Requiem for Rumor

The white paper cup held my traditional morning Starbucks.  Venti Carmel Machiato, that’s my drink.  I took a sip as I lifted my desk phone up to my ear.  I never check my messages on speaker phone.  First message was a call out from last week.  I have documented it and adjusted the payroll.  I hit 7 and delete it.  The next message is from the Fort Collins Coloradian, “Oh great I whisper,” thinking I will hear about some uneducated assessment of the utility, I smile.  As the message continues the smiles falls from my face and I feel my hand clenching the phone in a fist.

“Mr. Gilbert, I understand you are the plant Manager.  Our sources tell us that you have a severe harassment situation occurring at your plant and our investigative reporter would like to interview you about the apparent lack of concern of it.  My phone number is …”

            I punch the save button, but I don’t forward it too my boss.  Not yet, I need to take a walk.  I take a deep breath.  I stand.  Another deep breath.  My favorite line from Reservoir Dogs, Harvey Keitel, Mr. White…  I whisper it to myself, “Are you cool?  I need you cool…”  I walk out of my office to see what the rest of my staff is up to.  I take three steps out of my office, taking breaths in through my nose and out through my mouth.  I see Gwen walking up to me, and I know this look well, she is holding back tears.  “Zach, we need to talk.”

“Right now? Or can I get back with you in about an hour?”

“An hour should be ok.”  I can tell she wants to talk now, but I know I need to interact with the staff to start the day.  They have gotten nervous in the past when my office door is closed and they hear intense conversations first thing in the morning.  I take another warm soothing sip of my coffee and walk into the control room.

“Your gonna go broke drinking that garbage man!”  Carter yells at me leaning against the desk with his arms crossed.  The other two operators sit and stare at me with humble curiosity to see how I will react to the comment.

“This is my perk in life.  Perk of percolation.”

“Ugh, another dad joke.”

I stand in silence smiling.  I like to let the staff talk to each other when I am in the room.  When they invite me into shift change I will talk to them from within my role.  They talk about their weekends and start easing into the tech of the plant.  Jim sighs deep and rubs his eyes as his body tenses up.

“How the plant look Jim?”  I already know what he is going to talk about but I want him to have an opportunity to verbalize it.

“The chlorine analyzer was left locked out, the data has reported .8 all night, that…” his eyes check the glances in the room, Carter tenses his folded arms and leans forward with a sly smile, as if to gesture ‘say it’, “Gwen.  Zach, what was she doing last night at the end of the shift?  I think she is covering something up.  Last week when we got a fresh load of bleach we had an argument about the potency being higher than what was in the tank, I mean c’mon it drops up to 2 percent every month!  It’s the winter, we haven’t filled that thing in 3 months.  Anyway, we get a fresh truck load and she didn’t change the dose.  I bet it went over 4 milligrams per liter for most of the shift.  I mean, I not Operator in Responsible Charge, but if I was… I would be irritated.”

Carter leaned forward as if he was going to say something as Gwen entered the room, she seems to have centered herself at least for a moment.

Sensing the awkward moment I say, “Gwen, why don’t you and Bill run out to the distribution storage tank and grab me a chlorine reading?”  Gwen turns red as Bill silently grabs the keys.

“Zach can we grab a breakfast burrito before we go?”

“Check the tank first, and then…” I pull twenty dollars out of my pocket, “Why don’t you grab enough for everyone to have a couple.”

“Isn’t that going to cut into your coffee budget?” Carter hissed in a sneer.

I leave him and Jim to continue their conversation as I head back to my office to call my boss.

