up stepping in to do his work when he couldn’t handle it. Because of this, I naturally expected to take his place. Back then, I considered running my own store to be the pinnacle of my career.

I was stunned and even a little angry when Nina walked in to take charge. The President of the company told me about her in glowing terms while I hid my disappointment. She had just moved from Boston, where she had been managing stores for a local chain. He hired her almost immediately, unsure of what she would do for the organization, but sure she would be an asset.

Disgruntled as I was, I sucked it up. I was a good soldier. Besides, Nina and I hit it off almost immediately. Looking back on it, it was probably a conscious decision on her part to win me over. I had the respect of the staff, I understood how the organization ran (important for someone with no experience in the company) and I understood the organization’s culture and personalities. I was an asset.

Nina was not your typical bookstore manager. She wasn’t some guy with a ponytail and three useless masters’ degrees who had never taken a business course. She had once been high up the ladder at a Manhattan-based manufacturing company. Her job, she told me once, was to take the blame when things went wrong. They must have gone wrong often, because the job burned her out. So she settled into the life of a bookstore manager, using her skills to make them run more efficiently and profitably. This background gave her a unique perspective. She understood that as important as her job was to her, there were other things in life. No matter the situation, she took it in stride.

Not everyone shared my admiration. Nina could come off cold to those looking for a manager who was more touchy-feely. She didn’t become too friendly with her staff. She spoke in a tone reminiscent of an East Coast blue blood. Her look was reminiscent of a commissar in Stalin’s Russia – her dark hair pulled back, rarely a smile, almost always wearing black (often, she’d come in covered in blond hair from her dog). She was no-nonsense in her approach. She didn’t mince words. You always knew where you stood with her. She didn’t suffer fools lightly.

In those days, I was young, uncertain and insecure (I’m still all those things except young. But I hide them better nowadays). She showed faith in me. Provided me with the confidence that I had potential to do more, to be more. After we no longer worked together, we ended up talking on the phone often, sometimes meeting for lunch. I was a store manager with another chain by then. She often got upset with me that I hadn’t moved beyond bookstores yet. Not that there is anything wrong with being a bookstore manager. It was just that she knew I was under-challenged, and that there was more out there for me.

At the same time, she didn’t let me get away with much. I recall once showing up 15 minutes late to a meeting that included a lot of head honchos in the organization. The glare she gave me told me that she disapproved. Some years later, I told her I was dating someone with whom I worked. She shook her head, told me I should know better.

Okay, she wasn’t always right. I married that woman and it’s been 18 years of marriage. Still, it stung not to have her approval.

We lost contact over the years. It’s one of my many flaws. I am not good at staying in contact with people I do not regularly come into contact with. It takes a real effort for me to call or email someone in another state, another city.

The other day, I learned that Nina Pavlov had passed away.

I only know this because I searched her on the Web. You know how it is. You find yourself reminiscing about someone you haven’t seen in years, decide to do a keyword search or look the person up on Facebook. We’ve all done it. Usually, they are old girlfriends or boyfriends who we learn are now married with three kids. Or childhood friends who have gone on to become doctors or lawyers or ended up doing time for selling drugs.

Nina had very few entries. No Linkedin or Facebook page, The first one I came across was a record of her home in Chicago being put up for sale. The second was a donation made in her memory to PAWS Chicago. It could have been another Nina Pavlov, but it did list her husband, and she always loved dogs.

The third was an entry was from Old St. Patrick’s Church, a remembrance from November 4, 2012. But I couldn’t find any information as to the circumstances of her death. If the records I found were correct, she died October 11, 2011. She was only 62 Years Old.

Only now do I regret not keeping in touch.
When leaders are asked to mentor others – either through an official program at work, through a professional organization, or informally – they are often hesitant. They have never mentored before, they aren’t sure if they can provide their protégé any real value, they don’t know what to do or what to say. When asked, I usually, give them one piece of advice: Just be there.

Listen, share, advise if necessary. Encourage. Promote. Don’t judge. Be a role model.

All the things Nina was for me.

It isn’t hard. Yet it is vital for young people (and even some older people) moving up through a profession to have that mentor. Is there some cost benefit analysis that can be done to show this value? Unfortunately not. But I don’t know of anyone who is successful in their field – whether it be the arts, business, science, etc. – who didn’t have at least one person who helped them along the way.

When I am asked to take the time out to help some up-and-comer, I try to make time to do so. I recall how Nina helped me, and hope, in some small way, to measure up.