Friday, February 24, 2012

the path (v)

Warning: There is profanity in this post. In all the years that I've written this blog (almost 6, CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?), I've never intentionally used profanity. But in this context, it has been deemed necessary to accurately portray the memory that I'm about to share. Delicate eyes - look away.


Before I'd even graduated from college, I had a job. Actually, several. There were two brief stints as a waitress, a teaching assignment, and an internship with the State. From the time I was 16, I also worked for various environmental consulting firms, in differing capacities.

When I was in graduate school, I worked part-time for a consulting firm in San Diego. They brought me on to help write reports and do entry-level field work. Which means, I'd go out in to the field (generally an old gas station) and do grunt work like collect groundwater samples from wells that were impacted with contamination from leaking underground storage tanks.

After I'd graduated with my Masters, they brought me on full-time. Although the job wasn't the most glamorous, the experience that I gained was some of the best experience of my entire career. I learned just about everything there was to learn about the technical side of the business, which would benefit me in later years when I'd be responsible for managing multi-million dollar projects and interfacing with regulatory agencies. In my opinion, you can't fully comprehend a report if you don't know, firsthand, how the data is collected and what it means.

One day, I had to collect samples from wells that were located along a busy intersection. My job was to set up the traffic control which was required to divert the cars away from the wells. I then had to get down on my hands and knees and remove the well lids, which are small manhole covers, that protect the well casing (piping) that extends far below grade (in this particular case, 30 feet or more.) For each of the wells, I had to hand bail approximately 20 gallons of water, before collecting a sample of groundwater. The 'purge' water from each well was placed in a 55-gallon drum, that once full, I'd have to roll on to a drum dolly and walk across the busy intersection and back on to the gas station property for temporary storage.

It seldom rained it San Diego, but when it would rain, it would often pour. On this particular day, it was pouring. I was wearing my hard hat and steel toed boots and had on a bright orange traffic vest. I was grubby and nasty and trying not to breathe the hydrocarbon fumes. Cars were driving past and hitting potholes filled with water which would splash all over me, as I'd be crouched down next to the well, trying to measure the depth to water. At one point, I overheard two women who were walking past. One of them shook her head when she saw me and said, "See, that's why it's so important to go to college and get your education..."

Oh yeah, LADY?!


Once my drum was full of purge water, I had to move it back across the street to the gas station for storage. I rolled it on to the drum dolly and then tilted the dolly back to begin pushing it across the street, once there was a break in traffic. Mid-way across the busy roadway, one of the wheels got stuck in a pothole. I tried, desperately, to budge it, but it wouldn't move and when the entire drum started to tip over, just as a swarm of cars was coming towards me, a good samaritan jumped out of his car and ran over to help. He abandoned his vehicle in the intersection as he uprighted the drum and then rolled it to the side of the road.

I think he might have asked me, "Why are YOU out here doing THIS work?!"

It was hardcore, dirty, physical labor and I was a dainty young woman. In that moment, I'd felt like I'd learned what I needed to learn. So I finished my task and went back to the office and immediately began looking for a new job.

It didn't take long before I found one.

My interview lasted a solid eight hours. They wanted to know what I had studied in school, what experience I'd had in the field and what my career aspirations were. What are my strengths, what are my weaknesses? They took me out to lunch and at the end of the long interview, I sat down with the Operations Manager and he offered me a job on the spot. At the time, I was making $32,000 a year. The position they offered me was for $40K. My stunned silence made him think that I wasn't sure about the offer; when in reality, I was thinking about how Charlie and I would be RICH.

"I'll tell you what," the Operations Manager said. "You think about it. We'll send an offer letter to you in the mail and give you some time to decide." I thanked him for taking a day out of his busy schedule, shook hands - and left. After rounding the corner and disappearing from view, I skipped all the way to my car and pumped my hands in the air.

That night, I called my unofficial mentor, a woman who had been in the industry for years and was a close friend of our family. I told her about my interview and my outstanding offer and wow wow wow! She asked me the name of the company and when I told her, she let out a sigh.

It wasn't the sound I wanted to hear.

She informed me that this particular company was under investigation by the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. Apparently, they had submitted data that did not appear consistent with prior site data; so the State decided to go out and remotely film them. W hat they discovered is that in an effort to save time, personnel were collecting ALL of their groundwater samples - on a site with 20 wells - from one well. So all the laboratory data came back exactly the same, instead of accurately reflecting the variability in contamination levels across the site.

It was a clear cut case of sample fraud and they were in big trouble.


