27 Feb Book Review: A Book That Gets The Drama of the Workplace
A blog that covers economic and labor market trends may seem to be a strange place for a fiction book review. Then again, maybe not. The changes now going on in the workplace are saga-worthy, and there is something to be said for looking at those changes through novelists’ eyes. Besides, it’s my blog and I make the rules, and I think reviewing books about work makes perfect sense.
As a setting for drama it is really hard to beat the corporate workplace. Work defines people, it fuels their ambitions, and it stokes their egos. Events in the workplace can make people furious or euphoric or terrified, depending on the day. When it comes to jostling for position in the workplace, the stakes are often very high. Why then, with all that rich material at hand, do we get so few novels that take on the corporate world?
Perhaps the answer is that very few writers have spent enough time within recirculated-air walls to even know what an Employee Engagement Survey is, much less write a novel that talks about one. Luckily then that Jillian Medoff – an actual full-time management consultant as well as being the author of three previous novels – is the rare writer brave and skillful enough to wade into cubicle-land and come out with more than clichés. In This Could Hurt, she has penned a wickedly-accurate account of life in a small and struggling company during the dark years of the 2008 economic crisis as seen through a half dozen players in the HR department. In doing so she gives us a nice piece of narrative economic history and a pretty un-put-downable novel at the same time.
Rosa, a 60something HR Director (who, swathed in St. John knits, with hair blown out and lips slicked with Chanel Noir Rouge manages to look younger) is the more-or-less heroine of the book. She is a someone I met many times earlier in my career, the woman who tells you that she was the first woman to hold every job she ever had. Work means a lot to Rosa, and she gives more than she gets in the workplace. That said, she is also a woman without children who does not believe in telecommuting, and a baby boomer who wants to hire another payroll clerk rather than go along with a Gen X employee’s plea that it is time to move towards more automation. Her employees alternatively love her and want her to retire.
As Rosa struggles to deal with a series of corporate cost-cutting measures, we are introduced to a roster of other people-we-have-all-met-at-work: Rob, the good guy who is kind of bored with his job and getting lazy; razor-sharp Kenny who has an impressive academic background, a smoking-hot bond-trader wife, and one foot out the door; ambitious Lucy, pushing forty and not exactly sure what she wants to do next; Katherine, the sweet, hard-working intern who gets in at the crack of dawn to teach herself Powerpoint; and Leo, Rosa’s second in command who as well as being competent at his job is also overweight, single and lonely and pretty much considers Rosa family. Each has their own journey and stresses, and each is trying to figure out their own best moves amidst the corporate chaos.
Medoff gets so many of the nuances and realities of office life dead on. From the rumors that run rampant when someone gets fired (“maybe he drained the minibar at the hotel” goes one theory), through to the way that a woman who entered the workforce in the 90s views millennial dress codes (“while she wasn’t hoping for a return to polyester, these girls wore flimsy skirts, sleeveless tees, and the sin of sins – flip flops”). If she lost me anywhere it is in the scene where Lucy and Leo end up a Rosa’s apartment on New Year’s Eve and they all hang out to watch the countdown together. That one seemed a bit unlikely to me, but maybe I’ve just worked at the wrong places.
If I had one small criticism of the book, it is that in Medoff’s epilogue (Warning: Sort-of spoilers ahead) she imagines where her characters and their offspring will be on the org-charts in decades to come. I personally would imagine that a couple of decades on from 2008, maybe even by 2018, some of those would-be corporate workers would have escaped the org chart and be gig workers or freelancers rather than employees. Or perhaps not: once you are used to corporate work it is difficult to imagine anything else.
Set against the backdrop of the economic crisis, the actual plot of This Could Hurt centers around another crisis, one that requires the individual players to step up and act like a team. Incredibly they do it, which actually is kind of heart-warming, or at least as heart-warming as any novel set it cubicle-land can be. Just as a good manager can find the best in their employees, Medoff is able to find the best in her characters and it makes for a satisfying read.
This Could Hurt
By Jillian Medoff