Memo from Wonderland

By Pamela Bloomfield

MEMORANDUM

To: Robert Morrison, Director of Management and Budget

From: Caroline Brundage, Temporary Analyst

Re: Response to Six-Month Probationary Performance Appraisal

Date: February 15, 1985

Introduction

I have received my six-month probationary performance appraisal from my supervisor, Brenda Compton, Senior Analyst for the Department of Management Services. Based on the ratings I have received, the DMS (meaning Brenda) has determined that I will not be offered a full-time analyst position at this time. Instead, my probationary period will be extended for an additional six months, meaning that I will continue to be a Temporary Analyst with no health insurance benefits or job protections.

According to Section 12.4 of the DMS Employee Handbook, I have the right to appeal the performance ratings assigned by my supervisor by submitting a memorandum to you explaining the reasons for my disagreement with one or more ratings. Your role, as I understand it, is to decide whether to uphold or overrule Brenda’s ratings. If you decide, based on the merits of my case, that my composite rating should be changed from Below Standard to Meets Expectations or Above Standard, then I am entitled to be offered a full-time analyst position within DMS. You and I have never met, but I’ve seen you striding in and out of our department on many occasions, and I have always admired your confident style.

Discussion of My Ratings

Let me begin by saying that I appreciate (and agree with!) the Above Standard rating that Brenda gave me for “Quality/Accuracy of Work,” and I have no problem with the Meets Expectations ratings for “Dependability,” “Punctuality,” and “Compliance With Policies and Procedures.” But I do take issue with the Below Standard ratings that Brenda has seen fit to assign for “Work Ethic,” “Communications with Co-Workers/Supervisor,” and “Initiative.” As you will see, I have pasted the relevant sections of the performance appraisal into this memorandum, followed by my comments regarding each rating.  

According to Brenda, my rating for “Quality/Accuracy of Work” is Above Standard, but my rating for “Work Ethic” is Below Standard. Do you see a contradiction here? Isn’t it obvious that my work ethic is at least one factor contributing to the high quality of my work? Apparently, this is not obvious to Brenda.

Let me back up a bit. As you will see if you check my personnel file, I came to this department with five years of experience working as an analyst in the private sector. My personnel file may also mention the fact that I am the mother of two children, ages 6 and 1.  What my file will not tell you is how much I need the full-time analyst job that Brenda seems determined to deny me. 

When my husband Ned lost his full-time lecturer position at the college and had to cobble together multiple adjunct positions around the state, I knew that I needed to find a job that would provide our family with health care coverage without the long hours and travel that my private sector job had demanded. I was delighted to find this analyst position, which not only draws on my skills and experience but also allows me to contribute to the public good rather than merely helping a private company increase its profit margins. Ned and I figured that we’d have to carry some credit card debt for the first six months in order to be able to afford private health insurance, but we knew that once we made it through my six-month probationary period, I’d get those health benefits and we’d be able to start paying down our loans.

My job interview with Brenda went poorly. The framed photograph of her family on the credenza suggested to me that we had something in common, by which I mean motherhood. But when I brought up the subject of my children, her pleasant demeanor vanished. She sat up very straight, lifted her chin, and said, “I should tell you that I am not a believer in quality time.” 

That was when I knew I’d made a huge mistake by bringing up the issue. In the photo her daughters look to be in their twenties or thirties, and she’s probably close to fifty. She was probably home raising those girls when they were the ages of Clara and Luke. Obviously, she can’t relate to my situation. So, I just gulped and said, “Oh, uh huh,” and we went back to discussing my work experience. Somehow, despite that blunder, I got the job.

From the outset, Brenda made it crystal clear that I was expected to be at my desk working from 8:30 until 5:00, with a reasonable break for lunch sometime in the middle of the day. I have adhered faithfully to this dictum. Ask anyone in my area. From the time that I arrive at the office and take off my coat, I’m working! I usually run down to the cafeteria for a sandwich and coffee, eat my lunch at my desk, and continue to work quietly until it’s time to catch the 5:15 bus out of the city. If I need to ask someone a question, or call another department for information, I do so, and of course I attend and participate in project meetings and the weekly staff meetings. But for the most part, my work is solitary in nature, and that’s fine with me. To be honest, I enjoy the respite from the constant clamor at home.

