The Weird and the Strange IX: Charlie Ronald

{Disclaimer: The name Charlie Ronald was chosen arbitrarily to represent another person whose identity will not be revealed.  I know no person named Charlie Ronald, and any similarities to anyone named Charlie Ronald are purely coincidental.}

The Smile

Charlie Ronald was a bad guy.  He may not have been the over the top, twisting mustache, tie the lady to the tracks bad guy that we can spot a mile away, but he was a bad guy.  He may not have been a criminal, and he may not have violated anyone’s rights in anyway, but controlling for all that, Charlie Ronald was the worst guy I ever met.

It’s tough to convince people that Charlie Ronald was a bad guy, because so many people had bad guy tropes from movies and TV dancing in their heads whenever they hear the term bad guy.  He wasn’t in your face, and he carefully used Human Resource-approved language every minute of every day.  If some news channel were to do a profile on him, they would say he never said an unkind word to anyone, and based on my experience with him that would remain a fact.  It was hard to hate Charlie Ronald in the manner we’re currently told to hate some people, but it was easy to loathe him based on the idea that he was an -est character that is hard to describe to people at a lunch table with time constraints.

Most people believe that a first impression should include an -est characterization.  They want you to believe that they are the smartest, toughest, and shrewdest person you’ve ever met when you first shake hands with them.  This is usually a result of their insecurities, and the -est impressions they give are usually a shield they use to prevent you from seeing their soft and chewy, inner core.  Therefore when I arrive at my -est reading of a person, I usually back down and choose to believe I have jumped to a conclusion prematurely, or that they have purposely given me a false impression to prevent me from investigating further.  Doing otherwise, and relying on those instant conclusions, has usually led me to having a miserable relationship with the subject that will last 40 hours a week, for our shared tenure in the company.

I never thought a smile could be a sign of weakness, until I greeted Charlie Ronald to our team with a smile.  I watched him examine my smile.  He looked at me like I was “a smiler”.  A smile appeared to be a bad first impression to Charlie Ronald.  It appeared to set the stage for how he would deal with me  To my apparent detriment, it was a bad first step to want to get along with someone I’d never met before.  This examination of my smile told me that ‘being wary’ was probably a better course, or at least being prepared for what may come.  To my detriment, I wanted to have a working relationship with him, and 99% of the people that I’ve worked with had have all kinds of -est flaws, but always I’ve found a way to work with them.

I smiled at Charlie the next time we spoke.  He gave me a look of fatigue that suggested that I still didn’t get it.  There was some compassion in that second glance, but it was laced with condescension.  My obsessive belief that I know how to read people has gotten me in trouble before, but I swear that fatigued look progressed into a snarl before either of us said a word.  The snarl was one that most Hollywood casting agents search for when they need a bad guy in their retro, 50’s movie.  To say that it was a simple snarl would lead readers all over the country to think of Elvis’s predatory snarl.  It wasn’t that snarl, of course, but it was one that informed me that I would forever be characterized in his mind as a smiler.

Charlie Ronald was my first real life visage of the Hollywood’s depiction of the corporate type.  He was a good looking, deceptive, phony, egotistical, self-serving, mean, and a sleek dresser.  He dressed like those preppy kids we all hated in high school, but we all dressed like that … in the 80’s.  Charlie Ronald was a throwback in every sense of the word.  He was a Gordon Gecko type that believed that you did everything you could to get ahead.  Many of us enjoyed that Gordon Gecko “Greed is Good” speech for what it was, and for what the screenwriters Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone intended, and for what they didn’t intend, but few of us took it as seriously as Charlie Ronald apparently did.

When he was hired, I thought he was going to assist me in answering the questions of the Customer Service (CS) agents on our shift.  I thought he was going to be a nice guy.  I’d love to tell you that I was onto him from the very beginning.  I’d love to tell you that I was perceptive, and observant, and I saw it all.  I didn’t.  He didn’t charm me in the way he did those that hired him, but I thought he was a pleasant enough sort.  So, I gave him a chance.  I wasn’t going to burden our relationship with my powers of observation.  I was a smiler.

