Saturday, January 23, 2016

Crooked as a Dog's Hind Leg

On or very near this date thirty-five years ago, the man pictured above was promoted to be the manager of a store in a major retail chain where I worked.  I was working as a security manager while taking doctoral seminars at seminary.  It was apparent from the beginning that the new manager relished having power over the lives of his employees.   When he was introduced to store employees, his first words were, “I’m the boss now, you’ll do things my way or you can get the hell out!”  Then he exclaimed that the store was filthy saying, “I guess you’ve all been here so long that you don’t see dirt.”  You could tell right away that public tongue lashings were his preferred management style and worse, he was a studied practitioner of the “drip, drip, drip” method of employee abuse.    

After my first private conversation with him I knew that my days on this job were numbered.  One of my responsibilities was to maintain records of who had keys and alarm codes for the store.  I also monitored who disabled the alarm whenever the store was closed.  My new boss informed me that he wanted keys to the building and the alarm code.  That seemed odd to me.  The previous manager had neither keys nor alarm codes.  There were at least six merchandise managers who rotated opening the store at 6:00 AM and closing the store at 10:00 PM or later.  The store manager kept office hours.  So, I asked him why he needed keys and alarm codes.  He informed me that he could not get all his work done without working on Sundays (this was during the era when “blue laws” kept most retail stores closed on Sundays).  That too sounded odd to me, so I decided that he must be testing me.  I said, “It is my responsibility to protect your integrity and mine.  If you are in and out of the store on Sundays, then there will be times when I will be watching you as you come and go.”  My new boss was rarely at a loss for words, but for a moment he was speechless and his face turned red.  Then he bellowed, “I’m not paying you to watch me.”

As soon as this conversation ended I was on the phone with the Regional Security Manager hoping to find an opening for a position at a different store in the district.  He advised me to “lay low, play dumb” and keep an eye on my new boss saying, “Company auditors have been trying to catch him for years, but have never been able to find anything.”  I decided that I would keep my eyes open until the end of that semester at seminary and then look for another job.

The next day one of the highest level managers advised me that he heard my new boss on the phone asking the District Manager why he needed a security manager.  At the end of the conversation he heard him tell the District Manager that he would have to use the “drip, drip, drip” method on me.  That meant that, on a daily basis, he would make working for him so miserable that I would quit.  Normally, he made life most miserable for me once a week at the management meeting.  There I discovered that, in addition to my ordinary duties, I was assigned to correct every problem that arose.  Every day, when new merchandise arrived on the receiving dock, it was my job to see that it got out to the floor.  Periodically, when Company shoppers left, it was my job to see that the hundreds of items they bought were cleared through accounting and returned to the floor.  The list went on and on.  On more than one occasion I nearly told him to take his job and shove it, but by that time other people were counting on me to make a case against him.

Within two weeks of his arrival, I began sending Regional Security written reports of my observations of the new manager’s behavior.  It was immediately apparent that every department head was under intense pressure and that pressure quickly transferred down the chain of command.   Mature, long- tenured, high performing female managers and employees were abruptly resigning.  Their replacements were attractive young women fresh out of the manager trainee program.   Low quality jewelry, not approved for sale in Company stores, was coming in the back door and the vendor – once she could extricate herself from his bear hug – was placing the merchandise on display herself.  He promised a single mother who had done some modeling that he would help her land some assignments with the Company’s advertising department.  She agreed to pose for a private photo shoot with him, but was so embarrassed about the kind of photos he took that she never returned to work.

All of that information was of interest to Regional Security but nothing prompted them to action until I informed them of some pictures that I took.  Pictures I took of the store manager entering and leaving the store while it was closed on a Sunday afternoon.

Less than a week before I took those pictures I learned that the new manager had appointed me to be responsible for maintaining security on the firearms that were on sale in the sporting goods department.  The firearms were kept in a high security storage area with the key under the control of the sporting goods manager.  Previously, my duty was only to double check the monthly inventory of the storage area.  Now a shotgun was missing and, after the fact, I was being held responsible.  With federal reporting requirements necessary, somebody’s head was going to roll.  He thought he had the excuse he needed to get rid of me.   So did I.  Fortunately, after searching through weeks of cash register tapes, the missing firearm was found misplaced in an unsecured area in the lay-away department.

That incident convinced me that I was not going to last until the end of the semester.   I encouraged my wife to accept a job that she had been offered, hoping that it would pay the bills until I could find another job.  A couple days later, late on a Friday afternoon, she called me at work to inform me that the physical she took for her job revealed that she was pregnant with our second child.  Before I was off the phone, one of the managers was in my office to tell me that he heard the store manager tell another manager that he was going to lay me off the following Monday and eliminate my position.   That meant that I only had one more chance to see what he was up to on Sundays when he was alone in the store while it was closed.

I monitored alarm logs daily throughout the new manager’s tenure.  I knew that he usually spent a couple hours in the store while it was closed on Sunday afternoons.  I took pictures of his coming and going with my 35MM camera and a telephoto lens on one Sunday only.  There was nothing to hide behind but a chain link fence at the end of a long parking lot.  Fortunately, he did not see me as he entered the store.  His hands were clean and his pockets empty when he went in.  Neither were empty when he left. 

As he was leaving and locking the door, he turned his head and looked across the parking lot between us.  His knees buckled when he saw me taking pictures of him.  Once he was in his car, he drove up to the chain link fence I was behind and honked at me before driving away.

The next morning, before the store opened, the manager had an underling ring up a sale for him for candy he took the previous day.  He had also contacted the District Manger to inform him that I had pictures of him at the store when it was closed.   The District Manager then contacted the Regional Security Manager to inquire about my investigation.  By noon that day, I had my pictures developed and both the District Manager and the Regional Security Manager, along with a team of company auditors, were at the store.

Store records listed as in stock three briefcases like the one he carried out of the store.  None had been sold, but none could be found in the store.  The manager did not admit to stealing any briefcases.  He did admit to the Regional Security Manager that he had not paid for several different items that were in the briefcase as he carried it out.

The most incriminating evidence was uncovered by company auditors.  When they interviewed the head of the store’s accounting department, she told them that on the day the new manager arrived he told her, “I’m crooked.  I’m crooked as a dog’s hind leg, but the auditors will never catch me.”  Then, under threat of losing her job, he told her how he wanted her to cook the books – a scheme that chose a different vendor each week and defrauded them of two thousand dollars.

By the end of the day, the new store manager was looking for employment and I was getting an unexpected merit increase.

I have spent thirty-five years reflecting on the different ways that people I knew responded to this incident.  Up and down the chain of command there were scapegoats, victims, bystanders, and perpetrators.   I got a very thorough education in the techniques of employee abuse.  I learned how powerless workers are in the hands of autocratic bosses.  I also observed how lightly those in authority viewed the boss’s handling of people in comparison to their concern for how he handled property.

One Baptist deacon’s response made a particular impression on me.  I was shocked to see a man of seeming integrity so eager to become a willing accomplice to the abuse of employees trying to preserve their dignity under very trying circumstances.  He helped prepare me to see through the pious personas of bullying preachers in both the Southern Baptist Convention and in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Since that time, I have no use at all for those who practice and/or condone “drip, drip, drip” methods of employee abuse.