Hero to Zero
I worked for a sub-prime mortgage broker at the height of the sub-prime and real estate booms. I was an
HRIS specialist which is another way of saying a report writer for the Human Resources department. It has
always amused me how every department, specialty, or industry has to develop jargon in order to make
their thing appear to be the most complicated thing in the world. Something that unless you’ve worked in it
before then you couldn’t start now and unless you had twenty plus years you couldn’t possibly understand
it. I’ve jumped from industry to industry and department to department and at the core they are all the
same. You just have to interpret the jargon. It’s kind of like learning a new language. It’s a little tuff at first
but once you know it, its simple. Also you find out that speaking a different language doesn’t make you
any smarter. There are stupid people in every language. (This concept explains the arrogance of
HR is in reality a very simple administrative function but do to the involvement of money (via payroll and
accounting) and the tendency of companies to keep employees in the dark about compensation amongst
fellow employees it has taken on an air of specialty. With the introduction of political correctness,
Sarbanes–Oxley, and extensive labor laws HR has evolved into a unique specialty akin to the Secret
Service or CIA. They have all your confidential (that is the most over and missed used word in the
corporate world) information. They are in charge of hiring, so they feel as if you should be thankful to
them and they are in charge of firing (letting people go) so you should be afraid of them and with Payroll
which usually reports to the head of HR they are in charge of your pay which means you should be grateful
to them. All of which is crap because the people in HR don’t make the decision they just carry them out. In
general they are no different then the secretary at the front door or the guy who cleans up the bathrooms.
They just carry out the task they are assigned. The only real difference is that they have in varying
degrees access to “Confidential,” private, or sensitive information that the company does not want you to
know or share. Like the fact that the guy next to you is making two dollars more an hour to do the same
job even thought you where hired in before him and if you knew then you would want the same or more
and they would make less profit.
Now they might even mention identity theft and ssn’s but the funny thing is that most of the time it would
appear that the only ones who have access to that information are the ones who end up miss using it.
That’s kind of like giving the keys to the vaults to the robbers… ok maybe that’s a bit much. I might be a
little resentful about my experiences in the world of HR. I don’t enjoy pretense and HR drips with it like
southern BBQ drips with sauce. If HR didn’t do everything possible to create an image of specialty then
they would be equated to the basic administrative staff, their pay would be lowered, and their self esteem
would suffer…and that would be sad. So as I existed in this alter world I conducted myself with the same
irreverent and unmindful manner that is common amongst most IT departments who feel save to have free
conversations among the rest of the like minded geeks usually behind a secured door in a darkened room
that reminds then of their moms basement.
One day I was sitting in on a meeting between the two feuding factions of Payroll and HR for in this
company the all knowing and wise ownership agreed to place payroll under the authority of the vacant
comptroller instead of the fastidious president of HR. This occurred mostly because the payroll manager
was an angry bitter little woman who would complain in a shrill voice until you would agree to what ever it
was so she would just go away. The purpose of this meeting was to work out the details of the all inclusive
company bonus program and try to get it to work right for the first time since they had started the program
ten years ago.
Everyone in the company from CEO down to mail room intern got a bonus in some proportion. The
measure was base on an intractably complicated sliding scale of variable measures and a system the
inevitably lead to mistakes and unhappiness. Which was funny to me as it was a bonus. It was money you
were getting that you did not earn and you should be grateful for it or at lead not expect it. It should be like
finding a dollar on the street and you say oh look a dollar, picked it up and happily go along your way.
You don’t pick up a dollar bill on the street and then stop the next person passing by to complain that it
was not a five. As I sat there listening to them go back and forth and the payroll manager whined and
complained, I couldn’t help myself.
I said, “If it is so hard for you why don’t you just let us do it?”
At which the whole room went quit and I woke up and realized that I was the focus of everyone attention.
My boss the AVP of Compensation (Yes, I don't know why he was my boss), a timid little man with great
aspirations, immediately baulked and said, “Now we don’t want to just take on this before we know what it
He had been charged with creating a new system to calculate the company wide bonuses (which by the
way is somewhat of a stupid idea as everyone should not get a bonus – its unreliable money- if you really
want to reward people just give the people at the bottom a raise of a quarter or fifty cents That way they
can rely on that extra 20 buck every paycheck)
I realized I might have put my foot into it… but I didn’t back off I pushed forward with the somewhat
insulting, to the payroll manager, comment, “It can’t be that hard you have the formulas. You have the
data. You have everyone’s name. You just push the data through the formulas to the names and write a
check.” Yea, I was aware that they were over five thousand employees and that there was some room for
adjustments by managers of the bonuses. But what’s the big deal, I thought you just process the
numbers. “Fine, it’s yours.” said the payroll manager as she left the room already beginning to plot how to
turn this to her advantage and undermine any possibility of success we might have. My boss and I walked
back to HR without a world and he called me to his office were he shut the door sat down and was almost
visibly nervous but kind of excited about the thought that if I could make it happen he or we or the whole
department, on the third try, would have a major victory and look really good. We might even gain enough
esteem in the eyes of the owners to absorb payroll under the umbrella of HR and get rid of the payroll
manger. Wow, my head was spinning, he obviously had been thinking hard during the thirty second trip
from the meeting room to his office.
I said, “OK.”
He said, “If you can do this,” and I realized by the second time he said “you” that this was all on me and
although I might get some of the credit if it work out well I would defiantly get all the blame if it didn’t.
He said, “If you can do this… You will be a Hero.”
And then he paused with the “but” almost falling off his lips, “But if you mess it up you will be a Zero and
you know what that will mean.”
I said, “Yeah, I will be less then one and more then a negative number.” He laughed a bit caught off guard
by my lack of seriousness or concern.
He said it again, “If you make it work you’ll be a hero else you end up a zero.”
He said it once or twice more before he realized why it was so clear in his head. He had two little kids and
had just watch Disney’s Hercules.
I said, “Like the movie?”
He said, “Yeah.”
At that point the race was on and the die cast. I of course was destined for failure because I didn’t care
and didn’t take it serious. It was a game I didn’t care if I won so I was sure to loose. I thought big deal we
process the data and push it out if there’s a problem will just correct it. Not realizing that I was on the front
lines in a political war between to rival factions that was more like a family feud then a conflict of
ideologies. As I took on this task I did not realize that I had just stepped out alone into no mans land in the
middle of the day wearing a bright orange jump suit and doing the chicken dance.
(Singing I’m a little tea pot.)
It is a difficult world out there and sometimes you have to walk a fine line over the chasm of failure in order
to reach the towers of success. Stray but a little and you will fail.
The difference between success and failure is often slight. No matter how many successes you have had
or how many accomplishments you’ve achieved or even how much work you have performed all it takes is
one screw up and you will fail. It’s just that easy to travel from the company Hero to the company Zero.
The Brutal Truth:
Everything is a test a struggle and a competition. If you want to succeed you have to compete and there is
little margin for error in success.