Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Geeks Shouldn't Work in Social Services

Geeks Shouldn’t Work in Social Services

(Based on a real incident)

A guy in a short-sleeved collared shirt is typing in his small office on the computer. A lady with a clipboard approaches his door and knocks lightly.

“Hi Jerry, how’s it going?” she asks.

“Good, Carol, good. Good with you?”

“Oh yes.  I was hoping to schedule some time with you for a brief conversation.”

“Ok… I have time now if you like.”

Well, there’s no rush, and I want you to pick a time when you are comfortable, because there’s no rush, and we could meet here, or in my office, or the meeting room….”

“Um.. how about now? Now works for me… or did you want me to prepare something?”

“Oh no, nothing at all. Just thought we should have a conversation…. Give a little ‘feedback’ for you….”

So… I’m in trouble?”

Oh no, of course not, no trouble at all… but you are allowed to have a union representative with you if you want….”

Why would I want one?”

“Some people want to have one present when dealing with their supervisor.”

But I’m not in trouble?”


“So I don’t need one.”

“Yes… but you are fully entitled to have one. We could schedule for next week and we could arrange a union steward to be present…”

Ok…  well…. If I don’t need one, I’d rather just meet now and not worry all weekend about it…”

“Oh that’s fine.  So you’re consenting to meet now?”

Well, yes, we can meet now…”

“So you’re consenting?”

Um… I guess we might as well…”

“Because you always have the right to refuse to meet, and have a union representative present, and we don’t have to meet right away, because there is no rush..”

Um… look, why don’t we just talk and I can see what we’re supposed to talk about.

“Ok… so you’re…”

Yes, I’m consenting to talk to you…. as we already have been doing.”

“Ok Jerry, so… I wanted to give you some feedback on your email.”

“Oh, the budget costs per client estimate –yeah, those are very rough costs but you wanted a ball-park figure…”

“Oh, no, that’s fine.  Really fine.  I’m so glad we have you to crunch all those numbers… it’s about the other one.”

Ummm… the ‘yes, let’s have cake for Janet on Friday at 2pm’ email?  I’m really ok with cake at another time…”

“No, the other one... the coffee one.”

What coffee one?” Oh!  I didn’t respond to Byron because I don’t want him to get me a coffee when he goes at noon. I just drink the coffee here.”

“Oh yes, and we appreciate the fact that you do.  It’s about the email you sent out last week about the coffee in the staff room.”

“Um… let me just scroll down here….. uh… ‘hey everyone, we are running low on coffee in the staff room.  If you haven’t brought in a can of coffee this month, please do so.’ Is… is that the one?”

Yes, that’s the one.”

Um… was I mistaken and we have a whole bunch of coffee somewhere we’re supposed to use first?”

Oh no, we’re actually really running low… but you sent that email to ‘All Staff’.”

“Uh, yes, yes I sent it to all staff… because I noticed we were on our last can and I already brought a can in this month and we should have a bunch more ….but we don’t.”

So you thought you’d remind everyone to bring in a can of coffee if they wanted to keep having coffee?”

“Uh, yes, yes that was the general plan…. And I saw a few more cans there the next day so… mission accomplished?”

“Well, some people were wondering about the tone.”

The… ‘tone’?”

“Yes, the tone of the email.”

“Um.. I’m unsure of how ‘hey we need to have coffee’ has any… ‘tone’ in it.”

“Well, some people were thinking… because it went to ‘All Staff’ that it was targeted at them.”

How is an ‘All Staff’ email targeted?”

“Well, some people are thinking that you were, in a way, accusing them of not fulfilling their Coffee Club duties.”

“I… would have thought that an ‘All Staff’ email was the opposite of targeting people… because I don’t know who didn’t bring in their monthly can of coffee and who did….”

“Yes… but do you see how someone who had brought their can in, or someone who had planned to bring one the next day, might see that as a passive aggressive slight at them?”

“Uh… no… not really…. Is it passive aggressive to remind people of something when you notice it.. just as a FYI?”

