Stupid Comes in Every Flavour

THESE STUPID EVENTS ACTUALLY HAPPENED. THE STUPID PEOPLE ARE REAL. WE’VE CHANGED THEIR NAMES AND DETAILS TO AVOID ASSAULTING YOU WITH THE IDENTITIES OF THE IGNORANT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

In the FCB professional services business, we regularly help our clients wade through the dank swamps of scandal created by some of their staff. We wade with them, of course, but get to wear the giant pair of rubber waders supplied by experience.

Some of the HR problems from which we extract our clients resemble an existential prize-fight between incredulity and hilarity, making our job incredibly rewarding. We’re all human and make mistakes, of course; however, some people’s fall from grace isn’t exactly graceful, more of a frantic windmilling of arms and legs as they plunge from the 10m tower trailed by the echoes of their own screams.

We hope that you enjoy this ensemble of anecdotes illuminating the legal life here at FCB.

‘Tis the season to be jolly-well stupid

November and December bring the usual series of calls about the ridiculous things people get up to at Christmas parties. Workplace frustrations that have been bubbling away in a shiny pot of resentment and desire boil over after a few glasses of Wild Peach.

It’s mostly stupid men in management (mostly) who confuse the mantle of power they wear within the workplace for some sort of sexy coat that’ll have them strutting through social events like the star of a Lynx commercial.

Occasionally there’s violence – like when a drunk staff member picked a fight with the DJ, spat on his manager and grabbed a handful of his co-worker’s left buttock, but mainly it’s your garden-variety, sexually inappropriate stuff…

I had a call several years ago about an incident at a client’s Christmas party – a harbour cruise where all the staff’s spouses were invited. The outing was a gentle affair (think wall-to-wall beige and boat shoes, cardigans draped around shoulders, pinkies extending perfectly perpendicular to the stems of champagne flutes, nibbles consumed delicately in the socially-correct manner, old-school-ties, stuffy management with names like Prendergast and Enderby,* you know the kind). ‘Twas an evening of setting sun, string quartets and silvery laughter…

Until the organisers decided to hold a talent contest.

You can imagine the excited buzz at this daring suggestion: You should see Smithy do a rendition of  Gilbert & Sullivan—what a hoot! Yeah, Smithy doing  Gilbert & Sullivan! With the occasional Who’s Gilbert  & Sullivan?

After the refined patter of applause following Smithy’s rendition of Three Little Maids (sung in a perfect falsetto), and Renée from Accounting’s startlingly-realistic impersonation of a chicken laying an egg, a young Romeo in Sales steps forward. After much clapping and cheering, Romeo takes to the stage and mistakes the enthusiasm for his dance moves as “the signal” to unleash a full strip tease – a hail of cashmere and beige cotton flapping from the stage – with the finale being a pair of Calvin Klein underpants flung into the crowd and reflexively caught by one of the spouses. Romeo then springs from the stage, oblivious to the rising tide of horror and audible gasps, does a lap of the boat and (perhaps imagining someone was yelling encore) leaps back onto the stage, wrapped in a mysteriously-acquired pink feather boa, and attempts to improve on his early efforts with a selection of Travolta’s best moves from Saturday Night Fever.

These things do not end well.

Needless to say, I get the early-Monday phone call and help HR lock down the plan. Ironically, the guy must have woken on Sunday with the worst case of WHAT have I done? because he never showed up at work that Monday. Or on Tuesday. Or ever again.

While I’ve been critical of male behaviour, sometimes women go too far. And occasionally beyond far. And then, like the first explorers of the Amazon, further still…

A few Santa visits ago we had a call from a worried client. An employee had come into work on the Monday to “discuss” the Saturday-night staff Christmas function. (Let’s call the employee ‘Cindy’, with sincere apologies to all Cindy’s out there.)

“I’m really sorry,” Cindy begins, “I kind of blacked out and drank way more than I could handle. I don’t know what came over me. I’m really sorry about it. So, please, can we move on?”

Ah, hang on. Rewind here. ‘Can we move on?’  Can we move on? Sorry Cindy, but that’s NOT going to happen, for reasons which will become clear.

The Christmas party was at a local RSL club. The business had booked out a function room – you know the kind – all glittery, 90s club chic, with expansive views through floor-to-ceiling glass windows to a terrace, rose garden, and beyond. Sensibly, drinks tickets were issued to limit the excesses of the unwashed masses. Two tickets each, and no more!

The aforementioned unwashed sat down to a meal of “chicken or beef ma’am?” The meal rolled on, the house Cab Sav flowed (until one ran out of drinks tickets), and ears were assailed by the bloated speeches of old timers back-stroking themselves through a sea of self-congratulation over events past, present and future.  A rose-tinted evening was unfolding.

But into every rose garden a little rain must fall. And tonight, a thunderstorm was brewing.

