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Who was featured in a meet-the-author session at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition SHRMStore in June? Me! For the occasion I sported a white shirt and red tie, matching my heroine Melie Kohl’s outfit on the front cover of my recently published comic debut novel, Dream Job: Wacky Adventures of an HR Manager (Lulu Publishing Services, March 2016).
This was my moment. I had eagerly anticipated meeting with my ideal audience of fellow HR professionals—all 15,000 of them. They are the only ones, I reckon, who will know just how much is satire and how much is truth in this wild tale of a single, sexless middle manager battling the chaos inside an out-of-control medical center while feverishly searching for a life (and a love) of her own.
Luckily, at the bookstore I was positioned opposite Steve Gilliland, a funny and formidable motivational speaker whose sessions I had attended many times at SHRM conferences in the past. He already had a gazillion conference attendees lined up for his autograph! How could I compete with that? I didn’t try—I assigned my extrovert of a husband the task of chatting up potential customers and steering them my way. The result? I had some wonderful conversations with executives from Canada and the U.S. But I felt a pang or two when I realized this was perhaps my last opportunity, for a time anyway, to connect with my “squad.”
On this sunny June day in Washington, D.C., I’d already been retired a year and a half from my corporate career as a chief HR officer for the Practising Law Institute (PLI) in New York City, an 83-year-old nonprofit firm, a leader in the continuing legal education field. After a career that spanned five industries in the for-profit and not-for-profit world, I’d spent the past 15 years of my HR career at PLI, and they were excellent, fulfilling years. Nevertheless, after I had taken the final step into retirement, I immediately drew up a to-do list. Item 1: dust off those reams of paper in the bottom drawer of my desk and shape them into a novel. A funny, satiric book. While I was working on that monstrous project, I tried my hand at placing a number of my short stories and poems in literary journals, networked, and uncovered other scribblers in my community who were as gung-ho as I, eager to start a brand-new career writing, publishing, publicizing, even performing in local bookstores and libraries.
So far, I have no regrets about retirement … well, maybe just a few. Here’s what I miss:
• The people. (Not very original, I know.) But what happened to my little world, my company, the office home I lived in and shared with over 200 others for the last 15 years? Yes, it’s still there, but I’m not! I yearn to “manage by walking around” again, stopping to chat with the IT guys, the salespeople, the lawyers, the editors, the program assistants on their first job after college, the few “lifers” who were still here: the ones I interviewed myself, those I helped out of jams and those I met up with for lunch, those PLI boosters who eagerly supported every initiative to come out of HR. I yearn for those closed-door sessions, those one-on-ones with fellow staff members, where I would listen intently and try my hardest to be wise and tolerant, no-nonsense and tough, kind but keenly aware of the need to safeguard and respect the bottom line, the company’s credo and its reputation. Oh, to be a fly on the wall!
I miss being part of the senior management team and our weekly meetings where we all sat around the table, sharing our latest projects, assessing our strengths and weaknesses, and charting the direction of the company. I miss advising the president about the latest HR initiatives and our efforts to preserve the unique culture of the company.
My staff! I miss having a staff, those promising young men and women eager to follow my lead, to take direction and contribute their own inspired ideas, to strive for a high level of competence if not perfection, to see themselves as HR professionals, knowledgeable, discreet, loyal to the company, upholders of all that is equitable and ethical and life-affirming. I left confident that they would reach the pinnacle of the profession, proud to have mentored them.
I even miss the serious problems, the grievances, the occasional threat of legal action that forced me to bring on my best game. Sure, employee relations can take years off the lives of HR professionals (see Dream Job!) and cause unrelenting stress and a host of psychosomatic symptoms. But how satisfying to insist on the cooperation of all parties, investigate a matter thoroughly, respect confidentiality while rooting out the truth or truths, and settle on a resolution. In its best moments, HR stands for fairness. I always thought: HR professionals are heroes even if often they’re the only ones who recognize that.
• Playing monkey in the middle. Standing up for the rights of employees while safeguarding the health and well-being of the company is not easy. So, monkey in the middle is the inevitable position that results. It can be a dizzying position to play, even a frightful responsibility. With practice, awareness of best practices, and basic good common sense and moral judgment, though, it’s a good position to play. Personally, I always enjoyed speaking truth to the powerful and being straightforward with everyone involved about expectations and outcomes. The payoff: Hopefully, management and staff realized that they’re on the same team.
• Keeping up to date on all the rules. I miss knowing all the answers, or at least where to find them, and I miss the challenge of keeping my company in strict compliance with existing and ever-changing legislation. I miss the fellowship of my HR colleagues, the local ones I networked with regularly and the ones I met yearly at SHRM conferences around the country. On the other hand, it’s nice not to have to worry quite so much about everything. For one thing, I’m more than content to have others negotiate the ever-changing world of benefits!
• Manufacturing fun. I miss the creative morale-boosting activities we spearheaded, designed to bring out the many varied talents of our New York and California staff: the clubs that met on lunch hours (knitting, reading, writing, cooking, music, yoga); the semiannual visual arts fair that showcased employees’ artwork; the newsletters with their funny interviews and baby pictures; the many Lunch n’ Learns on diverse subjects (meditation, stress management, ballroom dancing, children’s literature, marriage counseling, art therapy, nutrition, how to manage, how to delegate, how to appraise performance, how to lead).
• Being in “the game.” It’s a relief not to be at times, but at other times …? Well, I go to the post office, the library, the writing groups; I volunteer as a middle school mentor. Mostly, I pass incognito. I have no rank; I’m just another middle-aged woman about her business, comforted by the fact that she’s no longer responsible for the health and welfare of an entire company—just an ordinary citizen, whose long commute has been replaced with a handful of steps leading to her own desktop computer. Her work is now with words, with finishing stories started long ago on train trips in and out of the city, and starting new ones featuring realistic or slightly askew or blatantly sci-fi worlds, whatever floats her boat.
Yes, intuition tells me that my resolve (to spend my time writing and finding a part-time gig that allows me to share what I’ve learned from my long career in HR with job seekers and those most in need of career advice) will weaken. I feel the pull already. My novel’s finally finished and on the virtual bookshelves, so …?
Oops! Let’s not forget one last thing that I miss, that I really, really miss: that automatic biweekly bump in my checking account balance—not seeing it there takes some getting used to!
Janet Garber, a SHRM member for 30 years and now retired, lives in Northern Westchester, N.Y., and is working to turn her professional experiences into compelling literature. See www.janetgarber.com.
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