Thursday, July 19, 2012

The stunning power of a lie

Not that I kept a neat desk...

This is the story of how my librarian career ended, so it has some library management explanations and might have a moderately high boredom factor.

It started with a crazy person. It often does.

By the time it finished, an army of participants had fought, had sat through meetings or had sent in a spy to report back, had conferred and mailed letters and been threatened and been forced to quit. That last one was me.

The library management stuff:  into the early 1990s, long after many libraries, and most with our high circulation, had computerized, we had a manual paper card system for tracking 10,000+ books per month.

We were a branch library. The main library had one full time and two part-time checker-in-ers for their circulation, while we had one. But our branch, in a high-demand fast-growing resort / retirement area, had a lot more checkouts. We always had stacks of books with lost cards. Computerized checkout/checkin virtually eliminates that problem, but old-time paper cards are a constant "can't check this in" nightmare.

Our lone circulation clerk, with more work than the 3 employees at Main Branch had, was overwhelmed.

The Friends of the Library was a big and active organization and they provided volunteer help with check-ins, among many other things. If problem check-ins had not piled up relentlessly, maybe this controversy would never have happened, but evil will find a crack to come through, so I’m not so sure.

For purposes of the post, I’ll call our lone circulation clerk Martha.

Meanwhile back at the management level, the boss decided to operate with flex time. For clerical tasks, you could come in early, or in off-hours, and leave early, or take those hours at a long lunch. Everybody had to take a turn running the checkout, or reference question, desks, but as long as you were present for any such scheduled time, your back-room clerical work could be done on flex time, if you put in your allotted hours.

That’s the setup. Martha worked like a rescue dog. She would start working at 7AM, and leave to pick the kids up or keep medical appointments. So did clerical workers at the main branch. Everybody liked it. It was a way to manage job and family.

One volunteer, call her Leona, decided she hated -- and I don’t use that word casually -- Martha. Out of the blue, and I suspect a brain tumor or other perception skewer, she developed a hatred and paranoia of Martha that was pretty amazing to watch.

The power of lies comes not from liars, but from good people. The ones who really can’t believe people make up such things. They’re not so naive that they deny exaggeration happens, and they understand that data can be incomplete and misinterpreted. But they just do not believe that such a big hate campaign could be based on nothing at all. They’re too nice. They don’t understand how evil people think.

The rumors started. Martha wasn’t putting in her hours, Ruth would not discipline her for it. Leona spread this falsehood through the ranks of the Friends of the Library, and from there to most of the community. It went like a wildfire.

I, being Ruth and the Branch manager, explained that Martha was putting in not only all her hours but more, and that flex time meant that it was not always obvious to volunteers when she’d worked.

One day when Leona was coming in to volunteer, Martha said to me, “I know she thinks I don’t do my job. I’ll be working out there where she can see me.”

This worried me. I in turn kept an eye on both of them for the entire shift. To my relief, everyone performed blamelessly and no altercations occurred. The shift ended, Leona went home.

2 days later, Leona came to me with fire in her eyes. Maybe I wasn’t willing to supervise Martha, said Leona, but SHE had worked alongside Martha the other day and Martha had slacked off and jabbered with another clerk, and if I did not do something, Leona was gonna bloody well go to the Library Board about it.

Not only was it completely fabricated -- Martha had worked steadily -- but the other clerk she was accused of jabbering with had not even been at work that day.

I was not dumb enough to think getting rid of Leona would stop the destruction.  It was, I knew, likely to enrage her further, but one thing it would do was to confine her lies to previous events, and not to give her any chance to claim she’d gathered more fake data.

I also wasn’t dumb enough to fight insanity with logic, so I didn’t accuse her of lying. I said it made no sense for her to keep spending time in a situation that made her so unhappy, and maybe she’d rather stop volunteering. She left. Some people drink. I ate two chocolate bars. I knew it wasn’t over.

Over and over, other volunteers came to me with their “concerns.” I wrote letters. I explained in person. Once in awhile the listener would say, "Oh!  I didn't know it worked like that."   But sending out that little truth seemed to have no power over the sending-out of the lie.  It was spitting against the wind.

The nice ones just could not believe that rumors so pervasive and rampant had no basis. "Where there’s smoke, there’s fire."

If I could accomplish one damnblasted thing in my life, it would be to vanquish that moronic and baseless little saying from the culture forever.

It is an analogy that is not an analogy.

It’s a statement about the physics of fire that has no application, none, to human interactions. Hate can say anything and its pronouncements become Truth.

I went to my boss with two possible solutions.

"There’s no documentation of the hours employees put in," I told her. "I can’t prove on paper that Martha put in all the hours she claims. Maybe we just need to end flex time altogether and have everybody come in 9-6."

