Tuesday, July 13, 2010

a bad work situation (from the past)

At a recent job interview, I was asked to describe a difficult work situation and how I handled it. I was caught off-guard, and talked about the challenges of obtaining reviews and interviews about new books at my last position. But I've been thinking ever since about the situation I should have described, which was this:

I was writing freelance for a national music magazine. I had gotten the gig because it turned out that the editor and I had some mutual friends, who vouched heartily for me; I had never done this type of writing before. The editor was very pleased with the work I produced, and he began to favor me. I got a lot of good assignments and he was very friendly. (He was not in any way hitting on me, because he had a wife at home upstate and a girlfriend in New York City; it was very clear that he was not attracted to me.) He told me that in about a year, he would be able to hire more full-time staff, and I would be the first one hired (only he and the assistant editor had staff jobs at the time). He also said that the next summer, which would fall roughly around the one-year mark, he would be sending writers around the country to cover festivals, and that again, I would have favored status. He was also talked about starting his own magazine and bringing a number of writers along with him, including me.

After a year had passed, I approached him, very nicely, about the staff position, and his response was, "We can't do that." He did not say, "maybe in another six months," or explain what was going on in any way. Soon after, I asked him about the plans for festival coverage in the summer, and he said, "I can't afford to send anyone to festivals." I didn't complain in any way about either turndown, did not show disappointment, and did not press him.

Soon after, he stopped giving me assignments, started cutting my profiles and longer pieces. In addition, he had asked me to develop a monthly column; he had approved the topic, and I had worked long and hard on putting together my first/sample column. After I submitted it, he told me that the column was being canceled, that the publisher had made the decision. I sent a very nice e-mail to the publisher (everything was very decentralized -- the editor was in upstate New York, and the publisher was in West Virginia), saying that I understood he had canceled my column, and I asked if he would reconsider, explaining why I thought the column would be useful and informative to the readers. (It was a column on internet resources for the particular type of music the magazine covered. At the time, the middle 90s, graphical browsers and web use were still relatively new, and Google did not yet exist, so there was a real need for the type of column I had proposed and prepared.)

The publisher responded, also very nicely, and said that he did not make any editorial decisions, and that any decisions about what to run in the magazine would have to come from the editor. I was absolutely shocked. I went back to the editor, and I don't remember what his response was, but it wasn't clear or satisfactory. He had become very cold and uncommunicative, and I had no idea why.

I sent him a carefully composed e-mail asking him what was going on. I said that I noticed his attitude toward me had changed, asked if I had done anything to offend or upset him, and said that I would do anything I could to make it right. He denied that anything had changed or that he was having any difficulty with me. But he continued to cut my assignments and the column never ran; neither did a lengthy musician profile he had requested and I had written.

Finally, I wrote another long e-mail, saying that it would be a help to me to know what the problem was, so I could correct it or avoid making the same error in the future. I also said, in a very nice way, that it would benefit both of us to clear the air. But he continued to deny that anything was wrong.

Because he was giving me no work, I started my own little local newsletter, covering the same type of music but on a local New York basis. The magazine covered national acts playing the same type of music, and I covered little local bands. My newsletter was quite small and dinky, I didn't use any of "his" writers, and it was distributed free; it was clearly not in competition with the national magazine. But the editor used it as an excuse to fire me, adding that no national magazine would have me because of my local project. (A second national magazine took me on immediately, and even promoted my local magazine.)

My solution to the difficult situation in this scenario was to confront the editor in the nicest possible way, clearly and without anger or finger-pointing, even after he had lied to me about the column and the "reason" for cutting so many of my pieces (he had claimed that the magazine was changing over to a higher grade of paper and so would be running fewer pages, which was not the case at all). And when he would not engage in a dialogue about it, I had to accept that he was going to continue to deny any difficulty and that I would never learn from him what had really happened. I didn't resign, but maybe I should have, although I moved on by starting my own publication and moving to another magazine when he let me go.

Later, I spoke to another staff writer, who opined that I had fallen from favor because I had believed the editor about being put on staff and being sent to festivals, when these had actually been empty promises. I hadn't considered that he had lied to me from the start.

Soon after, he was fired from the magazine. One of the editors of the new magazine I wrote for asked me to write some articles for a guide he was writing to this type of music, so I was included and credited in an actual book (I had also contributed to another, similar book). My magazine failed for financial reasons, and the second magazine I wrote for went out of business. My former editor apparently never started his new magazine, nor wrote any of the books he claimed to be writing, and has basically vanished from music journalism without a trace. After he left the first magazine, I wrote for them again in the late 90s, and once again more recently (under three different editors all together), and was treated quite well; I've only stopped writing for them because they haven't met their payment commitments. Apparently, they're not able to pay anyone, not even the editor, but I just can't work for free at this time. I already have plenty of writing credits and have considered myself a professional for quite a few years; this is why I dropped the Examiner column (which was paying based on traffic, but it was only pennies a day for a lot of work), and turned down another music magazine when I found out that I was expected to write for free (I would get a copy of the CD, DVD or book I was reviewing, which is standard, but no money).

Being a supervisor or an employee is a lot of fun when things go well, when there is clear communication and the work is satisfactory. It gets tough when there's a problem. I learned what not to do from the editor; when I briefly edited my own publication, I had to confront a couple of writers who were not doing satisfactory work, even though they were working for free (they were absolutely novices). I did this without being angry or unpleasant, and tried to be clear about what I needed and how they were not meeting expectations. This is the difficult part of being a boss. I've been an employee a lot more than I've been a boss, and I have no respect for a supervisor who sidesteps the tough part of being in charge, of communicating clearly and appropriately with an employee who is not pleasing them for whatever reason. I consider bosses who lie to their employees, like that editor, to be the lowest of the low. And I hate to say it, but that's not the only time it's happened to me. There's absolutely no way to correct a problem if I don't know it exists or don't know what it is.

That all being said -- I still hate that fucking editor. He is both cowardly and a prick.

I just Googled the dude, and he's still apparently doing nothing. There are a few items that say he's writing a book with one or another musician, some of which are fifteen years old with no book in sight. He's also down as manager for a few musicians with whom he was always tight, but haven't been heard from much; one of them is stone cold insane. There was another mention on the website of a musician indicating that he was associated with the editor and that he would soon be writing for the magazine (this is from around the time that I was writing for this editor), but the musician never did write for this publication. There are also a few credits for liner notes and reviews he wrote many years ago. Ironically, there is a mention of him in an interview with the former associate editor who worked under him, about a book which she wrote; apparently she's able to follow through and complete her projects. He's also on Facebook, which makes me want to puke.

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