“Toby, how are ya?  How was your time off?  Catch any fish?”  I can feel my crews ears creeping into my office, I stand and walk over to the door closing it.  “Look Toby, I received a call from the paper today on my answering machine…  I will forward it to you after this call.  No, I will never speak to the press without speaking to you.  I don’t know for sure but I think there are two people who are talking to them.  Well sir, Carter is bully that doesn’t express his technical concerns in a professional way, he makes it personal.  I think we are dealing with two issues.  I have an operator who is deviating from regulatory standards, and willfully obstructing readings.  That makes me question what else is going on.  After they get back from sampling I will talk with her.  I wanted to give them a few moments in the work to talk about the social issues, and hope that they may talk about the technical problems.  I am hoping that will warm up Gwen for our conversation.  I can only tell you what I have witnessed.  Some of my staff complains about her not doing as much work, and making a lot of mistakes, but never tells me directly.  Well Toby, they hint around about it in the breakroom, and Carter stirs the pot and gets Jim and Bill wound up about it too.  I know Bill and Gwen are friends, but Bill deals with it more in silence.  I think there is two issues.  The harassment has been tracked with conversations and a paper trail, we have invested into team building consultants and I have tried to groom Carter into a more professional role at the plant.  Since Gwen has talked to the paper, I think we need to involve HR because there may have been plant vulnerability shared, if it is only social issues then she is ok, but should be advised to take her concerns through the proper channels.  As far as the possible regulatory violations via negligence I have only documented dates and times where valves weren’t shut, chemicals were overdosed, and data was documented incorrect.  I have to lock down whether this is willful or not.  Sir, I don’t think that it is.  I think she is just getting close to retirement and the addition of new systems confuses her, and the industry is much different than when she started.  I need to attempt to coach her through it.  I think the social stress is affecting her work, and I think she made a poor decision in talking to the paper.  We could have a retraining about policy for the entire utility so she doesn’t feel singled out.  Then have everyone sign and acknowledgement that includes discipline.  As far as the bullying, it is a centralized problem but I feel it is just a generational difference and it can be solved with teamwork assignments and special projects.  Ok, Ok, thank you sir.”

A knock on my closed door prompted me to say goodbye to my boss.  “Come in.”

“Do you have time to talk Zach.”

“I do Gwen, how were the burritos?”

“Good. Thank you.”  She sat down and stared at my then glanced at the paperwork on my desk.  She smiled hoping I would talk first about the serious business.  I waited for her to speak.  “Ok, well, the reason I want to talk to you is I feel like the boys are talking behind my back and plotting against me because I am a woman.  I just want you to know that they are not going to get away with it.  There are people I know that are very interested in my situation.”

“Ok, I want to hear the full story.”  I pulled out a yellow note pad and wrote todays date on the top.  Writing down the time and Gwen’s name, “I want you to use dates and times these things occurred, so I can follow up.”

“Well, I can’t remember when or where, I just know they are against me and they don’t like me.  I have tried to buy them lunch and join in the conversations, but they won’t let me be included.”

“How have they not included you?”

“When they do field work, they never ask me to come along.”

“Ok when did that happen?”

“I don’t remember, all the time though.”

“Now remember what we talked about after you broke your foot trying to help with that manhole cover last year.  You have served the utility for many years and I think you should take it easy.  Just because you can do the work, doesn’t always mean you should.  I want those young guys to earn their keep here.  You have more experience and I need you here at the plant.”

“But they talk about me when they go out in the field.”

“I will talk to them.”

“Thank you.”

“Did you need anything else?”

“No.  But thanks for listening.  I think you are a pretty good listener boss man…  Whoops I mean Zach.”

“Glad to be here for you, if there is anything I can help you with, let me know.”

“You know what, there is.  Last night when Bill was taking the Bleach delivery, one of the submerged filters got jammed in a backwash cycle, and I think I may have forgotten to reenable to the chlorine analyzer after the delivery.  Carter said he would take care of it when he was writing the shift logs.”

“Ok.  Would you like to make an SOP for the procedure for chlorine adjustment after a delivery.  Write up a rough draft and we will review it on Friday.  I think we are due for a pizza party.”

“On the boss man’s dime?”

“Yup, on the boss man’s dime.  Oh one more thing Gwen how’s you daughter doing in college?  She is a sophomore this year right?”

“Yes she is!  I am so proud of her, but I am also very worried.  It’s a mother thing.”

“Why are you worried?”

“Because she is dating a senior that is majoring in journalism, I think he actually interning at the Coloradian.”

Copyright © 2017 Zachary W. Gilbert