Prior to the Charlie Ronald’s hiring, my manager asked me to draw up a perfect senior agent to assist me in my senior agent duties. “Two words,” I said, “technical proficiency.  If the person you hire is technically proficient, I can handle the rest.  I can train them while they learn the rest, and I can take the rest of the world on my shoulders while they learn it.”  My manager later told me that she hired Charlie Ronald on that basis.

When I began working with Charlie, we exchanged pleasantries.  I asked him how much he knew about sports, and he appeared to know a great deal.  He confessed that he didn’t know as much as I did after a few exchanges, but he said he enjoyed watching sports.  That was enough for me.  He asked me if I was a Star Wars fan.  I said I was, but after a few exchanges on the subject I confessed that I didn’t know as much as he did.

I’m sure they told you that I’m mr. universal,” I said with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “I know everything about this company save for the tech questions. We will be sending those questions your way.”  I was being funny.  I was smiling.  I was being affable.  

“Don’t,” Charlie said without a smile, and with a slight cringe.  Snarls and overbearing looks aside, Charlie was a charming man.  He normally exhibited a full smile when met with heavy eye contact.  His smile was not a smile that we smilers use.  His was a method of distraction, a way to avoid making eye contact.  He tried, we tried, to move onto other conversation topics.  He tried to be an interesting conversationalist without being overbearing.  He tried to distract from the slight cringe, and the follow up smile, but I couldn’t turn the page with him.  I thought I saw him.

I eventually snapped out of it and stopped with my obsessive readings.  I thought that slight cringe may have meant that I hurt his feelings.    I tried to convince him, and myself, that I wasn’t constantly, and obsessively, reading people. I did everything I could to return us back to the pleasant, smiling stage.  He saw this guilt.  He saw my effort, he saw my smile, and he perceived it as weakness.

“I don’t know all the technological aspects of this company,” he said. “And I’m not getting a degree in computer technology.”  Both of these characteristics were the reason you were hired, I wanted to say.  You were seen as the perfect person to work with me.  I said nothing.  He smiled at my confusion. He smiled at my silence.  He then said something to soften that blow.  We weren’t standing there in total silence, in other words, but nothing he said mattered after that initial blow.

“There is a price to be paid for indiscretion, and your reward for being a good, honest person will come to you in the end,”  my sixth grade teacher Sister Mary Lawrence said when my character was on the line, and I stood in a precarious position.  I gave it all up.  I gave everyone involved up.  I lost friends.  I lost stature in the sixth grade world, but she had rattled me.  She told me that I was living dishonestly, and the only cure for that was honesty.  She broke me.

As young as I was, I waited for my reward to come at the end of the day, the week or the school year.  The Nun was very forthright with her words, and she convinced me believe that there would be a tangible reward for my good deeds and honesty.  The nonsense of a ten-year-old mind thought there would be immediate rewards for honesty.  I don’t know if I expected a parade at the end, or a plaque of some sort, but I suspected that there would be a tangible reward for honesty at the end of that school year.  Now that I’m of a more seasoned mind, and I understand that that Nun was speaking of rewards in the sense of having a better epistemology, I still search for the fruit of living the good and honest life.  In this search, Charlie Ronald is the bad guy, with a bad guy snarl, defining the alternative universe in which the one that engages in indiscretions for the short-term rewards usually finds the fruit first.

At the Expense of Others

Charlie Ronald didn’t particularly care for most people, and most people didn’t particularly care for him.  They say that you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat people that can do nothing for them.  If that’s the sole barometer one uses to judge a man, Charlie Ronald was a poor excuse for a man.  He treated all of those beneath him in our corporate atmosphere, as if they were beneath him, and he treated all of those who were above him in our corporate hierarchy, as if they were superior creatures.  He eventually had a meteoric rise in our company with that philosophy, but as I said, it all began with a lie.

I don’t know how many lies were involved  in Charlie’s meteoric rise to the top, but I was there at the foundation.  I saw the first lie, firsthand, and as I got to know him, and I began to realize that it was all about that one lie.   I know what I saw, and I know what I know.  I know he follows what all those ‘80’s movies told us about corporate America.  I know he lies.  I know that if he read everything I’m writing about here, he would qualify each and every lie he told in our corporate boardrooms.  Or, if he didn’t, I’m pretty sure he would smile and point at the final scoreboard.  ‘Whose formula worked?’ is something he might ask triumphantly.