You see, Cindy had decided that a measly two drinks tickets on the night was going to cramp her style and enthusiasm to live large. To get around this troublesome issue, she “preloads” before the event with an assortment of booze, and then quickly uses her two tickets after arriving at the club. She then manages to pilfer several other drinks tickets that were lying around. Starting to feel the buzz, and growing bored with the speeches, Cindy spies through the windows a couple of blokes from another function outside, trying their best to get lung cancer, and thinks “That’s just what I need, but I’m gonna have to bludge a smoke”. She slinks outside the club and sidles up to the two smokers. The men have their faces lit by the glow of their phones. We don’t know exactly what Cindy said to bludge that smoke, but an eyewitness said it certainly left an impression on the faces of those two men.

The Christmas party continued inside. After the speeches, the upwardly-ambitious fought over each other to be the first to congratulate their glorious leader on his speech, and to say how much they were looking forward to the challenges of the coming year. You can count on me Bob!

Then someone notices something outside. Then someone else notices it. There is a Mexican wave of elbows nudging ribs, fingers pointing, eyes widening.

“Oh. My. God!” “What are they doing… is that… Cindy?” “No way!” “Hey, check this out!”

To the horror of most, the assembled workforce stares through the vast expanse of black-aluminium-framed glass to be confronted with the sight of Cindy, out on the terrace, in a most compromising position… performing an unspeakable act. And when I say unspeakable, I mean it.

The cry went up, “Someone stop her! Quick!”

Spurred into action, a few good men ran outside and somehow managed to put a stop to the live sex show that was going on in front of the entire business!

So that brings us back to Monday morning, and

“I’m really sorry about it so, please, can we move on?”

Yeah. Probably not.

The Sacking Kind of Stupid

Many of the funnier events occur when we help a client out with a disciplinary process. HR professionals usually have many notches on their gun belt, and for them it’s all in a day’s work – though not always a happy day. But many employees, when pinned by the search-light of disciplinary action, have never experienced it before, and it’s here we witness the rise of dry throats, sweaty palms, nervousness and lies.

Oh yes, there are always plenty of lies…

Some people have been sacked several times and know the drill. I managed a fraud case involving an Accounts Payable clerk who had stolen over $100,000. She was paid at, or just above, the award rate, rented
a house and drove a second-hand Mazda, but no-one in the business put two-and-two together when she announced she was taking six weeks  leave to go on luxury cruises around Europe.

On her first day back, we were waiting. She walks in, face freshly tanned from some beach in Greece (or Spain, or France, or all three), dumps her bag and gets escorted into the meeting room. Within 30 seconds she’s laughing, admitting everything, and chastising the business for being so stupid not to have caught her.

“I’ve blown it all on me holidays. It was better in my pocket than yours. You’re not going to see any of it back, not unless I win Lotto. What are you going to do, bankrupt me? My car is worth $10, so go for it!”

Other people seem to take literally the words of Dylan Thomas’ poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night”…

A while ago, I helped a client exit an elderly employee. I have a pal with a lovely Nana called Barbara, so let’s call her Barbara. Barbara was a veritable angel in human form. (Yes, yes, I know – all angels are in human form. It’s a metaphor!) This lovely old dear had struggled for a long time in her role, unable to properly cope with the rapidly-changing business environment. Barbara was bringing a ‘manila folder’ mentality to working in the digital age. She had sat through too many training courses and just couldn’t adapt. She was upset to leave the business but understood and respected the business’ decision.

“Yes, my mistakes are costly to fix. I understand. Please let me say farewell to the other girls as I will miss them terribly.” After donning the lippy, farewell hugs and kisses, and promises to catch up for bowls soon, Barbara left the business for the day. HR exhaled with relief that it had gone so smoothly and sensitively. Then, within about a minute or two, HR hear this long, loud sort of squealing screeching noise from outside and peer through the blinds to see Barbara, in the carpark, pulling a burnout in her Toyota Corolla like she was a contender at Summernats, two-finger salute out the window, yelling “F&*K YOU!” as she peeled out of the carpark in a blaze of burnt-rubber and white smoke!

Glad she hadn’t forgotten to put on the lippy!

Besides the gentle, there are also the dumb. And the even dumber…

One client’s HR team had managed to extract a redundancy payout for a difficult, disgruntled employee in an effort to avoid donning the disciplinary-action battle suit. (I knew a Linda once, and didn’t like her much, so let’s call this one Linda). It was a handsome payout for Linda. Lucky, lucky Linda! Hurrah!

