How do you communicate with someone you don’t talk to?
This is some more fun stuff excerpted from my book,Confessions of a Government Man. Underlying the levity, however, was a serious personnel management issue. Have any of you faced a similar situation?
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As a division director I was just far enough from the day- to-day details to limit my hands-on activity to only selected actions. On the other hand I was close enough to be involved in many of my employees’ personal problems, idiosyncrasies and personality quirks.
When GSA’s regional financial operations were consolidated to the midwest many people in the New York office were faced with the dilemma of moving, leaving, or accepting another job within the region. Due to the many regulations designed to protect career people from arbitrary actions, those who chose to remain were guaranteed a position. Specialized functions like our real estate activity were obliged to accept people with no experience whatsoever and retrain them for a new career.
One person our Human Resources Division thought would be an ideal candidate for a realty position was Timothy Joseph Pfister or “TJ” for short. TJ was doing a clerical function which kept him out of any real trouble in the Finance Division. When he came to us, unless he failed, which would take an extreme effort, he would be guaranteed a progression from a training level to a journeyman’s pay grade.
The word on TJ was that he was shell-shocked in Nam and never recovered. Nobody was quite sure if this was true but by the same token nobody wanted to hurt him, so he became a realty trainee, although he himself didn’t really know how he landed in this position. An HR person thought that this would be a good idea and HR would then be able to take credit for another success story, so long as TJ didn’t work in HR.
Two things became immediately evident. One was that TJ spoke to no one. When spoken to he would either nod his head or utter a monosyllabic answer. He quickly acquired the nickname, Silent Man.
The other was that he would never learn even the most rudimentary principles of real estate. It is hard to be a crack negotiator if you don’t talk to people. However he was in the program and HR was very interested in him succeeding for its own self-serving interests.
After six months and two quarterly reviews we came to the conclusion that TJ had to be taken out of the program. HR immediately resisted, citing his right to counseling and our obligation to provide him with a detailed training program and progress reports, the absence of which would negate any attempt at a negative personnel action. This would be like trying to make a diving catch of a ball which already bounced foul. No matter what we did, there was no possibility of ever making TJ a functional realty person.
TJ himself did not resist the action. He did as told. There were no grievances, EEO complaints or lawsuits. The only feedback we had was a call from his mother who wanted to know why TJ couldn’t be successful like his brother who worked for the city’s Department of Sanitation.
We placed TJ in a clerical position, more suited to his lack of any noticeable skills. He performed marginally, assuring a lifetime meal ticket with the government and giving us the personal satisfaction that neither he nor the organization had been hurt.
In the twenty plus years that I worked under the same roof as TJ he said barely a word to me, or anyone else. When one of us would try to elicit a response from him by saying “good morning” he wouldn’t even nod his head. If I would say, “How’s it going, TJ?” he would shake his head negatively and mumble, “No good.” This was the extent of our conversations over the years, with one notable exception.
Inside the head of anyone suffering from a social maladjustment or an emotional problem, there is often a catalyst which springs the brain to life. In TJ’s case, we found out that he was an expert in early television. The manner in which we learned this could have been an embarrassment to the agency.
In 1993 when the office building component of the Foley Square Project was under construction, we were in what we called the art-in-architecture selection process. We conducted a competition to select suitable sculptures for the building. This required input from a panel of experts and in the case of New York City, the concurrence of the Municipal Art Society. The Society was chaired by Kitty Carlisle Hart, the former actress, cabaret singer and TV personality. An octogenarian at the time, Ms. Hart looked remarkably similar to the way she looked as a television game show panelist in the fifties and sixties.
This serious group of art critics was gathered on the corner of Broadway and Duane Street, observing the unfinished area for which an appropriate piece of art was to be selected. The society members were augmented by several GSA people. In addition to myself there was our project architect, our fine arts specialist, a small contingent of Washington hangers-on who always get into the act and a political appointee from the regional administrator’s office to make sure anyone of influence knew that the Clinton administration wanted to cooperate.
The street corner was getting very crowded, to the extent that the hot dog vendor had to move his cart. Everyone was milling about, talking about what artsy types talk about and eyeballing the area in which the selected sculpture would be installed.
Enter TJ “Silent Man” Pfister. From the opposite side of Duane Street I observed TJ walking alone in a crowd heading in our direction. His usual head-down dour appearance suddenly turned to a bright smile as he approached the group. I was getting worried. As he got closer he raised his arm, pointing it directly at the impeccably tailored Ms. Hart. In a loud voice totally uncharacteristic of him, with more words than I heard from him in the prior ten years and with eyeballs bulging, he announced to Broadway, “I remember her. I’ve Got a Secret!”
He had already taken a pen from his sport jacket and was about to pick up some paper from a nearby trash can for an autograph. My response was to immediately step between him and his intended target and gently whisper in his ear, “TJ, first of all, it was To Tell the Truth, not I’ve Got a Secret. Now, get the (bleep) out of here.”
TJ proceeded as directed, but in the twelve ensuing years until my retirement, I never got so much as a grunt out of him.
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