Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are always a little tough because I lost both my parents nine months apart back in 2007. But what gets me through it many times is the fact they were both brilliant and hilarious and taught me many of life’s lessons. Since this will also show up on Linkedin, I thought I’d relate some of the valuable lessons they imparted to me about getting along at work. Hint: they vary between serious and, well, satisfyingly snarky.
From my Father: If your boss requires everyone to wear a tie, do so, but feign shortness of breath a few times a day to let the boss know the health risks involved in working all day with your neck in a noose.
From my Mother: Always look your best on the job. She always did, even when she volunteered as a lunch lady in our grade school. The payoff was an 8-year old gushing, “Mrs. Garsten, you look beautiful today!” The other lunch ladies would suddenly find an excuse to refill the napkin dispensers.
From my Father: If someone acts like a jerk, try to ignore it. But if they persist, you have to act. My father was a chemical engineer. Back in his day engineers worked in rows of drafting tables, and so, in close quarters with each other. He didn’t like it when one of the other engineers was disruptive, so he learned how to shoot rubberbands accurately at long distances. Many a workplace jerk suffered a welt from my father scoring a bullseye on the back of his head. Indeed, my father passed on to my brother and me his secret which I have used sparingly, but effectively, especially in movie theaters to neutralize a loudmouth in the audience.
From my Mother: Don’t be lazy! Early in her career my mother was a buyer at a big New York City department store. A high-pressure job. She despaired when she saw a co-worker just sitting around yakking or otherwise goldbricking. When I started my work life at age 9 at the local laundramat, I hated folding people’s underwear and other unmentionables, but my mother scolded me about being lazy and that no matter what a job entailed, you needed to do it because that’s why you were being paid. Considering I earned exactly one shiny quarter each day I worked, this turned out to be a motivational challenge, but the lesson always stayed with me because I worked in broadcasting which has roughly the same pay scale.
From my Father: If your boss is a moron…DO NOT SAY SO to his or her face. I worked for several morons over the years and never broke my father’s rule. Instead, I ignored idiotic directives and went about my business in what I thought were more sensible directions. The corollary to the rule was: don’t let the boss take credit for your good ideas! This may seem counter-intuitive to some who believe in the concept of “managing up.” However, if everyone else in the office knows the boss is a moron, they also know he/she could never have come up with a good idea and would know the boss attempted to steal the credit and you would look like a hapless doormat.
From my Mother: One of my mother’s favorite phrases when discussing a person attempting to stick you with a thankless task was “tell him to go shit in his hat!” She used an endearing baby voice when saying this, which took away some of its sting but still made its point. The one time I tried that my target kinda stammered before saying, “Um, I’m not wearing a hat.” That caused me to do a quick pivot to “Right. Then go fuck yourself.” The twin burns impressed my co-workers which came in handy when I was made the boss. But lesson learned from my mother, don’t let someone stick you with a crappy task.
From my Father: If you become the boss don’t be a wimp. He had been a boss on several jobs and his underlings feared him. In fact, when I worked a summer job at an engineering firm where many of my father’s former underlings were employed, I could hear whispers of “Be nice to the kid. He’s Dick Garsten’s kid and you don’t want him ratting on you.” At the same time, my father was much beloved because he was also respected for fairness, sense of humor and how much he truly cared for those who worked for him. I was never a tough guy boss. Just not in me, but I did use my father’s lessons in empathy and respect to win loyalty during the times I led a job or department.
I don’t know how either of my parents would have reacted to the social distancing we’re stuck with during his pandemic because they were both social, fun people who enjoyed close, interpersonal relationships. Besides, if someone acts like a jerk on Zoom, it’s damn near impossible to hit him with a rubber band.
Before I sort of retired five years ago I had a great career in news and PR and am enjoying a scaled back version of both in my semi-retirement. I have my parents to thank for setting great examples of how to survive and thrive in the workplace through a combination of hard work, humor and a little bit of recalcitrance.
I miss ’em both every day and honor them regularly by eschewing the wearing of ties and silently instructing those who deserve it to go shit in their hats.