Every manager eventually understands they will have to “manage” the activities of a wide variety of personalities in a diverse set of situations.
Truth be told, many of these executives (myself included) secretly loathe this concept. After all, it’s much easier if our subordinates simply have the courtesy to think like we do, right?
My cross to bear has been the management of various “creative” personalities. From artists to writers—from models to photographers—my career has found me continually encircled by a group of extraordinary talents who wear their emotionally-charged hearts on their business-casual sleeves. And, in the process, sometimes simply wear me out in the process.
Though a similar situation may exist for one who manages the IT Department, I seriously doubt a programmer has ever been reduced to tears by constructive criticism over the choice of a color palette or the ineffective use of passive voice in written correspondence.
I am essentially trained to “direct:” the art for a print ad, a copywriter’s development of text, a photo shoot, a viral video for the web, and yes, actors and actresses on stage.
In my case, there’s one management story that stands above the rest—the pièce de résistance of all employee faux pas—henceforth to be known as The Legend of Flea Girl.
To completely understand the magnitude of Flea Girl’s mistakes, one has to first visualize a 2000 Dinner Theatre production of American’s favorite 50s musical, Grease.
If the mere combination of grease and dinner theatre isn’t ironic enough, then simply add in a talented, diminutive actress (in the role of Pink Lady Marty) on a collision course with “Greased Lightning” itself. Not only was this particular actress cast to appear onstage in my production, she also volunteered to serve as assistant choreographer.
Consistent with my previous experiences working with her, my little Marty was always prepared, professional to a fault, delightful in her interpretation of the role, and a true asset to the artistic team. In fact, I was extremely proud of my entire talented group of young people after their opening night performance. Danny, Sandy, Kenickie, Rizzo, and the gang absolutely rocked the salad bar.
However, the morning after opening night I received a call from the theatre manager informing me that my little Marty had decided to leave the show. She went on to explain the very specific, yet dubious, reasons given for the actress’s departure.
Though this unexpected exit took me completely by surprise, as a “manager,” I had the responsibility to chat with my employee and allow her to be heard.
After just a minute or so on the phone, the conversation continued as follows:
RKJ: Let me get this straight. You served on my artistic staff, you attended every rehearsal, you opened the show as Marty and, without discussing this with me in advance, you have now made the decision to leave my show just one day after opening night because you claim you got fleas from our set and subsequently passed them along to your dog?
Actress: I am so sorry but I have discussed this with my parents and my health is more important to me….
RKJ: Do you truly realize what you have done? Listen to me, just how many years are you prepared to be known as “Flea Girl?”
Flea Girl: I don’t understand
RKJ: Let me explain it to you this way. You have left the show and you have been replaced already so that ship has already sailed. We also had no choice but to take your flea complaint seriously so I consulted with my vet who, through tears of laughter, succinctly explained to me that one can’t pass fleas to their dog—it pretty much always has to happen in the other direction.
Flea Girl: Uh.
RKJ: So like it or not, you are now “Flea Girl.” And though many would not consider this a terrible price to pay, you are dead in area Dinner Theatre, I am guessing, for a minimum of five years. Because, within 24 hours of this very moment, everyone will know the story of the itchy actress in Grease who left the show because she got fleas from Rydell High School and gave them to her pooch.
Flea Girl: Uh.
RKJ: You are an adult and though I admire your attempt at approaching this situation professionally, you are the one who must now find a way to live as “Flea Girl.” Every audition you go to, for years to come, you will likely be looking over your shoulder and praying that no one in that room recognizes you as “Flea Girl” and feels it is their duty to share that information with the production staff.
Flea Girl: Uh.
RKJ: You have made your decision. Good luck.
Was I angry? Yes. Did I demonstrate professional courtesy? In light of the extraordinary situation, I did my very best. Did I tell her what she needed to hear? Absolutely. Sometimes “honesty” is the most courteous recourse despite the immediate appearance of “honesty” as unfeeling or harsh.
Of course, there was also the potential damage to the reputation of my beloved dinner theatre should the public begin to whisper that “Flea Market” would make for a far better descriptor.
My personal itch to scratch? Going on record that almost everyone should ultimately be afforded a second chance. This is especially true when the mistake in question takes place at such a young age. But we are a society who can’t seem to get enough of the Kardashians (though they don’t really do anything) yet won’t be satisfied until the Oscar-nominated star of Little Women is buried under a headstone that reads: Winona Ryder, Actress/Shoplifter.
Even if I am unlikely to risk hiring this young lady again, it has always been my hope that her talent will be allowed to shine elsewhere and without the “Flea Girl” debacle hanging over her head—perhaps a commercial for Terminix.
Did I ever cross paths with Flea Girl again? Yes, I did–at an audition for “Peter Pan.”
Was she shocked to see me? Yes, she was.
Did I keep my mouth shut? Yes, I am proud to say that I did.
Though I was cast as Captain Hook, I am pleased to say that Flea Girl lost the role of Peter Pan on her own.
At a minimum, Flea Girl certainly prepared me to always expect the unexpected and remains the undisputed leader of my employee Bad Behavior Hall of Fame. And though it’s difficult to maintain managerial composure in any situation involving an errant worker, the high road always wins even if your employee appears hell bent on running you off the side of that same road while allegedly being chased by a band of blood-thirsty insects.
If you are a manager or human resources specialist and you think you’ve seen it all, I offer you the tale of Flea Girl to debunk that somewhat naïve theory. Like it or not, the “best” is most likely yet to come.
Nonetheless, as I reflect again upon the shocking miscalculations of Flea Girl, the only explanation I can really come up with is: We DO NOT Go Together. Sometimes, it just works out that way.
Marketing guru, business humorist, professional-courtesy advocate, branded-content writer, creative-development consultant, and entertaining motivational speaker Randall Kenneth Jones is the creator of RediscoverCourtesy.org and the president of MindZoo, a marketing communications firm in Naples, Florida.