The Deed is prepared, ready to be signed on the Friday, when Linda will come in and hand over the company’s property, her swipe pass, keys, etc.  Linda’s Thursday night must have been an absolute belter, no doubt filled with dreams of her forthcoming riches and weeks without work.  On Friday morning, Linda stumbles into the office looking like the ‘before’ picture in an advertisement for the world’s leading hangover cure. She’s got her company property in a plastic shopping bag that looked like it’d just been pulled out of a supermarket trolley: laptop, iPad, keys and swipe pass. She plonks the bag down, next to the Deed she’s about to sign.

The bag makes a distinct tinkling sound when it hits the desktop. HR opens the bag to find a sea of shattered plastic and broken glass: her work laptop, smashed into four pieces; her iPad, folded down the middle like it’d been wrapped around a metal pole (twice). “Oh that, yeah, there was an accident with that stuff. It just fell apart.” Oh really? An accident. The getting-crushed-by-a-runaway-armoured-vehicle wholesale destruction of company property kind of accident, hey? “Well, let’s put the Deed in the drawer for now and perhaps we can discuss other options, such as serious misconduct? Linda, do you want to go and find a support person for this conversation?”

It didn’t end well for Linda. Sometimes it’s important not to smile too much when having fun in HR.

One person, surely a contender for the Darwin Awards, crawled out from under a rock at a client’s blue-collar site. For a clue as to how sensitive and accepting of others this exhibit was, one has to look no further than that his nickname was “Racist Chase”. Need I say more?

Ok. Apparently, I need to say more, or the story would end here… One day the company, rightly, decided to roll out Equal Opportunity training. Part of the initiative involved various role-plays by hired actors on a makeshift stage. Tremendous idea! Chairs were arranged into the ideal arrangement so the captive audience could be captivated. All was made ready for an afternoon bursting with learning, group hugs, tears, tolerance, self-revelation and respect.

The session kicks off, with HR doing the introductions and explaining what’s happening. The show starts, and the trainer has the actors playing out an exercise on the impact of language and inclusion. HR are looking on. It’s all going well. Really well. People are staying awake. There’s even a low murmuring in the audience as employees discuss what’s happening. An African actor is leading the exercise. The room is filling with empathy.

With one exception.  Our friend, Chase, starts to squirm in his seat. He  fidgets for a while. Then he leans forward, turns to  his workmates and in a loud voice, snaps, “Hey! Can you guys keep it down? I can’t hear what that [email protected]*kin’ Blackie is saying up there!”

Apparently, even a really really quiet fart would’ve shattered the silence that followed. It was as if a racist bomb had gone off. The actor stops mid-sentence, his face aghast. Nobody moves or speaks.
Heads turn, looking for the source. Finally, someone from HR breaks the silence with  a sort of high-pitched, strangled “Who said that!?”

Chase, the hero of our saga, bravely responds,  “It was me. These guys are making too much noise and I just couldn’t hear what the black guy was saying, is all.”

“Get up and get out, NOW!”

Chase thought it was unfair that he was dismissed: “I’ve got plenty of mates that I call Blackie all the time!” Ah, yes, Mr Chase, the old ‘but I’m mates  with [insert race here]’ defence.
Scientists tell us that we all have traces of Neanderthal genes, but in the case of Racist Chase, his prominent supra-orbital ridges,  sloping forehead and grunting suggest this  knuckle-dragger had taken a few more
sips from the Neanderthal gene cup than the rest of us.

Crimes against mentality (The Creepy Kind of Stupid)

When I was younger, I loved watching comedy, especially the Doug Anthony Allstars. They had a song with the line “I picked on you Sonia, ‘cause I had a crush on ya!” The song explored the intricacies of the male mind when influenced by too much testosterone. And then I met someone very like Sonia’s would-be suitor…A young man (with a staggering opinion of his own handsomeness) had developed a crush on a young
co-worker who was way out of his league. Sweet courtship takes many paths, but stealing the poor girl’s phone, and sending yourself her private stash of “bra-and-undies-doing-duck-lip” selfies, kinda places
you in the ‘stalker’ category.

Rather than apologise, the self-proclaimed Christian Grey waited for the ideal time to whip out his Fifty Shades of Grey S&M moves at work by placing a plastic bag over her head and tightening it. After getting a panicked elbow to the ribs and a soundtrack of her terrified screams, he lets go of the bag and the poor girl flees. On the spectrum of Christian Grey to Ivan Milat, this guy was borderline Ivan. For reasons known only to herself, the girl didn’t want to press charges, but we were asked to investigate…

“It didn’t happen like that. I just threw a plastic bag at her from about three metres away, and it floated up and landed on her head. You gotta believe me!”

“Ok mate, let’s do a science experiment and show me how it happened.”

I’d heard his excuse a few days before and had done some tests at home. If the bag is scrunched up, you can throw it a few metres, but it won’t open up and ‘land over someone’s head’. If it’s loosely scrunched it goes no further than a metre or so, and floats down like a feather.  I asked the guy to show me. He tried. “Wait, it didn’t work that time, let me try it again.” And tried. “Hang on, maybe it was like this.”  And tried.
“I’ve almost got it, one more go!”