Once I get off the bus at the other end, of course, the track meet begins:  pick up Clara at the kindergarten after-school program, pick up Luke at the babysitter’s, lug kids and backpacks and my briefcase into the house, get the lights on and the heat turned up, get Luke out of his snowsuit and into his highchair while locating a snack for Clara, cook two separate kids’ dinners (don’t ask me why they won’t eat any of the same foods, other than ice cream), bathe Luke and dress him in a fresh diaper and fleece onesie while Clara whines for attention, then leave Luke in his crib playing with his Busy Box while I help Clara take a shower—and that’s about when Ned comes through the door after his evening class. I lie down on Clara’s bed, and we read while Ned puts Luke to bed. Then Ned comes in to say good night to Clara. Sometimes he has to wake me up. Then and only then do I get to change out of my work clothes, pour us both a glass of budget Chardonnay, and figure out what we can possibly eat for dinner. 

The sad truth is that we live on Near East rice pilaf, scrambled eggs, reheated pizza, and of course the leftover steamed and stir-fried vegetables that the kids have shunned. This probably sounds very odd to you. I’ve heard through the grapevine (I’m sorry to tell you that Cheryl, your very talkative secretary, is not the most discreet person when it comes to, well, discretion) that you call your wife every afternoon to ask her what’s for dinner, and I’m betting none of those items, apart from the rice pilaf, are on the menu. Your wife is at home preparing something tasty and nutritious for you, and that’s great. My situation is just different from yours, that’s all.

You may be wondering about Brenda’s comment comparing my initiative to that of my “more dedicated peers.” I know very well that she’s referring to Alan, who I’ll be the first to admit is smart and dedicated to the mission of our office. Just about every day at five o’clock, while the rest of us—including Brenda—are putting on our coats and getting ready to leave, he gets up from his desk and lolls conspicuously in the entrance to his cubicle. 

“’Bye,” he says with a smile and a wave. “Have a good evening.” 

Sometimes Brenda stares at him with mock exasperation. “Oh, Alan, you’re working late again?”

“I have some things to finish up,” he says in his faux-modest way, and then he walks purposefully back to his desk. 

But here’s the thing. What Brenda doesn’t seem to know, or doesn’t want to notice, is that Alan is gone a lot during the workday. He’s picking up his dry cleaning. He’s getting a haircut. He’s doing his banking. He has this uncanny ability to vanish at times when no one will be looking for him. But trust me, it’s common knowledge that he takes care of a ton of personal errands while we’re all chained to our desks, and then he puts on this big show of working late. If you don’t believe me, rig up a camera in his cubicle or something.

Let me tell you about my efforts to be a team player. On my first day of work, I dressed carefully in a neutral-toned skirt suit, crisp white blouse, sheer stockings, and black pumps. My objective was to look professional but unthreatening—like a team player, if you will. My blouse had shoulder pads, as did my suit jacket. When I put on my new tan trench coat, which also has shoulder pads, my shoulders looked so massive that Ned patted me on the back and said, “Have a good game, fella.” 

When I was introduced to the staff, I recall that practically everyone greeted me by saying, “Welcome aboard.” And I did feel a bit queasy and unsteady on my feet, as if I were actually on a boat navigating rough seas rather than on the third floor of a concrete office building in the shadow of the state capitol. Brenda had organized a little event in the conference room, with a percolator of harsh coffee and a plate of tasteless muffins from the downstairs cafeteria, to welcome me to the staff. The other analysts shook my hand and then abandoned me to cluster in small groups of two or three, talking in hushed tones. I just stood there, feet planted on the floor, an awkward smile on my face, waiting for this event to be over. Finally, Brenda walked over and welcomed me aboard. 

I do not find the office environment particularly comfortable or friendly. There are two analysts, Rick and Lucy, whom I consider true office friends, by which I mean that we have each other’s backs on projects (we all report to Brenda), we keep each other updated on our lives outside the office, and we even go out for happy hour drinks once in a while, although I can only manage that when Ned isn’t teaching his evening Introduction to American History class. Rick’s single and Lucy and her husband are childless for the time being, so I’m the one with the schedule constraints. They understand. 

But the three of us are definitely not in the inner circle. Brenda has her favored analysts, all of whom happen to be male, and they get to play by different rules than the rest of us. They’re allowed to drift in late. They sometimes spend the first hour or so of the morning visiting one another’s cubicles to discuss the latest episode of MASH or Hill Street Blues. They sit at their desks sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups and turning the pages of the newspaper.  Brenda likes to swan around the office, and she always stops by their cubicles to chat and kid around. The rest of us just try to ignore the noise. 

Don’t get me wrong. I do my part to maintain good relations with everyone.  I smile and say good morning. I choke down the obligatory, white-frosted supermarket cake slices at every informal staff birthday party. I hand over cash for every clandestine office pool. Why aren’t those things enough to make me a team player?