 “Oh no, we all like flex time, it’s a good thing for everybody.”

I was inclined to agree. "Well, OK," I said, "we could allow flex time AND satisfy critics, if we put in a time clock."

She winced and said, “Oh, I hate to give up our honor system.”

Me: "There’s bad feeling and accusations here, and I’m willing to do any solution."

Her:  “Let me think about this and see if I can come up with any ideas.”

On the viciousness went.   Finally Leona convinced the Friends of the Library President to hold a meeting with our local Library Board of Trustees member (the county board over the libraries), and all the volunteers -- a big group, including not only volunteers who worked on site, but others who ran the Friends book sale and did other things.

The Friends Prez sent us all letters, time and place to be our library meeting room, that we’d meet and talk out the issues and a county board member would hear it all.

The group filled our meeting room.

Unknown to this Friends President, her Secretary-Treasurer -- buddy of Leona -- sent out another letter to the members promising them that I, the branch manager who they were complaining about, would NOT be present. She guaranteed it.

The Friends President did not know the Secretary had assumed this illegal authority. I showed up at the meeting and met an outraged half-dozen out of the hundred or so -- Leona and her posse -- who said that if I was going to be there, they’d walk out.

The trustee told me to leave instead.  My spy (not everybody was against me, Martha or the truth)  told me the attacks against Martha were vicious, and I was blamed for allowing her to slack off.  Nothing I didn't know.

In a phone call a few days later, the Trustee urged me to begin compiling a disciplinary file on Martha, to the end of firing her if the god damnable Public demanded it. He acknowledged that she didn't deserve it.  Three reports had to be in the file before termination could be done.

I protested. He said, “Are you willing to face the fact that this could come down to your job or hers?”

To make a long story short, my boss (undoubtedly pressed by that same Trustee) took disciplinary action against me, by officially reporting....

....that SHE had told ME to end flex time and put every employee on the same 9-6 schedule, and that I had refused.

The good news, after I ended a 14-year relationship with this boss and this library system, is that Martha, excellent employee that she was, and a high-school educated mother of 3, survived this and kept her county job with good benefits.  Going every day to a place where people are reviling you behind your back and where volunteers are coming in with a serene countenance, while they might -- or hey, might not -- be telling their friends on the golf course what a piece of crap you are, is sheer unadulterated hell, but she had a family to support.

The other kind of good news was that we had another Trustee who took me to lunch and asked me not to quit.  Maybe she couldn't hold back the tide that had brought us to that point, but maybe she should have done bloody more before it came to that.  I liked her, but working with my boss had become impossible.  My marriage had just tanked and I had a chance to go someplace new.

My point is here in a letter to the Entire World:

If you do nothing else to change your life, demand real evidence to make judgements.

End any false idea you might still have that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” and that rumor surely has some basis.  Claims of evidence, and claims of eyewitnessing, are not evidence.  They can be completely made up.  Demand something solid.

Learn that the “common wisdom” and the “everybody knows” gossip can be, not just exaggerated .... not just misinterpreted...not just incomplete --- but baseless. Altogether, completely baseless.  Learn that lies are a powerful propaganda weapon.  Make no judgements without some hard evidence.


Sherwood Harrington said...

"The power of lies comes not from liars, but from good people."

That needs to be one of those things that gets circulated on millions of Facebook pages. Or maybe not; perhaps such treatment would cheapen the thought.

Thank you for this tale, Ruth, and cheers (loud ones, standing) for Martha and you. This is going into my mental file for the next time a young faculty member or administrator asks me if I don't think it's a bit much that faculty have both a union and tenure. The exposure of a teacher to this sort of thing is extreme. Neither unions nor tenure amount to job "guarantees" (I have seen several terminations of tenured, union faculty in my time), but the procedures they enforce do provide crucial defenses against the smoke = fire fallacy.

Bravo, once again.

Ronnie said...

Thank you for sharing this awful story. There are so many people at the mercy of he-said/she-said accusations and absolutely no way to "prove" innocence. Misery and injustice piles on when others then just plain lie. Terrible experience, Ruth. I'm so glad you have landed on your feet!

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

I was *so* lucky to be in a personal and financial position that let me walk away!

Sherwood - you guys in academia have it, i think, much worse. Judging by several friends and relations who cope with it, i think it's more pervasive there than in public libraries.

But I still wince when anybody says "Oh it would be so nice to work in a library and spend every day around people who love books and learning!" Gaw. It's government, with all the politics that entails.

Christy Duffy said...

Wow. Just wow. I hate the helpless feeling of knowing the truth and not being able to either show others or have them believe ot. I have just come out of a similar situation and I must admit that while I thought giving up the volunteer gig would be painful forever, being out of the negative environment has been wonderful for me and my family. Thanks for posting this!