‘One more go’ became a dozen more goes. I leaned against the wall, pondering the unfathomable mysteries of the human mind while the guy attempted to defy the laws of physics and probability. “Are you finished yet?” I eventually asked. Without a doubt, he was finished.

From the criminal to the criminally bizarre…

We had a client with premises that backed onto a row of suburban residences. One day (have you noticed yet how stupidity always starts with ‘one day’), three of the staff were sitting out the back when they heard whimpering noises coming from behind the fence. They dragged a crate over, stood on it to look over the fence, and were greeted with the sight of two cute puppies running around the yard and clawing at the back door of a house, apparently trying to get in.

Now, the human mind is an amazing contraption. It can create elaborate back stories and fantasies to justify almost any action. It can turn clouds into marshmallow and make unicorns fly! (Ok, maybe I’m going too far here. Unicorns don’t fly, they use their legs, but you get the idea.)

I can imagine the chain of thoughts stumbling through the minds of the three amigos as they peered over the fence: The puppies must be sad—nope—more than that—being mistreated—nope—more than that—being ABUSED—ooh—what to do—ooh—hullo—[a dim lightbulb goes off]— they must be rescued! SAVE THE PUPPIES!

These thoughts culminate in one of our heroes glancing sideways at the others and saying, “Who’s with me?” These would-be commandos then scale the neighbour’s fence, drop down into the yard and (this is where you’d think they might have paused) notice that the puppies have disappeared into the house through a flap set into the back door. Brains still switched off, they then proceed to force open the door, locate and “liberate” the two puppies (although only one later admitted to this).  The neighbour, a professional dog breeder, gets home and immediately notices that two of her prized pedigree pups are missing.
Later, when the Police came knocking on the office door, ‘making a few enquiries’, it didn’t need Hercule Poirot to work out what had happened. Cringeworthy excuses were issued, as were dismissal letters and Court Attendance Notices. (It turns out that ‘Break and Enter’ is a crime, would you believe?) The two puppies were returned to their owner, much to the pleasure of mummy dog.

When Stupid = Dope

Not long ago, I had a call from a client (let’s call him Bill) in the manufacturing space. “I’ve just discovered something,” says Bill, “that I wish I could undiscover. If I ever needed your help, it’s now.”

I’d known Bill for some time, and he ran a successful manufacturing business that hummed along with three continuous, eight-hour shifts: day shift, afternoon shift and night shift. His stars were the members of the night shift: the highest production, lowest turnover, lowest lost time due to injuries, and zero WHS incidents. They were a set-and-forget team of all-stars (with none of the many problems we’d had to deal with from the daytime shifts) and he’d come to rely on them.

Bill told me that he’d been having the air-conditioning serviced at the factory, and the aircon mechanic had asked him to come look at something. Bill followed the guy, climbed the ladder, balanced on the top rung like a seal on a beach ball (I had a word to him later about WHS) and peered inside the vent at what the mechanic’s torch was illuminating.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Bill tells me. “There were about 15 bongs, all lined up in a neat row. They were decorated with sparkly paint and had all these dragons and warlock things on them. It was like nothing I’d ever seen!” After a short investigation, Bill discovered that the bongs belonged to none other than the crew of his beloved night shift. The shamefaced supervisor confessed to the whole crew having their own groove going at night. The story goes that the crew started their shift with a tool-box talk, where the designated provider for the week would share his or her stash with everyone, who would then blaze away while the supervisor laid down the production needs for the shift. The rhythmic, clickety-clack of the machinery was the perfect accompaniment to floating through their shift, topping up their medicinal needs during their breaks. Peace, harmony and pass me the Tim Tams, man!

Now that Bill knew what he knew, he couldn’t unknow it. He was seriously worried that he’d be hung, drawn and quartered by WorkCover if any of the crew had an accident. And there was the fact that 15 guys were driving home each morning off their faces! But then again, how could he sack 15 guys and lose his best team? The business would be screwed! He was tearing his hair out.

We ultimately set a course where the team would be given drug and alcohol counselling – whatever help they needed to move towards a ‘healthier lifestyle’
and save Bill from a WorkCover nightmare. Some cleaned up their act. Sadly, others drifted away, perhaps unable to recognise the distorted lens through which they viewed the world, and  probably got work as advisers to the Trump administration. A few months after it’d all blown over, I ran  into Bill again. He told me that the night shift was no longer his best. After the incident, production fell, turnover increased, and he now has all the same problems he has with the daytime shifts.

Oh, well. Perhaps there’s a lesson in there, somewhere.

If there is a lesson to be learned it’s this: HR is NEVER dull. It never ceases to amaze me how many different flavours and colours stupid comes in!