“Well, people here are really dedicated to helping people, providing services for the safety, health, and welfare of our clientale… and they might be busy with other things… and they fully intended to bring in a can of coffee for the Coffee Club… and might not like to have it insinuated that they are failing in their duties.”

Um… it’s a Coffee Club…. Not much of a ‘club’ really… I mean, everyone brings in a can of coffee per month and then we always have coffee for the coffee maker in the staff room… pretty basic… there really isn’t any by-laws or governing structure to it….”

“Well, now let’s not be hostile about it…”

Um… I’m not ‘hostile’ about it… quite the opposite.  It’s such a minor thing in the grand scheme of the universe that it barely warrants a discussion… but maybe an FYI ‘hey guys, we’re going to run out of coffee in a few days, how about bringing in a can before that happens’ would be a simple solution to the problem…. Which seemed to work….”

“Well, hmmm, now, I see your point… and you are of a very logical and rational mindset.”

I’m a geek.  Card-carrying, number-crunching nerd.  I…  “name it and claim it”… I learned that phrase from you, Carol.”

“Yes, you are my go-to for problem-solving… and I can understand you WAY better than Larry in I.T.”

Well, he’s much more sociable these days since he found a girlfriend.”



“Partner.  It’s encouraged to use the word ‘partner’ when talking about significant others.  It was in that memo from the Ethics Committee.”

Yes, I read that… except that Larry seems to refer to her as his ‘girlfriend’… seems to like to say it whenever he can… and since she’s only been around two months and they haven’t been living together…”

“We’re not supposed to inquire about someone’s partnership or living situation…”

Well, when he says – over coffee – “saw that movie last weekend with my girlfriend at the theatre by her house”… it implies that she lives in a separate domicile than him… and it apparently has a movie theatre nearby…”

“Well… maybe I’ll have to talk to Larry about his choice of words… we don’t want to use oppressive language…”

So we’re going to ban Larry from talking about his girlfriend?”

“No… but maybe he doesn’t realize it could be a micro-aggression against people in non-cis-gender relationships….”

Um… no… I think him and Patel are really good.  They hang out sometimes…. Patel and her partner are going to Larry’s niece’s social this weekend.”

“But Patel might be hurt by Larry saying ‘girlfriend’ all the time.”

Actually, today she said “Hey Larry, how’s the girlfriend” … while she was getting coffee… Larry says ‘girlfriend’, Patel says ‘partner’… everyone uses their preferred term and pronouns and don’t seem to have big issues with it.”

“Well… management just wants everyone to feel free to do their work in an open and non-oppressive environment…”

“… and they’ll accomplish that by telling people what words they can’t use?”

“No, we all want to live in a bully-free world…”

“Yes… because bullies tend to be the reason the ice-caps are melting… but forcing employees who use each other’s preferred terms… after everyone is already doing the respect thing seems redundant….”

“Oh, no one is talking about forcing”

Well… let’s break this down, what if someone doesn’t use the correct terms?”

“According to procedure, they’ll have a meeting, and are allowed to have a union representative present, and they’ll be informed of the breach, and asked on how they will correct this.”

And if they don’t…”

“Well, why would they not want to be…”

“Let’s just say that Larry… or someone else… walks around saying ‘my girlfriend this, my girlfriend that’, what would happen?”

“Well, repeated violations would mean a letter in their personnel file… and if enough letters occur – “

They can be fired.”


So… dress it up as we like, but depriving someone of their livelihood seems like a negative sanction or ‘force’ to me… so really, management would be ‘forcing’ someone to comply with them… in order to not have bullying in the workplace… which would be the definition of irony.”

“I don’t think it would come to that… but we needn’t focus on that issue… we have to talk about the email.”

Yes, my inappropriate coffee email.”

“Well, it’s not ‘inappropriate’ per se, but perhaps it wasn’t the right tack to take with that issue.”

“Um, ‘hey guys, let’s bring coffee in before it runs out’ is the wrong tack?  Could you tell me what the right tack would have been.”