The next day, I called the Operations Manager and told him that before I accepted the offer that I'd had yet to receive in the mail, I'd heard a rumor that I'd like for him to confirm or deny. He was surprised, shocked even, that I knew the details of this investigation. But, I could tell he was also impressed that I clearly HAD MY SOURCES. Which I did, because I'd been working in this industry, in some capacity since I was 16 years old. My sister was an environmental laboratory director and I'd met scores and scores of people through her.

Ultimately, he confirmed that yes, the rumor was true, but then he carefully outlined what the company had done to mitigate the issue. Namely, fire all of the personnel that were involved and implemented a rigorous oversight program. My concerns were placated.

Four days later, my offer arrived in the mail. I ripped open the FedEx envelope and eagerly pulled out the letter. As I read it to Charlie, I had to stop and rub my eyes because the offer was now for $44,000, a whopping 10% more than had been discussed during the interview.

Charlie and I discussed if it was an error, but since it was signed by the President of the company and the Chief Financial Officer (on behalf of the Operations Manager), my initial thought was that it must be accurate. But I had a little nagging feeling that maybe I should call just to confirm.

Instead, I called my friends.

And everyone that I spoke to discouraged me from calling the company. Every single person, including some of my most admired colleagues, agreed that they had "made the pie a little sweeter" because they clearly wanted for me to come work for them, and I might be a little tainted since I knew about their snafu with the Regional Board and District Attorney's office.

That was enough for me.

So I accepted the offer and began a job that would truly shape the rest of my career.

Almost immediately, and partly because the prior Project Manager had flunked a drug and alcohol test and was shipped off to a rehab facility, I was tasked with managing the largest client in their office. The largest client, who it turned out was extremely frustrated with the level of technical competency and customer service that they'd been receiving and had pulled almost 50% of their work away and was threatening to pull the remaining 50% if they didn't see things immediately turn around.

It became my job to make things right. And I did. In less than four months time, I was beginning to pick up new projects and the company had to hire an additional four people just to keep up with the work that was suddenly flooding in.

I started in February. By September, things were humming along and I had established an excellent rapport with my client. One day, I was informed that it was time for my "introductory" review. The day of the "introductory" review just so happened to coincide with a pay-day and that morning, the Operations Manager popped his head in to the conference room where I was working and said, "Do me a favor and don't check your bank account until AFTER we talk…."




When you think about it, what a silly thing for him to say. I mean, if I tell you NOT to look at the ceiling because there is something there that might interest you, whaddya think will be the first thing you do? So the first thing I obviously did, was to call Charlie (who had all of our bank account information) and ask him to please go check our balance ASAP.

A few minutes later, he called me back to say that it was lower than he had expected. Considerably lower. As in, "Jen, our financial aid and mortgage payments might not go through…."

I'd no sooner heard that news and it was time for my review.

Walking in to the Operations Manager's office, I pretended like I was oblivious to the information I'd just received. I sat down in the chair, directly across from his desk, and next to my immediate supervisor. The Operations Manager started off the conversation by saying, "We just want to thank you for your OUTSTANDING contributions since you've been here. You bring so much joy to this office, yada yada yada, and you've done a fantastic job, yada yada yada, we're so glad to have you, yada yada yada, so …. we'd like to offer you a raise!!!"

He paused for a moment and shot my supervisor a glance before continuing. "Now, it's come to our attention that there was a paperwork glitch when you were first hired. It seems that when we sent you the offer, it was for 10% higher than what we'd discussed during your interview and so we've made an adjustment to your salary, retroactive to your first day of work. Your new salary is for $41,500/year." Then he gave me a creepy smile and paused, like he expected me to thank him.

Before I go on, I should probably add that the Operations Manager (my boss' boss), was no less than 6'4" and 250 pounds. He was a big, strong, domineering man. So when he tapped his pen on his desk and looked at my supervisor with raised eyebrows, my supervisor piped up, "OK! I think that about does it. Thanks so much for your efforts and for taking the time to talk. Keep up the good work!" then he put his hands on the arms of his chair, poised and ready to stand up.

I sat still for a moment and softly chuckled. "Actually," I said. "That doesn't quite do it…"

The Operations Manager leaned forward, his creepy smile slowly giving way to a concerned expression and asked, "What do you mean? Is there something ELSE to talk about?"

"Well ….." I replied. "We can talk about my offer letter that was for $44,000 that was signed by the President and Chief Financial Officer of the company." My voice started to raise as I said, "Or, we can talk about the date on the offer letter which is the date AFTER I called to inquire on the validity of rumors I'd heard that this firm had been tampering with groundwater samples and was under investigation by the State..."

