What I Learned After Working In The HR Department

What I Learned After Working In The HR Department
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Somehow I ended up working in the HR department of one of the biggest and most recognized companies in the world. For sake of confidentiality (I was in HR after all and this was part of the gig), I won't mention the name of the company. I had just moved to New York City, fresh off the bus -- or out of the car rather, I drove up with my mom, sister, nephew and my belongings -- and this was my entry job back into the corporate world. I had moved up originally to "become a writer," little did I know then, that, to become one, I just had to write all of the time, no matter where I was based. In any case, I saved up a bunch of money and up I moved, leaving the Sunshine State behind me and the snow ahead of me.

With a total of three thousand in the bank, I figured I would try and get some paid writing gigs, get to know people and tend bar in the meantime. I had been in the restaurant industry, but I had never actually bartended, I told my new employers that I had, they believed me, as I knew restaurant operations pretty well. I ran to the bookstore and purchased a book on cocktail recipes and memorized the most popular ones. All was going good and then Prince rolls up to my bar. It shocked the hell out of me, but of course I had to play it cool. As tranquil as possible, I asked him, "what'll it be?" He said, "the usual." I was stumped, I didn't know what that was. I said, "okay what's that?" He laughed, Prince laughed! I was dying inside, and then he said he'll just have a cold beer. After the shock wore off, I got his joke, not only was he wicked talented musically, he was also funny.
After a good amount of time playing bartender, I decided I was finished. The end of my making drinks career came in a bit of dramatic fashion of course. It was just after "family meal," - where the chefs cook up the older food that they need to get rid of for the staff to eat before the night shift begins - I was putting my plate in the sink and then I heard a loud slap. The owner, I should really out him here but I'm too cool for that so I won't, was screaming at one of the bus boys. The bus boys were all illegal immigrants working for pennies basically. He did it again, SLAP! This time I saw it with my own eyes. This is one of the most popular upper east side restaurants, there aren't many up there, so if any residents of the UES are reading this, you could probably figure it out: fancy, outside seating, quaint and photos of celebrities with the owner's arm wrapped around their shoulders blasted on the walls.
The owner was taking advantage of the guys and treating them horribly in the process. As I was just about to quit anyway, I decided to do so that Friday night, before my shift and leave him in a bind. That was too much negativity for me to work through, I can still see it in my mind, it was a bit traumatizing. I had been in the corporate world before I moved and I figured it was time to go back, the starving artist thing was for the birds. I don't do well when I'm broke, it's too hard. It's doable, but with a ton of bricks on your shoulders. I found the opening for an Administrator of HR for this amazing company. I didn't have any HR experience, but it was partially administrative and almost managerial - the exact level I was at - so I applied. I got the gig and then the "real" money would start flowing in. My salary was $42,000. That was so much money in my mind, compared to what I had made down South.
$42,000 is basically poverty level in New York. It was so little, that my roommate and I shared a one bedroom in Chelsea and I had the smaller "room" that was based in the living room, which I separated with curtains. Sounds crazy, but we thought it looked funky and "artsy." My first few months on the job were a learning curve as with any job. I was introduced to the company files and told, "These are your responsibility, you are in charge of who takes them in and out, think of them as your babies." I remember thinking, "I"m in charge of the employee files? Holy shit." I was too scared at first to take the reigns, so I didn't touch them too much, they were so official. After a month or so, when everyone in the department was taking them in and out at free will, I was losing track mentally of where a file was and decided it was time to take charge.
I created a log-in sheet. If someone wanted to take out an employee file, they needed to ask me in person first and then I would hand them the clip board where they needed to write their name, what time they were checking it out, who's file they were going to look at and had 24 hours to return it. Only those in the HR or legal departments were allowed. Employees were allowed to look at their own files, but only at my desk in front of me, in my "guest chair." My boss and the Director of HR were more than thrilled with the way I guarded the files, and I received rave reviews from everyone in the departments for my outstanding organization. The files also had a lock and key and I put the key on my chain and guarded it with my life.
As time went on everything settled in nicely, I had developed relationships with all of my colleagues and everyone loved me and I loved them. When the job wasn't challenging anymore, I found myself bored silly at my desk. I would go talk to the cool ones in the PR department downstairs to hear about the fancy celebrity parties they were going to every night, after we would talk way too long, I would go back to my desk and rot. Then I remembered I had the most interesting of material right at my finger tips, the employee files... I didn't feel like a criminal anymore flipping through them, as I had felt when I first started, now I knew it was my job to do so. Additionally, I had now become friends with the employees, knew who was who and understood how important they were in the industry...so what were they making?
I went through every file and knew exactly what each employee was making by name and I knew who was on probation, who was about to get fired, when they got raises, who was a star and every problem they were having, as they usually came to me first to get my advice, like I was a professional of some sort. I would play the part, "so what happened?" I just loved the juicy gossip, remember I was usually bored out of my skull, but of course I did have a professional role in the matter: I had to document their file, suggest the best course of action and then set a meeting with my boss, the VP of HR. My boss dealt with the employee issues and he saw me as his partner, we were a team - and he didn't like people bugging him too much, so they all came to me first.
