The Kathy Legacy by
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(149 Stories)

Prompted By Interviews

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The real Kathy had hair exactly like this.

Shortly before my retirement from my last full-time job, one of the newer document production specialists in our tech writing group came to me with an old document. “This is so odd,” she said, and led me to her computer, which showed a file garbled with strange codes and workarounds. I recognized it immediately. “Oh,” I replied, “that’s a Kathy legacy,” and I told her the following story.

In walked Kathy, with flawless white skin, a nice figure, and the most amazing hair ...

About five years earlier, my department was looking for a technical writer who had a science background and experience with chemical reagents used in life science research. In addition to being an excellent writer, the person also needed to know complex publishing software and be familiar with all kinds of regulatory compliance and quality practices. There weren’t many such folks around, and we’d struggled with finding good candidates. We were soon to start a large project involving updating hundreds of documents, so the need was great.

As the senior-level editor in the group, for several years I had been tasked with interviewing every writer and editor who applied for a job–first by phone, and then if they “passed,” in person. Other members of the group conducted interviews as well, and we often worked in pairs. At the end we would meet and discuss our impressions of the candidates.

There were two reasons why I became so heavily involved. One was that our manager couldn’t know the details of the jobs the way I did, having done nearly all of them at some point, and the other was my innate “lie detector” ability, in that I could, for whatever reason, figure out when a person wasn’t being straight in the interview. While I didn’t get any joy over nailing people, this skill helped in judging their qualifications.

Being able to identify gaps and weaknesses was even more critical at that time, because the company had a very structured system of interviewing–we had to ask each candidate the same or very similar questions and couldn’t deviate from the script. No writing or editing tests were allowed, and it was impossible to determine if someone really wrote the samples they submitted. Behavioral questions were encouraged (if you haven’t interviewed in a while, you might be in for a shock at this new approach).

I figured out a way to develop some clever behavioral questions that could demonstrate whether or not the candidate knew what they were talking about. For example, “Explain to us what you would do if your manager insisted you use DITA instead of Information Mapping as a writing structure. How would you change the information architecture of a multi-chapter document?” I’d get fast feedback on what the person really knew or whether they looked at me like a deer in the headlights.

Enter Kathy, whose resume indicated she had a PhD in chemistry and more than five years of technical writing experience. Quickly I noticed, if not a red flag, a yellow flag, on the resume. She’d been working for Landmark, and that triggered a vague memory. Sure enough, after I searched, I realized that Landmark was an outgrowth of EST. This had escaped my younger colleagues and our manager, who was from the UK. However, our manager was impressed by Kathy’s chemistry degree, and so we set up the interview.

In walked Kathy, with flawless white skin, a nice figure, and the most amazing hair, which fell past her shoulders in light blond ringlets. My editing colleague Marie and I interviewed Kathy together. Kathy came across as pleasant, but it was obvious that her writing experience was very limited, and that she wasn’t familiar with any of the software we used. She claimed she’d taught editing, but when I questioned her about which level of editing she would do at which document development stage, she drew a blank. Marie and I came to a clear conclusion. Kathy didn’t meet the requirements.

Later that afternoon, our manager and the rest of the department met to discuss the outcome of Kathy’s interview. A pair of writers, both women, gave Kathy the thumbs down. The second pair of writers, both women, agreed. Marie and I agreed. Then, another pair of writers, both men, said they were impressed and wanted to hire her. Our manager, a man, agreed with the other men. A very animated discussion ensued, with the women giving our specific reasons for our recommendations. Our manager wanted to give Kathy a chance, explaining that someone had once given him a chance. Linda, a writer, said “Please don’t hire her. We’ll end up having to do all of her work!”

Our manager replied that he wanted to bring Kathy back for a second interview with him alone. After work that day, the women gathered, and we commented on how retro an experience we’d just had. “Sheesh,” Linda said. “I can’t believe that the guys had their hormones take over like that!” It was amazing that Kathy’s lack of qualifications was being overlooked but her physical attributes weren’t.