“My last supervisor was a real piece of (work),” a co-worker once told me.  She went on to describe a man that had no interest in her success in the company, and no interest in her in general.  ”Most supervisors know how to fake it,” she said. “He can’t even do that … in closed door sessions.  When management is around, as happened once, he exhibited care and an interest that kind of shocked me.  He asked about my kid, and how he was doing.  I was so shocked that I could barely manage words.  Then I noticed that his manager was watching us, and it all made sense.”  Her rant was so long, and so filled with detail that I nearly forgot to ask who it was.  ”Charlie Ronald,” she said when I finally did ask.

I spoke to Charlie a number of times.  I talked to him about sports, and I only went a couple of conversations in before I realized that our earlier conversation was just the charm coming out.  The man knew even less about sports than he confessed to knowing previously.  I began to change the subject to his apparent favorite topic: Star Wars.  He cut me off quickly, stating that he was going to sell his Star Wars collection.  I thought he was simply sick of talking about Star Wars with me, suggesting that he was more than just Star Wars.  The look that he gave me while I began searching for another topic told me that it wasn’t just Star Wars he was sick of talking about.  He was sick of talking to me.

Our relationship took a professional turn from there.  I no longer tried to engage him in conversation beyond that which was necessary.  The employees on the team were not swayed so easily.  They attempted to befriend him.  It took them a little longer to realize that if you couldn’t do anything for Charlie Ronald he had no real interest in you.

He introduced cynicism and pessimism to our team, and he was quite successful in that regard.  I found that I was no longer in control of my atmosphere.  Employees were complaining to me about his demeanor.  They said he was being short with them, and that he started little fights among them.  I had dealt with a spirit of negativity before on our team, but Charlie Ronald’s spirit was a great deal more powerful than anything I’d experienced before.

Perhaps it was his looks, or his charm, but all of the agents strove for his approval.  They wanted him to think they were good employees and good people, and the fact that he wouldn’t give them that gave him a lot of power in their individual relationships.  They were often depressed about it.  They knew I liked them, and they knew that I thought they were good people and good employees.  This was a given.  This wasn’t anything they needed to achieve. Charlie Ronald’s approval was something to achieve, and he destroyed our team with it.

Our upper management staff was comprised of overweight, homely women.  Charlie concentrated his efforts upon them.  I could see how charming and likable Charlie could be when you could do something for him.  I could see the congenial side of Charlie Ronald when congeniality gained him something.  Charlie flirted with them, and they ate it up.  Charlie showed me how to kiss ass.  I’ve seen ass kissing before, but Charlie had it down.  He crystallized the idea that kissing ass is a function performed by two highly insecure individuals to produce a mutually beneficial outcome. The overweight, homely women liked being in charge, and they liked being told they were in charge, regardless the true import of the communique.  It defined their leadership a little when Charlie Ronald buttered their bottoms with cute, harmless, and professional flirting, and watching him conduct these women was like watching the most proficient maestro you’ve ever seen conduct an orchestra.  He not only made it look easy, but he made you think that this what you should’ve been doing your whole life.  Those with integrity, and a nun’s enforced sense of guilt, prohibited you from being that phony no matter how beautiful it was to watch.  As beautiful as it was, in its own sense, it was also quite painful.  I don’t think I would’ve been able to sleep at night after saying some of the things Charlie Ronald said to them.  He had no problem with it.  He had a master plan, and he knew that plan could be accomplished without consequences.  He knew that these women were professional women that would not risk their current stature by cashing in on Charlie Ronald’s subtle flirting, and on the off chance that they did, I’m sure he was as quick with the “professional” card as Wyatt Earp was with a gun to avoid greater confusion.

The upper management giggles to Charlie Ronald statements were like nails on a chalkboard to me.  I couldn’t believe they didn’t see it for what it was, but they probably could, and they probably liked it.

Charlie lunched with them, and he spoke to more than I did in management meetings.  Much of what Charlie said was gibberish, but it was earnest gibberish.  It was his wish “to understand what management expected of him.”  He was a bad guy.

