No good deed…

Day Twelve: Dark Clouds on the (Virtual) Horizon

Today’s Prompt: Write a post inspired by a real-world conversation.

Today’s twist: include an element of foreshadowing in the beginning of your post.
— — — — —

Acting on the basis of only a fragment of overheard conversation is a very risky business. Just ask Severus Snape, Voldemort and James, Lilly & Harry Potter. That half-heard conversation (prophecy) and subsequent tattle telling resulted in horrific tragedy.

Thankfully, my own experience with this didn’t include murder as a consequence. But I learned a valuable lesson that I apply to this day: don’t listen to other people’s conversations and, for heaven’s sake, don’t be stupid enough to act on what you overhear.

Before I was the badass butch boss I am today, I was a lowly drudge in a sweatshop. Er…ok, maybe not, but it felt like it for a good long time.

My boss, when I was a staff attorney about 8 years ago, was a first class wench. She delighted in making my life miserable. Sneering comments about my weight and personal appearance, veiled threats of demotion or being passed over for choice assignments, and general nastiness were her tools of torture. She wielded her authority like a club and hurled unreasonable demands like bullets along with a fusillade of curse words and insults.

Everyone was wary of getting on her wrong side and tended to watch for signs of her ire so others could be warned to stay clear. It was a common thing for one of us to make rounds of the other attorneys’ offices to pass on a “watch your step, trouble is brewing ” tip. It was only right.

About the time I made my epic mistake, the boss had lately taken to picking on the newest staff attorney for no other reason than that I had given her a good recommendation after her job interview. The boss made the hiring decision, but because I’d said I liked this candidate over another, this person wore a target from day one. If I’d known that would happen, I wouldn’t have recommended anyone. I wouldn’t wish being on that boss’ s@&t list on anyone.

So my new colleague was the boss’ latest victim. I felt guilty for contributing to this misery, so I tried to keep an eye and ear out for potential trouble for her in particular, and let her know to watch out. That’s what I thought I was doing on the fateful day of my recollection.

Strolling through the main legal department office on my way back to my office from a meeting, I overheard the boss sniping to another staff attorney in a tone full of sneering derision. I knew it wasn’t directed at the person she was talking to; rather, they were both talking about a third person. The boss was saying “She didn’t even have the courtesy to tell me to my face she wasn’t going to be there. She sent an email two minutes before the meeting. I had to go in her place and had nothing prepared. I’m livid!”

Visions of career-ending shouting matches and burnt bridges flashed in my head. I knew my new coworker had gone to an unexpected appointment at her child’s school and was late getting back to the office. I also knew that she had been scheduled to meet with accounting that day to discuss how legal and accounting could improve coordination relative to customer contacts. She was supposed to present the results of the meeting to the legal team at our next staff meeting. I thought she’d put the meeting off to the following day. But, to my ears, it sounded like the boss took the meeting instead. And now my friend was in trouble because the boss had to step in.

I continued into my office and headed straight for the phone. I called my friend and told her to get back to the office and come up with a plan to salvage the boss’ temper. I told her what I’d heard, explained that I didn’t hear her name mentioned, but that it sounded to me like she was the subject of the rant and that it stemmed from the meeting with accounting. She panicked because she’d forgotten to postpone the meeting and agreed she’d better hurry back.

But instead of coming straight back and using the drive time to think out a reasoned approach, she rashly called the boss. In her panic, she lost her head and blurted out that *I*, calling me by name, had heard the boss talking about her mistake and she was sorry and would be back in the office in a few minutes.

Of course, it turns out the boss was griping about something and someone totally different. And, of course, until that call, the boss hadn’t even noticed that my coworker had left the office. So now, not only was my friend in trouble two times over (the meeting and her unnoticed absence), but I was in the fire for “lying” about the boss.

The boss had made a bee-line for my office immediately after hanging up on my colleague. I spent a very uncomfortable fifteen minutes getting my head ripped off for gossiping, causing stress to the boss and my coworkers by my lies, and for talking about things the boss had said “in confidence”. Never mind that she was talking loudly in a public common area. Never mind that it was a minor misunderstanding. Never mind that no one was actually harmed or even inconvenienced. No, I was a gossip and a troublemaker for vilifying the boss to my coworker.

No good deed goes unpunished, they say. That’s certainly how I felt at the time.

And, just to cap it off, when I collared my colleague about using my name, she burst into tears. She bawled like a toddler, stammering out an incoherent apology that edged up as an accusation that I had caused all the trouble myself. In her eyes, my failure to hear the whole story lead to all the misery. While I acknowledge that I didn’t have the whole story, it seems to me that had the object of the overheard rant actually been my friend, the fragment of conversation was enough to warn her about. If I hadn’t, what kind of ally would I have been then?

Damned, no matter what.

And, from that day to this, I have never again jumped to action without knowing I had complete facts.

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