In my mid-20s, at a time when I took my office career way too seriously, I worked in a small firm with a woman twice may age whom I greatly admired. I respected her ability to unfurl complicated transactional errors in client accounts and correct them with ease, and her willingness to roll up her sleeves and work alongside the group of customer service reps she managed. She was infinitely patient with me as I learned the ins and outs of administration in the financial services industry.
As a front-line office worker, I both coveted and resented her knowledge, her position, and her salary.
Barbara* was one of two older women in management positions who stood in my way of advancing. Someone had to quit, or get fired for me to move up the ladder. I could not understand why they remained in the workforce. They were in their 40s for Pete’s sake!! Retire already, I grumbled to friends. Eventually, I left for a managerial job at a bank.
Years later, as I crawled towards my mid-40s, a younger co-worker made a remark about my shoes that irritated me and I thought of Barbara.
One morning, a few years after I’d left for another gig, Barbara arrived at the office and found a bottle of foot powder anonymously placed on her desk. When I heard the story, I thought of the cruelty of the two, uppity, young women who felt compelled to belittle an older, respected colleague, to point out what they believed she was too ignorant to recognize. Their behaviour is as puzzling to me now as it was then.
While it was true that the shoes Barbara kept under her desk gave off an odour: Sweaty feet and pantyhose, plus cheap pumps always equals a special rank smell — a career woman raising two teenaged kids, she didn’t have the luxury of buying new, or expensive shoes on a regular basis (who did?) — I thought their actions mean-spirited. No wonder they hid behind anonymity.
Barbara was a nice person, she was genuinely kind to me, an underling who didn’t report to her, but always seemed to find time to lend me a hand if I needed it. She was respectful to everyone she worked with, she was knowledgeable and handled herself professionally, and because I personally looked up to her, I felt the sting of the insult.
About the foot power, Barbara may have been hurt, she may have been bemused, or she may have chalked it up to the stupidity of youth, but I like to imagine that she didn’t give a s**t.
In the years that have passed, I have become Barbara in more ways than expected.
I am more patient and respectful than I would have imagined, I like to share what I’ve learned with younger people I work with, and I’ve even displayed uncharacteristic grace when a female co-worker dissed the shoes I was wearing when I’d forgotten to change out of my driving shoes (pricey, but well-worn, brown, leather shoes) and into my indoor shoes (inexpensive, sensible, black, dress shoes). She stared at my feet in disbelief and announced to me that she would never wear brown shoes with black pants.
Snappy remarks and cutting comebacks make for difficult work relationships. Besides, I didn’t give a s**t what she thought about my shoes, so I said nothing in response.
I like to think that Barbara would have been pleased.
*Not her real name.