"What the F--K was so F--KING important?!" He was shouting and red in the face.
I thought about lying, but I really didn't feel like it.
Let's rewind to a week before my boss was yelling at me. My daughter's 18th birthday was approaching. Our family has a tradition of surprising each other on significant birthdays. Over the years, the bar for these surprises has gotten ridiculously high. I knew that, if the day came and went with nothing but a cake and a nice dinner, she'd be disappointed. This was her last at-home birthday and I wanted to do it right. But when I dug down into my bag of original and creative, I came up empty.
The big day was ten days away, so I called my Creative Consultant, a friend, caterer and party planner. The only free night she had was the coming Monday. I looked at my calendar for Monday: my last commitment was a meeting, scheduled to run from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m. No problem. Creative Consultant and I agreed to meet at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, four days before the birthday.
Monday afternoon: 3:00 p.m. comes and goes. Around 3:20, a message from the CEO's assistant: he was running late and we would start our meeting around 3:45. We finally convened at 4:35.
At 6:00 p.m., it was still going on. At 6:10, I began to sweat. At 6:15, my knee was bouncing nervously under the table. At 6:20, I gathered my materials in my arms, pushed back from the table, apologized and said I had an appointment and had to leave.
Over the years, I have sacrificed many personal engagements, vacations, and other priorities when the work demanded it. I never minded. The topic of this meeting, though, was mundane. Nothing time sensitive. Nothing urgent or even particularly important. Anyway, we were almost done.
To my shock, when I left, the CEO followed me out of the room and down the hall, where he proceeded, as he would say, to "rip me a new one." With considerable profanity. The yelling went on for a good two or three minutes. I fought shock and tears as my commitment and integrity and manners were assailed in loud and coarse and abusive terms.
Which brings us to the point at which he demanded an explanation. This is when I thought about lying. Why? Because I knew that a doctor's appointment would be ok. A child's sporting event would probably be ok. A sick relative would be ok. Blackhawks tickets would have been ok. But I didn't feel like lying. I told him I had to leave because I had an appointment with a caterer regarding my daughter's birthday on Friday.
You would have thought I'd said I had to go buy ruffled pink bobby socks to go with my Mary Janes. Incredulous, the boss treated me to a few more minutes of "new one" ripping, after which I put on my coat, apologized again, and left. I wish I could tell you I held my head high, but I didn't. I slunk out.
Here is what I wish I had said. "You're the boss, so you get to make the rules. I get that. But you don't have the right to decide what's important to me outside of work. You don't get to judge my priorities."
In her provocative 2012 article in The Atlantic, Anne Marie Slaughter described how a man will brag at work about getting up every morning at 5:00 a.m. to train for a marathon, and his employer will admire his discipline and commitment. The same is not true for the woman who gets up at 5:00 a.m. to pack her kids' lunches and do the laundry. In fact, she has so fully absorbed the prevailing value system at work that she will never mention it, because her male colleagues would lose respect for her.
This attitude has to change.
So to every employee who has ever been questioned about a competing commitment: get along with your boss, but be strong in your own priorities. You are entitled to them.
To every manager who has ever judged employees based on their out-of-work values, reconsider. Others' priorities aren't frivolous, they're just different. Diversity in the workplace means you may never understand why something you would never do yourself is important to one of your employees.
It may even be bobby socks.