Having lunch with five co-workers from my old company was one of the best things I’ve done recently. Among other things, I heard about the progress of projects that I had worked on was comforting – some of the goals that I had been working toward were realized, and one of the pilot products that I had developed has continued to evolve, still providing a steady stream of revenue for the company. It was comforting to think that my unaccomplished goals were eventually deemed important enough to achieve by others, and that what I had worked on was important enough that people were still working on it, three years later.
There was a sad piece of news – one of my co-workers from the quality assurance (QA) team had been laid-off for poor performance. As I recall, it had taken me awhile to get used to working with him. He would become very nervous in front of customers, and wasn’t very good at managing failure analysis. But, after I got used to things, things were fine. I learned to play a greater role in managing failure analysis – he wasn’t good at deciding what to do, but he was good at doing. And each thing we worked on, I tried to make him think a little bit more. I believe that I left him a more capable person than when we started working together.
I would take his data, make a bright, shiny presentation, and take it to the customer, since he wasn’t good at presenting data, nor at talking in front of the customer. As a field engineer, I had to review presentations and visit the customer anyway, so it was only slightly more work for me to cover for his weaknesses. Things worked well, and since we sat right next to each other at the office, we would joke around with each other during the work day, about girls, about movies – different things to break up the routine. The QA lab was separated from the rest of the office by a wall of glass, and it reminded me of a penguin exhibit at a zoo where visitors could look through the glass and see penguins going about their daily routine, so I made a sign that said “please don’t feed the animals” and stuck it to the glass – kind of a mean thing to do, but it was funny.
When I think of my successor, I realize that he probably wasn’t able to cover for the weaknesses of the QA engineer. So, as an indirect result of my having left the company, my QA co-worker lost his job.
These HR ranking systems where they try to rank your performance in relation to your peers can be silly and undignified. I can disdain them without it being sour grapes because I have done well with them. (Sour grapes is when someone disdains grapes that are out of reach by saying “they’re sour anyway.”) Truly, people work and progress as a team. The emphasis should be on how we can best work together, rather than who is most able. Ranking systems can give people tunnel vision, as they work on things only in their job description. And yet, there must be a meritocracy, there must be a way to allow people to progress and grow, and to encourage them to do so. I don’t have the answer, but when I think of working with my former co-worker in QA, I feel that an injustice has been done. If there was a failure in work of the team, it was due as much to the inability of my successor to take on incrementally more responsibility as it was the QA engineer’s lack of finesse, but HR looks only at the job description, and uncompensated weaknesses can eclipse ability.
Strange, how persistent my partiality to work identities can be, nearly three years after I have left my previous company. A younger me would have thought it odd to give this much thought to company business outside of office hours, but the current me thinks that, as much time as I have sweated and communed with people at work, I’d be inhuman not to care.