Jessica Bacal is the Director of the Wurtele Center for Work & Life at Smith College, an independent women’s college in Massachusetts with students from every state and from 60 countries around the world. Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong (Plume) emerged from her experiences with students, and from her own steep learning curve as I transitioned into higher education. She lives in Northampton, MA with her husband and two children. Read her interview here. Below, you can read an excerpt from her book, Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong. Courtesy: Jessica Bacal.
Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong (Book Excerpt)
Laurel Touby, Founder of Mediabistro.com
After college, I moved to New York City, where I literally knew only one person. Without the support of family and friends, I was anxious all the time. Even when I landed a job as a media planner for Young & Rubicam (at the time, the largest ad agency in the world) I felt as if I was holding onto a rock wall, just hanging on for dear life—which made it all the more upsetting when I was nearly fired.
I thought I was doing quite well at work, picking everything up. I was staying late and coming in on weekends; I was accomplishing all that was required of me, and like many women, I thought “my job” was only my performance. What I didn’t realize was that I was also being judged by how I came across socially, even during downtimes. At the water cooler or over lunch, I’d been acting fun, casual, speaking my mind, cracking jokes—I wasn’t shying away from being my true, somewhat edgy and irreverent self.
After about a month, my supervisor called me into her office and gestured to the chair across from her desk. I sat down, thinking I was going to be commended for a job well done. Instead, her face grave, she said, “Laurel, we’re going to have to put you ‘on watch.’”
“What do you mean, ‘on watch’?” I asked.
She replied that they had a system there for monitoring employee behavior. People on watch were not fired immediately, but they were given a warning, which gave them time to try to improve and allowed supervisors to continue to assess them.
This took me completely by surprise. My brain hung on one final-sounding word. “Fired?” I asked, tears rolling down my face. “Why?” I had been so proud of myself and was just blindsided by this news. “What is wrong with me that I didn’t see this?” I wondered.
She went on to say that the conversation wasn’t about my work at all, but that several people had reported to her that I was “mean.” I guffawed through my tears. “Mean?” I asked incredulously. “What did I say that was mean?” She repeated back to me a few of the “mean”statements I had made. I explained to her that those had been lame little jokes I blurted out while standing in line at the copier or fixing my lipstick at the mirror in the bathroom. Having never experienced a professional environment, I was awkwardly trying to connect with my colleagues.
The consternation lifted from her face like a veil. She gave me a strange look and said,“You know, you don’t seem mean. Look at you. Unless those are alligator tears, you seem very genuine and sweet. I think I know what’s going on here. It could be a culture thing. Maybe you just don’t fit in culturally and people don’t understand your humor.” But, I stammered, how could they not “understand” my humor? Isn’t all humor pretty much the same? She pointed out that many of my colleagues were from the South or the Midwest. I was from an East Coast city—Miami, Florida. Perhaps my humor was a bit too ironic or cutting. “Why don’t you stop making jokes,” she suggested,“and let’s meet again in a week’s time?”
I had my doubts. I wondered how I could have been so off base in my very first job, when the stakes were so high. If I were fired, who else would hire me?I’d have to return to Miami to work for my grandfather’s construction company. (He was actually eager for that, but to me it was the very definition of failure because it would mean I wasn’t making it on my own.) Would I be able to switch off the jokemaking and present a “false face” to the world?
My supervisor opened up to me then. She explained that she understood all too well; in fact, she’d had to learn how to alter her personality when she began working for Y&R. “I’ve done it and you can do it, too,” she said assuredly, explaining that she’d been the first black woman to be promoted from the secretarial pool to manager and then senior manager. “We’re going to have to just prune you around the edges,” she told me, with a bit too much glee. “You’re a wild tree and we’re going to make you into one of those well-manicured bushes.” She was using the first two fingers on both hands to make scissoring motions high above her head, as if clipping away at a bush that had grown there.
“A topiary,” I said. I’ll never forget that image of her clipping my personality with her scissors—or my sudden realization that what she was really saying was that at the top of her game, she still couldn’t be herself.
But I’m competitive and had to prove that I could fit in in corporate America. I stopped acting playful or making jokes, and I began to pay attention to every word that came out of my mouth, which meant I was straight and boring all the time. I had work “friends,” but I tucked my real personality away when I was with them. Before the week was up, my supervisor called me in and told me that the watch had been lifted and that everything would be fine as long as I didn’t joke anymore.
There’s a set of corporate behaviors—ways of speaking, of addressing people, of responding to things—an entire protocol and vocabulary that I just forced myself to learn. While I eventually mastered these things, I began to wonder if working for a large, highly corporate entity might not be for me.