Charlie performed special projects for management.  My job, our job, the job, was to answer all of the questions of the CS agents.  Go through the list of job details of senior agent, at this company, and this is the first bullet point.  It is followed by the bullet points that express the need to do “some” special projects, and a general statement that talks about getting along with management.  I don’t know if the latter is explicitly stated, or if it’s an implied bullet point that anyone that is a senior agent for any length of time comes to understand, but we all knew and understood that our primary job duty was listed in that first bullet point.

The job duties were divided between us, after a time, where my primary focus would be answering CS agents’ questions, and Charlie Ronald would be freed up to devote more time to special projects.  There would be some overlap, of course, but we would both have primary drivers in our duties.  To my detriment, apparently, I enjoyed this division of labor.  They played to our individual strengths.  Allowing this to go forward, in the manner it did, turned out to be my huge, and I mean HUGE, mistake.  Huge mistake for me believing that my relationship with the team of CS agents would redown to my benefit, and huge mistake for me not seeing the long game Charlie Ronald was playing by attaching his name to all of the special projects that had been assigned to our team.  I was beloved, among the team of CS agents, for not only making sure they had high quality scores, but that they learned the material as they went.  I was tireless in my effort to be perceived as one of the primary employees in the company, a cog that went about his job honestly, and perhaps quietly, with the knowledge that there would be some accolades and rewards from those in the know.  That was naive thinking on my part, and I realized this after a time, but it was ultimately demoralizing to see, firsthand, how wrong, and I mean WRONG, I was.  Charlie Ronald, the newer of the two of us, learned how the system worked, and he played it like a Stradivarius.

After completing my study of Charlie Ronald, I realized that most of my initial impressions of the man were right on the mark.  He was a man that gave bad vibes, but as I said most of my readings of bad vibes had resulted in bad readings.  With Charlie Ronald, at least, my initial readings of the man proved prescient.  But who cares, I decided. Who cares if you don’t personally like the guy, that he’s in direct competition with you, and his inter-personal skills are some of the worst I’ve ever seen.  You still have a job to do.  Your job is to do it to the best of your abilities, and let the accolades fall where they may.

A short time after coming to this conclusion, Charlie Ronald reached out, for the first time, to stab me in the back.  I was conducting a meeting.  I wasn’t great at conducting meetings and Charlie Ronald knew it, so we decided that I would conduct this particular meeting by myself.  This particular meeting was going great, however, as I grew comfortable with the information before me, and I was interacting with the CS agents well, and I was in a mode of confidence I’m rarely in when speaking before other people.  I was “on” in other words, and Charlie Ronald knew it.

“Your time is almost up,” he said soon after the supervisor entered our meeting.  He hadn’t said a word the entire meeting, until the supervisor walked in.  If that wasn’t enough, he asked me a question that the two of us had discussed two days prior, a question neither of us knew the answer to.  That question also had nothing to do with the presentation.  He was right, however, in saying that my time was coming to a close, and I hadn’t yet focused on some of the latter points in the PowerPoint presentation that required attention.  I was focusing too much attention on the other points.  The fact that he was right does take some points away from my argument, but the fact that he saved this observation until the point that he could interrupt me in front of our supervisor diminishes any points he may have had.  This insight only occurred later, of course, after the nature of Charlie Ronald’s actions were finally made obvious to me.  I didn’t think that Charlie was trying to disrupt me.  I thought he was posing questions, and giving helpful reminders.  I had no idea he was trying to disrupt my fluidity, so that our supervisor wouldn’t see me delivering a presentation fluidly.  That my easy, smooth flow could so easily be interrupted speaks of my public speaking skills, of course, but it should also speak volumes about Charlie Ronald’s insecurity, and his deceptive manner in general.

A couple weeks later, our manager instituted what she called project tough love.  Project tough love meant that the senior agents were no longer going to answer all of the questions our CS agents had directly.  Our job, going forward, was to instruct them to find their own answers, and where necessary how to find it.  I was never good at tough love.  I felt sorry for the agents who were doing poorly, and I didn’t want to be unfair to those who were doing well.  They were my friends.  I knew they were working their tails off, and I didn’t want to contribute to their duress if I didn’t have to. If I felt that at any point one of them was not working their tails off, and they were relying too much on me, I would’ve changed course, and I did do that on occasion, but for the most part my way worked well for all parties concerned.