I really do not know what to make of this rating. During my first month or so, I sometimes made suggestions during our team meetings on the study to which I was assigned. Each suggestion drew an angry glare from Brenda and silence from the other analysts. Trust me, I got the message: My suggestions were not welcome. Since then I’ve used other strategies to get my ideas implemented, such as making suggestions to Alan (who can always be relied on to take credit for others’ work) or simply revising the project work plan to incorporate the revisions that I thought were appropriate. The weird part is that no one, not even Brenda, has ever said a word about these changes. Either they thought they were okay, or they never even noticed them.    

There is another matter that I feel is relevant to the issue of my taking initiative. A few weeks ago, I learned that I earn $3,200 less than Bruce and Justin earned when they were hired as temporary analysts, even though both of them were hired only two months before I was and had no more experience than I did. I would like to know the reason for this. If I ask Brenda, she’ll just tell me to talk to Larry Pemberton in Human Resources. But I’ve already done that, and the conversation didn’t go well, as I will explain. 

One morning I overheard Bruce and Justin comparing what they were earning when they were first hired as temporary analysts with what they were earning now that they’re full-time analysts. That’s when I made a beeline for Pemberton’s office. He had been extremely friendly to me— overly friendly, actually—during the interview process and on my first day at work, when I had to sign all those employment forms. He was nice enough, but I didn’t care for his way of standing too close to me and complimenting me on what I was wearing every single time I saw him. 

On the day in question, I found Pemberton (everyone calls him that, behind his back anyway) standing by Audrey’s desk. Audrey, his secretary, sits in the antechamber outside his office.

“Well, hello, there, Miss Brundage!”  He reached out and clamped his hand onto my arm.  “Hey, I really like that dress.”

“Thanks,” I said, easing my arm out of his grip. I usually tried to return the compliment, but he was wearing the ugliest brown plaid sport coat I’d ever seen. “Could I speak to you for a moment?”

“Of course!”

He gestured that I should follow him into his office, but he didn’t close the door. I wasn’t too worried about that, because I didn’t care if Audrey overheard our conversation or not.

I sat down in a hard, wooden chair across from his desk, the top of which was a jumble of manila files stuffed with papers and crumpled pink While You Were Out slips with messages neatly printed in blue pen. Audrey’s handiwork, no doubt. I counted five empty Styrofoam cups with Lipton’s tea bag tags dangling from strings over the sides. 

Pemberton tilted back in his fake-leather office chair, clasped his hands on his desk, and fixed me with his usual toothy grin, which vanished when I asked him for a listing of the salaries paid to temporary analysts in our unit within the last year.

“Well, now, Miss Brundage. Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to provide you with that information.”   

“I don’t understand that, Mr. Pemberton,” I replied in as reasonable a tone as I could muster.  “Salary information is a public record. If I were a reporter requesting that information, you’d have to give it to me.”

He then approximated one of those mirthless laughs that means that the person is pretending to be good-humored. That’s when I noticed his resemblance to the illustration of the buck-toothed, slightly zany Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which I’d been reading to Clara each night. It’s a 1946 edition that I had as a child, and it has wonderful colored illustrations of the main characters. 

“Well, that’s as may be,” Pemberton said. “But the fact remains that I cannot provide you with that information. Why do you want it, anyway?”

“I would just like to know how my salary compares with what the other new hires in my unit were paid when they were temporary analysts.”

“Oh, I’m sure you would,” he said darkly. “That’s what everyone wants. But if I started giving out that material right and left, this place would be a madhouse. We can’t have that. Believe me, you’re better off not knowing.”

I pondered this. “So, you’re saying that I would be upset if I knew how much the others were paid when they had my position?” 

“I don’t see why you should be,” he replied. “It’s not as though you’re supporting a family.” 

“As a matter of fact, I am supporting a family.” My tone was more argumentative than I intended it to be. I glanced toward the open door.

Pemberton was making a show of reorganizing the papers on his desk. His earlobes were bright red, which I took to mean that steam was going to emerge from his ears if I didn’t do something to salvage the situation. 

“Well,” I said in the meekest voice I could muster, “I just thought that I would ask. There’s no harm in asking, is there?”

He looked up at me and bared his teeth in a pretend-smile. “Of course not. But I’m going to have to ask you to leave now, because I have another meeting beginning shortly.”

We both stood up, and he walked around his desk until he was right beside me. Then he put his hand on my waist, as if we were walking out onto a dance floor, and guided me out the door. 