“Well, according to procedure, when there is a concern about a co-worker’s engagement in the workplace, the preferred etiquette is to go to them directly and ask them about the issue.”

Uh.. it’s not really an issue.  We needed coffee, people brought it in  - done.”

“Well, the email went to some people who already had their coffee can brought in so it would be seen as redundant and a waste of their time…”

So... they would delete the email, thinking ‘good thing I brought mine already’ and continue with their day.  We would sure hate to waste time on an insignificant issue….”

“But it might seem like nagging to those who intended to bring in coffee without a reminder.”

And they would see themselves as ‘whew, good thing I’m bringing in coffee tomorrow, apparently, I’m a superhero for saving the office from a World Without Coffee.’”

“But… Jerry, we need to stay on topic… the proper way is to go around to each employee…. In the coffee club…. And ask them if they have brought in their coffee allotment for the month.”

So…. Pretty much everyone besides Byron, who likes to bring in his own, and you – you like tea… I have to go around to 30 or so other people and knock on their doors and say ‘hey, how’s it going? Have you brought in your coffee for this month?’… because that would be more efficient?”

“Well, you have to understand how people are… they aren’t like computers or numbers…”

um… I know how people are.. in fact, I seem to know when they use the word ‘partner’ and they use the word ‘girlfriend’ and I seem to know when they drink coffee or tea…”

“… and that’s all good, but perhaps it’s good to remember to give a personal touch when making demands of people..”

“Demands? How is ‘we are running out of coffee’ a demand?”

“Well, it’s the tone.”

How is there tone in an email unless it is in capitals?”

“Well, tone can be very subtle… and it can be worth the time to think about emails before they are sent…”

So.. . let me get this straight… we are in charge of a whole social program, helping people, making major policy decisions that affect people’s lives… and when I notice we are down to the last can of coffee in the lunch room, I should go ‘hmmm, we need more coffee, let me make a mental list of everyone who I saw drinking coffee this month… now minus the people I saw bring in a coffee can… now make a mental note to talk with the remainder about how I happen to notice the lack of coffee in the lunch room and perhaps, have they noticed the lack of coffee and hmmm, perhaps is there something they could do about that…. And do that 30 times…. And that would be efficient?”

“Yes, that would be the preferred way.”

“I… I actually would rather have needles in my eyes. I would rather… well, all kinds of things rather than go around to everyone and bother them about such a petty thing, in person, which at thirty times even 3 minutes a person would be an hour and a half of wasted time… while the email took 5 seconds.”

“Yes… but it would have less impact on the staff.”

So… the government, who gives us our mandate, would rather that I spend 90 minutes, gently and respectfully reminding everyone to bring in coffee… that’s four and a half days over a year of wasted time when you  factor in the other person’s time as well, never mind counting this conversation…”

“Yes, but perhaps that shouldn’t be one of your duties at all.”

“I don’t think it was a ‘duty’ to communicate ‘hey we need coffee’ in the most efficient, technologically relevant way possible, consuming 5 seconds of work time and not even a farthing of electricity or computing power..”

“Well, maybe in the future, you might… uh… refrain from taking on that duty at all…”

So, if I notice we are low on coffee, I should say nothing.”

“Perhaps you inform me, and I could take charge of asking everyone about it.”

Umm… yes, yes I’ll go with that… in fact, perhaps you’d want to check on the coffee situation on a regular basis.”

“Well, I’m not really part of the Coffee Club….”

“-because you drink tea.”

“But I could start looking at drawing up a procedural form for it…”

How about – on the 15th or 20th of every month, at 10am, you set a reminder to check on the coffee situation and then start the interview process of all the staff. Here…” he said, types on the computer quickly, “I set up a reminder for you and sent it to your account.  It will pop up every month now.”

“Aw, thanks Jerry. You always are so good at these things. I’ll go check that in my office now.” Carol starts walking away. “Great, that’s one other duty I have to find time for….” she sighed as she walked off.