I did instruct some agents on how to find some of the easier questions, but I didn’t think that it did much good to instill tough love when it came to questions that were off the wall and that they would never use again.  It was also a waste of my time.  If you couldn’t find the answer to their questions for them immediately, they would badger you with follow up questions.  Project tough love didn’t work well for me at all.  Charlie Ronald loved project tough love.

Project tough love was perfectly suited to a guy who didn’t want to answer questions and who didn’t want to fraternize with the employees.  Project tough love provided Charlie a cloak for the fact that he didn’t know the answers to their questions, and his pat answer “look it up” began to look like he was only following the new tough love procedures.

All of the CS agents loved me, and I loved them.  Management loved Charlie Ronald, and he loved them.  I dotted my I’s and crossed my T’s with management, but Charlie finessed them.  He laughed at their stupid jokes, added jokes that complimented their stature and power in the company, and buttered their backsides in a manner that fed into the mystique of they had about their management abilities in a manner that would give me some sleepless nights.

If anyone reads this story about Charlie Ronald, and thinks I envy him in any way, I would probably suggest that you reread this entire piece.  This is a story about two different personalities, and the two definitions of the word performance.  One performs to the delight of those that enjoy a good performance, and the other quietly goes about performing in a way he’s never performed for a company in his life, and he thinks that by doing so, the rewards for performance will naturally follow.  When that didn’t arrive, and the quiet performer was told, based on his numbers, that he was a quality performer … no more, and no less … he was dumbfounded.  He was listed as a three on a scale of one to five.

“What did you expect?” said the deliverer of bad news.  ”I’m always amazed by you people that just think that things will just come to you.  That management will just know that you’re a good employee.  First, you gotta show them.  Then you gotta tell them.  Keep a journal of your activities,” he said to initiate his “To do” list that would resolve my dilemma.

This was a crushing blow to my, “I’m doing this right and Charlie Ronald is doing it wrong” narrative, and a crushing blow to my epistemology that if you do what you do as well as you know how to do it, someone will notice, and the accolades will follow.  In its place now, are the “You gotta toot your own horn,” and “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” cliches, but I would never go so far the other way that I became a Charlie Ronald, because Charlie Ronald, no matter what you say about his ability to manipulate the system, is a bad guy.

This all led me to wonder if Charlie Ronald is such a bad guy “off the field”.  Is he so brilliant that he can play a Gordon Gecko character at work, and shut it all off and become Ward Cleaver at home, or is he just a bad person?  Is he a good buddy to the fellas; a good dad, a good husband, son, brother, etc., or is he as calculating, manipulative, and deceptive with them as he is with us.  ”Everybody has someone that loves them,” you hear, and ”You don’t take your work home with you,” but if you’re so good at being what Charlie Ronald is doesn’t there have to be some overlap?  How can a guy like that be good to his kid?  I hope he is, don’t get me wrong, but I just don’t think it’s possible.

I’ve witnessed the Charlie Ronald that exists when all of his shields are lowered, and management isn’t around, and he couldn’t “all of a sudden” become a good guy once he’s clocked out for the day and collected all of his pens.  And if he is just a bad guy at work, where are all these ramifications I’ve been taught will follow as a natural course?  If there is a karmic universe in which good things only happen to good people, am I just too impatient as I wait for the hammer to drop on Charlie Ronald?

I could’ve left all of these questions in the theoretical, but too much damage to my definition of right and wrong had been done.  I saw Charlie Ronald’s formula work so well that I couldn’t leave this portion of my life without righting some of the wrongs that he committed on a daily basis, and I decided that if God, or nature, or this metaphysical universe wouldn’t provide this man some ramifications for living the way he did, I would.  I would hire a couple of my friends to hurt Charlie Ronald in the parking lot of our company one night in an otherwise obscure week of everyone’s life.  I was as shocked as any of you that know me will be when you learn about the decision I made, but once you make such a decision, once you firmly resolve yourself to such horrific levels of violence, there’s no way to turn that off, until it’s done.

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