Of course the salaries were interesting to learn, especially after I understood the business more. More interesting to me turned out to be the salary increases. I would start to notice a trend, the salaries would increase on a regular basis for the men, before each year would be up. I thought I read this wrong, as a woman, my only understanding of a salary increase at that time, came at the yearly review, I never knew you could get an increase during the year. I had read the file right, in fact, the star performers - or at least the ones the heads of the company thought were stars - would receive regular salary increases every eight months or so. Not huge but steady, they would go from $110,000 to say $112,000, then on their yearly salary review, their salary would jump up around 7 to 10%, depending on their score.
This was all fine and dandy to me, just information I was processing. As my boredom sunk in, so did my curiosity. I wondered what it would look like to compare the files of the men in the same positions as the women. There weren't too many women in top positions to begin with, so I didn't have much to work with, but the ones who were there, compared to their male counterparts, were making less and getting less increases - they were stuck to the yearly review process and only then did they receive increases. I couldn't believe what I had figured out, not only were the women in the same positions as men making less than the men, they were also missing out on the little increases before their yearly reviews. It was my first lesson into the world of corporate New York and my first look at how things really worked.
From there I started observing. Maybe I was understanding it wrong, maybe the women didn't deserve it and the men in question were just stellar. I started to hang out with both parties by dropping by their offices, offering them donuts and asking about the business. Everyone was always willing to talk business and teach those below them about it. I would ask what they did on a daily basis and then I would go back to their file and read through every word of their performance reviews. I had developed a pretty good understanding of what each job consisted of. From what I could tell, the women were working much harder and smarter than most of the men and the men were making more. The men were going golfing with their bosses, meeting up in restaurants after work, blowing through huge expense accounts each year and forming bonds that the women were not - because they were hustling home to be with their kids. It was a bit disheartening and I couldn't tell anyone, as everything was confidential.
I would book meetings for employees with their bosses with my boss and knew exactly what the meetings were about, giving them a little increase. As soon as the meeting was over, my boss would call me in to adjust the employee file and inform payroll of the changes. I would cringe inside, but I did so with a smile and a hustle that I knew he would like to see. The female employees never had these kinds of meetings. They just went on about their business completely clueless this was happening to their male counterparts. What could I do though? A nobody assistant. I told my friends outside of the company of the unfair treatment and figured I would write about it someday. I never divulged any names or the name of the company I worked at, because I held my confidentiality in high regard, but I had to vent. I also took a mental note and decided that moving forward, I would ask for raises before my yearly review.
I was never able to confirm how they got their bosses to agree to push for their raise, as I was never present in the initial meeting with the employee and their boss. All I would witness was the meeting with my boss to get his buy in and then the change to the files. I worked at the company for a year and a half. I received my yearly review and my salary increase, as everyone in the company did, so this satisfied me for that time. Come six months later, I was stone cold. The job was not challenging at all, I was way more advanced than the work I was doing: changing printer toner, scheduling meetings, smiling. By this time, I had taught myself about every job in the company, inside and out, the multiple number of new hire orientations I had organized and sat through drilled the information into my head.
I also found out there was another side to the company, the agency side, the hipper, cooler side of the business, where all of the activity, events, promotions, advertising and marketing were housed. I invented a meeting with the HR head of the agency so I could see the offices. They were a dump, but the place was alive. My kind of music was playing through the speakers, there was a bar in the front where people were drinking at lunch, employees with tattoos and piercings and just more open, creative and fun compared to the quiet, corporate atmosphere I was in. I decided I wanted to work there. After learning what I knew about the men getting what they wanted, I decided to ask for it and set a meeting with my boss. Before the meeting, I was nervous. Was I really going to ask him to get me a job at the agency of record for our company? I reminded myself of how the men got what they wanted and they weren't afraid, so why should I be?
My boss sat across from me tapping his pen on his desk and asked me what was going on. Very calmly and as a matter of fact, I told him of my meeting at the agency, the environment there and the position that I wanted it. I asked him if he was able to help me get the job. He didn't even flinch. I don't know if he wanted me gone or was just proud of me for doing it, but right away he said, "of course." I was blown away. It was THAT easy. There I had been at that same desk for so long doing a job that wasn't really of interest to me, when I could have been doing something enjoyable all along. Thanks to the new found information I had discovered through the files, it gave me the confidence to just ask. That was all it took, just asking. That must have been the secret the men knew all along. Of course, there was a chance he could have said no, but taking the chance was the first step, towards my self-induced salary increase... and promotion.

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