“Thank you, Mr. Pemberton,” I said in the same meek voice. 

As I passed by Audrey’s desk, she stared up at me through the thick lenses of her round-rimmed glasses. 

After that day, I started mentally casting other people as characters in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Brenda was the ill-tempered Queen of Hearts, of course. Bruce, the most sycophantic of her acolytes, was the King of Hearts. Alan, the master of well-timed disappearances, was the Cheshire Cat. Lucy, who is always worrying about being late for meetings, was the White Rabbit. The illustrations don’t show the Dormouse’s face, so I went with the notion of mousiness, which made Audrey the logical candidate for that part.     

As for Alice: well, that would be me. I’m stumbling through Wonderland, trying to figure out how to survive in this peculiar, inhospitable place.

A week or so after my disastrous meeting with Pemberton, I found a plain white, sealed envelope tucked into the right-hand pocket of my trench coat, which I always drape over the credenza behind my desk. Inside the envelope was a neatly typed page listing the names and salaries of all of the analysts working at DMS over the past year. And that is how I learned that my salary is $3,200 lower than the salaries paid to Bruce and Justin when they were hired as temporary analysts.    

For the record, I do not know who left that envelope in my coat. Maybe Pemberton had a change of heart, although you and I both know that is unlikely. And in case you’re contemplating any sort of disciplinary action against anyone on his staff, I would offer the following reminders.  First, there is not a shred of evidence linking Audrey to the envelope. And second, the information in the envelope is public. 

In other words, “Off with her head!” It’s clear that the Red Queen plans to banish me from her kingdom. Will she succeed? That’s where you come in.

In case you’re wondering, I’ve cast you as the hookah-smoking Caterpillar in my mental production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Caterpillar is mysterious and dignified, and he sits on a mushroom that Alice eats. One side of the mushroom makes her taller, and one side makes her smaller. You have the power to decide whether I will rise to the proud position of full-time Analyst or shrink to the low-level status of Temporary Analyst Whose Days Are Numbered. Also, you’re a chain-smoker. (As I’ve indicated, your secretary Cheryl is a Chatty Cathy type – she loves to gossip about you.) Under the circumstances, the role of Caterpillar seems appropriate. 

I am a hard worker. I am committed to the DMS mission. I produce high-quality analyses that ultimately benefit the public interest. I am sure you’ll agree that these are compelling reasons to change my Composite Rating from Below Standard to Meets Expectations so that I can become a full-time DMS analyst. 

Conclusion

Mr. Morrison, let me assure you that I will launch into full appeasement mode if you grant me this opportunity. For example, I will express enthusiasm for Brenda’s ideas, rather than just sitting there impassively, during staff meetings. Obviously, I can’t flirt with her the way Bruce and Justin do, but I will compliment her on her outfits, which are expensive and tasteful. I will also try to get over my paranoia about the cool kids in her inner circle and make an effort to get to know those guys. In short, I will make a sincere effort to become a team player. 

Obviously you are a team player, Mr. Morrison. For example, I know that the Governor recently appointed you to his new Commission on the Status of Women in State Government, and that means that the Governor trusts your judgment. He believes that you have the professional and personal integrity necessary to participate in the Commission’s important work.  Would his confidence in you be shaken if he learned that temporary female analysts in the DMS are paid less than temporary male analysts with equivalent experience? Or that your Director of Human Resources is a smarmy creep with a habit of engaging in inappropriate touching when interacting with young, female staff? 

And then there’s the matter of that little gift you gave Cheryl last Christmas. Did you really think a pink satin negligee was an appropriate holiday gift for your secretary? Yes, all of the administrative staff know about it. No, they probably won’t tell the Governor. And neither will I, if you override Brenda’s ratings of my performance and promote me the full-time analyst position that I deserve. 

I realize that Wonderland is a surreal place where the normal rules of logic and behavior do not apply. But I have cast myself in the role of Alice, who survives the chaos of Wonderland because of her courage and dignity and sense of justice. Please do not make the mistake of underestimating my own capacity for survival here.

In closing, I’d like to express my heartfelt appreciation to you, Mr. Morrison, for considering my appeal. I look forward to serving the DMS and the citizens of this state for many years to come. 

~~~

Pamela Bloomfield is an independent consultant to governments and nonprofit organizations. Her short stories have appeared in Foliate Oak, Evening Street Review, Northern New England Review, and Iowa Woman, and her articles have been published in Public Administration Review, State and Local Government Review, and other professional journals.