He interrupted me and said, "OK THEN. Perhaps you'd care to explain why you never called to ask if there was an error in the offer letter? Or, make some attempt to find out why it was 10% higher than we'd offered you during the interview?"

I nodded and said, "You know, that thought did cross my mind! But ultimately, I decided that you were sweetening the deal after I'd called you and expressed concern coming to work for this company because of what appeared to be ETHICAL FLAWS." I hesitated for a moment before continuing, "Considering the letter was signed by the PRESIDENT and CFO, I deemed it to be an accurate representation of this company's intent. And now, GOSH, it appears you might be pulling a bait and switch because quite honestly, I find it hard to believe that no one knew that a mistake had been made until now…"

The Operations Manager huffed, like a great big grizzly bear and then he growled, "Oh so, that's what you think? HUH? Well know this little lady, I don't FUCK AROUND about money." Then he slammed his clenched fists on his desk and glared at me.

Oh, people.

I'm really not sure what he was thinking would happen with that tactic. Perhaps he confused me with someone that would be easily intimidated by big strong men with fiery tempers. While his shock and awe might have worked for some, for me, his words were the equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire. A red, hot, raging fire.

I'll guarantee he never thought that the pretty, perpetually happy 26-year old with long blond hair would lean across his desk and say, "SPLENDID!! Because I don't FUCK AROUND about money, either. I'll tell you what, Bud. You're in BREACH OF CONTRACT and if a SINGLE payment - mortgage, cars, financial aid or the little $12.00 per month cable bill does not go through because you have unlawfully withheld my wages, I will get the labor board on your ass so fast YOUR HEAD WILL SPIN."

Then I smiled brightly and said, "OK. I think that about does it!" as I stood up, flung my waist-length hair over my shoulder and walked out of the office, out of the building, across the parking lot and climbed in to my car for my drive home. That incident happened on a Tuesday at noon. I didn't go back to work that day.

Nor did I go to work on Wednesday.

Nor Thursday.

Nor Friday.

I called in, each day and said, "I'm sick today. I'm so sorry, but I won't be in."

To be perfectly honest, I didn't know what I was going to do. I felt so wretchedly sick about the whole thing, especially about returning to that place and seeing that horrible bully. But we did have a mortgage to pay. And we really needed two incomes. So I just gave myself an extended mental holiday as I debated my options. I could return to my former employer and get back in to the field. Or, I could continue to look around. Either way, it wouldn't be an easy solution.

On Friday night, the Operations Manager called my house. Charlie, who was alarmed that I'd just left without any concern for whether or not they'd fire me, answered the phone. He made some small talk and said, "Yes, as a matter of fact, she's right here…" Then he handed me the phone and whispered, "Oh, please BE NICE!"

Very cooly I said hello. The Operations Manager was calling to check on me (was I feeling any better?), but also, to let me know that he'd spoken to the President of the Company and it was insisted that they immediately restore my salary to the amount that had been presented in the offer letter. Moreover, they'd be immediately crediting my bank account for the unauthorized deductions in my paycheck. He apologized for his behavior and closed the conversation by saying, "I really hope to see you on Monday..."

But his comment came off more as a question than as a command.

On Monday, I returned to work and continued on like nothing had ever happened.

On Tuesday, I received a call from my client. He was calling to inform me that he was so impressed with the overall quality of work, he'd made the decision to transfer his entire portfolio of projects within that region, to me. Not only would I be receiving the 50% of cases that the firm had previously lost, I'd be receiving an additional 30 projects. In essence, I'd been successful in increasing the revenue to that office from just under $300,000 per year to well over $1,000,000.

On Wednesday, I was contacted by the firm that would be losing all of their work and was offered a position for almost twice what I was making. But I turned it down and went with another firm that recruited me to open an office for them in San Diego. They were hopeful that I'd bring the midas touch and land a coveted contract with my well-established client. Less than 10-months later, I did. But I no sooner secured a 5-year contract, I was contacted by my client and asked if I would come work directly for them.

And that is how less than two-years after the Operations Manager slammed his clenched fists on his desk, I found myself sitting across from him, once again. But this time, I was his top client, thanks to the work that I had landed when I was working in his office. He was pitching a proposal and trying to convince me why it was necessary that his budget was so high.

For a while, I patiently listened to the babble, but when I'd had enough, I started to point out all of the "fluff" that he'd built in to the numbers. He continued to try and convince me, so I raised my hand and quietly cut him off. "Remember who you're talking to…" I said.

With a slight smile, I added, "You should know by now that I'm someone who doesn't like to fuck around about money."