It occurred to me that I had overlooked the obvious: In large companies like Thomas-Smithfield Electronics, difficult personnel issues were handled by human resources departments. And if a conspiracy between my boss and two of my coworkers to kill our group admin didn’t count as a difficult personnel issue, what did?
So the very next morning I sent an intentionally vague email message to Anne Hull. Anne was a mid-level manager within the human resources department. She was high enough on the ladder to make things happen, but she wasn’t so high up the corporate food chain that she would pass me off to an underling.
Within less than an hour, there was an email from Anne in my Lotus Notes inbox:
“Why don’t you stop by at 10:00 a.m. My office is on the first floor, in the HR area.”
All of the human resources offices and cubicles were on the first floor. HR reps could be seen throughout the building at various times, but they did all their serious work down there.
I had a theory—never verified—that human resources was on the first floor because the first floor was where the main entrance was. At the conclusion of a termination meeting (not a rare event at Thomas-Smithfield) the fired or downsized party could be ushered immediately out the door. Also, the company’s corporate security offices were located on the first floor, so backup was close at hand in the event that it was needed.
Anne Hull was tall and blonde. She was in her late forties, and still a very attractive woman. I didn’t know her well, but I had talked with her once or twice since joining the company. She was one of those high-energy, alpha types who somehow find time to go to the gym or attend aerobics class four nights a week, despite a full-time corporate job and a packed family life.
Her office was smallish and well kept. The walls were adorned with a variety of corporate and educational certificates. On the shelf behind her desk was a photo of Anne, a middle-aged man with near movie-star good looks, and two teenage girls who would have excited my imagination to no end a mere ten years ago.
“Thank you for meeting with me on such short notice,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” Anne said cooly. “So, what is it that brings you here today? Your email didn’t reveal very much.”
Anne gave me one of those neutral workplace smiles that could be interpreted in a variety of ways. I recalled reading a cautionary blog post on one of those “career advancement” websites: The gist of the piece was that employees should be realistic about the human resources department of any company. Although every HR professional knows how to play the warm and fuzzy act when required, a company HR rep is not your father, mother, coach, favorite uncle, or personal counselor. Human resources ultimately exists to advance and serve the interests of the company’s senior management.
And I was about to assert that a member of the company’s management team was involved in a murder conspiracy. My assertion would be based on a conversation that I had partially overheard, using means that most people would regard as unethical.
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” I began.
She gave me an expression of gentle exasperation. Could I blame her, really? This was my meeting, after all.
“Has someone been—creating a hostile work environment for you?” she suggested.
“Hostile work environment” was, in corporate-speak, a catch-all phrase for any sort of on-the-job intimidation. What Donnie had done in the men’s room the previous day would qualify as “hostile work environment” behavior; but that was small potatoes now.
“I don’t think that’s it, exactly,” I said.
“Has someone been—sexually harassing you?” she asked.
Despite the gravity of the situation, I had to suppress a smirk. Technically, a man has a right to make a sexual harassment claim, just as a woman does. Remember the Michael Crichton novel, Disclosure, the one that was made into a movie starring Demi Moore and Michael Douglas? Like I said, it’s theoretically possible. So are flying cows.
“No,” I said. “No one is sexually harassing me.”
“Well, then, I have to ask why you called this meeting. Would you mind being more specific?”
“What if I had advance knowledge of something bad happening? I mean—of someone doing something wrong?”
“You were a witness to something unethical, then?”
“Not exactly. Nothing has happened yet.”
“Then someone confided in you—their plans to do something unethical?”
I knew that I was squirming in my chair.
“I—I think I overheard something,” I said.
“You think you overheard something.”
When Anne said it that way, I got a full sense of how absurd and insubstantial this might seem to a person who hadn’t been in the space between the walls behind that meeting room, when Sid, Donnie, and Bethany coolly talked about “eliminating” Ellen Watson.
To make Anne fully grasp the situation, I would have to go out on a limb. I would have to not only admit that I had eavesdropped on a meeting that didn’t concern me, I would also have to accuse my boss of conspiracy to commit a murder.
Sid would deny the entire thing, of course, as would Donnie and Bethany.
My word against theirs. Three against one.
My intentions might be in the right place, but from an HR perspective—from a legal perspective—I had no legs to stand on. I had no proof whatsoever.
Maybe corporate HR wasn’t the answer, after all.
“Perhaps I was only hearing things,” I said.
Anne raised her eyebrows. And again, how could I blame her? From her perspective, I must have looked pretty flighty.
“No—no, what I mean is, maybe I’m jumping to conclusions. Thanks for letting me talk through this with you.”
Anne shrugged. “We really didn’t discuss anything. But you’re welcome.”
“And—may I assume this discussion will be confidential?”
“Like I said, we really didn’t talk about anything specific. There is nothing to reveal to anyone. But if it will set your mind at ease—yes, I’ll keep this between us.”
“Thank you so much for your time, Anne. I’m awfully sorry I disturbed you over nothing.”
She was visibly annoyed with me at this point, though she was still maintaining the outward demeanor of the understanding HR professional. I made my exit from Anne’s office as quickly and as gracefully as I could.
I wondered how well Anne knew Sid, my boss, and if she might casually say something to him about her odd conversation with his subordinate.
Whatever she had promised, I didn’t necessarily believe that Anne would adhere to imaginary rules of confidentiality. There was no law, no regulation, that would prevent her from blabbing to Sid, and if that happened I would be in real trouble.
I was almost certain that Sid had no idea of my eavesdropping. But if Anne mentioned this conversation to him, he would be smart enough to put two and two together.
Then I might end up on the “elimination” list, too.