This essay is the third finalist featured in The Daily Muse’s essay contest, “Surviving a Workplace Disaster.” Stay tuned for more finalists this week, then vote for your favorite, starting Sunday!
I was 23 and working an entry-level customer service job at a paper company. Since I spoke Spanish and had majored in International Business, I handled all of the international accounts, including our sister company out of The Netherlands.
The voicemail was from Tom, the head of our plant and two others nearby. He was on the fast track to the corporate offices, and his voice on the message was casual.
“Hi Anne, this is Tom. I was just checking in to see how things are going for the visit from The Netherlands people in a few weeks. Let me know if you need anything.”
That was odd. Perhaps a month earlier, Tom had strolled through my department and told me about the visit. He said that he’d give me more details as the date got closer. I surely did not remember him asking me to coordinate the entire visit.
At that point, I thought this was just a small misunderstanding, so I called him up to explain.
As the silence on the other end of the line grew, I started to go numb. “No, Anne. That’s. Not. How. It. Went.” I could hear Tom’s words burning through the line.
This was a guy who was likely going to be on the executive team of one of the world’s largest paper companies within a few years. And he was yelling. At me. I stayed calm and decided to keep my tone friendly, even though I was shaking with fear on the inside.
I again replayed our conversation from a month ago, then I added that I would be happy to help out in any way I could. “Forget it, I’ll take care of it,” Tom seethed. Then he slammed the phone down in my ear. I sat in shock.
Before I could even run to the bathroom to cry, I saw a red-faced Tom come storming down the hall. He grabbed my boss and went into a conference room. A few minutes later he reemerged, still fuming.
Thank God for my boss. He knew I was a responsible and conscientious employee. He told me that Tom had a million things going on and that he most likely asked someone else to set up the visit. In other words, my boss totally stood up for me. He told me that together we would put something together for the visit and that I should use this opportunity to show Tom how good I could be.
The rest of the afternoon I fluctuated between crying jags in the bathroom and long sessions of self-doubt. I must have replayed that horrible phone conversation in my mind about a thousand times. At one point I may have even convinced myself that I really had been asked to set up the site visit.
Later that day, right before quitting time, I got a call from Tom. His voice was full of embarrassment as he told me that he had asked the general manager to coordinate the meeting, not me. And that she had forgotten about it.
A few weeks later that general manager told me that she heard about the “mix up,” and then she had a good chuckle about it, as if to say, “Well, that was a crazy shenanigan, now wasn’t it?”
Actually, no, it wasn’t. I wasn’t having a good laugh back at the Mystery Machine with Scooby Doo and the gang.
Eventually, Tom called me into his office and asked what would make my job easier. I could tell he wanted to make things up to me. I walked out of there with approval for some new fax software for my computer.
It’s funny how workplace horror stories can teach you the most valuable lessons. There will always be plenty of hotheaded jackasses out there, but you will be the better person if you remain calm and stand by your beliefs. Let them look like the irrational ones. Secondly, we sometimes need to suck it up and apologize, no matter how embarrassing it is (or how senior we are).
Lastly, I will never forget my supervisor for sticking up for me. Now that I am a manager myself, I will always have my direct reports’ backs. Office disasters really remain with people, even years later. Your portrayal in the story will largely depend on how well you did—or didn’t—handle yourself.