The following day Kathy returned for a one-on-one interview with our manager. They were in his office for a long time. The next day, in our department meeting, our manager announced a compromise of sorts. He wouldn’t hire Kathy for the regular position, but he would give her a year contract. Something Kathy had said in the second interview had struck a deep chord with our manager, and he and Kathy had reached an understanding. We never found out what this strange bond was.

The following week Kathy was situated in a cubicle across from mine. She tried hard–too hard. She would arrive very early in the morning, so by the time I got in the office at about 8:30, she was standing at my desk with questions and issues. Linda began joking about how long each morning it would be before I could actually take my seat and log on to my computer. All of us tried to help Kathy; really we did. She wanted to work quickly, but her documents were full of errors. “Kathy, take a breath and slow down, look over your work,” I’d gently advise. “Make sure you put all the codes in your files.” Often, she would burst into tears out of frustration.

We eventually learned something about Kathy’s life, which had been troubled in many ways–a single mother, possible domestic violence. “I feel sorry for her, but I’m not a therapist,” I commented to Marie. “That might be the reason for her involvement in Landmark.” “How on earth did she ever get a chemistry PhD?” Marie wondered.

Our manager finally couldn’t ignore the quality of Kathy’s work and gave her special projects so that she could practice on the software. That didn’t help very much. The rest of us took portions of Kathy’s work when we could. When we couldn’t, her documents became known as “the Kathy legacy” for their oddities. After an entire year, our manager told Kathy he wouldn’t renew her contract. It was a tough day for her.

Kathy went back to work for Landmark for a while and later did get some technical writing jobs. The Kathy legacy was one of mixed feelings for me.  The men in the department did listen more closely to the women’s recommendations after this experience, which was one good outcome. The rest is more complex.

Did I regret that Kathy was with us for a year? Yes and no. I want to give people a chance, just like people had given our manager and me a chance–but at the expense of everyone in the group? If her time in our group helped Kathy in any way, I don’t regret that. The Kathy legacy taught me, if I needed the teaching, that people are both less than their resumes, and a lot more.

 

 

 

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Interesting story, Marian. A company my husband worked for got into EST. He thought it was total BS, so I feel for you and Kathy on that one. And there is no question that a woman’s looks can influence the outcome of an interview, for better or worse. We still live in that kind of world.

    But really annoying that your manager wouldn’t believe you or your peer when you gave the thumbs down (for very specific reasons) on Kathy in the first place. Glad to learn he had more respect for your opinion after this ordeal.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Fascinating story, Marian. And an unsettling one on many levels, as you so well decribe. I do not have one quite like this, but I have done enough hiring (and firing) to know how complicated it is, especially in terms of separating job skills from personal traits. (And yeah; for a lot of guys, not being swayed by the physical attractiveness — or not — of a woman.)

    I am particularly curious to know whether, after the Kathy experience, you sensed that your manager or the male writers were more attuned to the views of you and the other women in hiring matters. It would be nice if this had been something of a “teaching moment” for them, too.

    • Marian says:

      Yes, John, the men in the group definitely were a lot more aware of potential biases, both positive and negative, and they learned that the women didn’t merely resent Kathy’s appearance but had data about her qualifications. Hiring and firing are immensely complicated, and people won’t always agree. My manager “evolved” as a result of this incident. Later, a writing candidate with a Chinese last name came to us for an interview, and indeed she was Chinese, but dressed in full Muslim garb. In our debriefing, the manager said, “We all got a surprise, but let’s move on from it and discuss her capabilities.” Good outcome, we hired her.

  3. Jim Stodder says:

    Marian – Good to hear the men may have learned *something* from this little experience. (Although I wonder.) As a hetero-male, I am sure that my hormones do try to push me around. Poor beast that I am, I just try not to walk into too many traps.

    As a teacher of grad students, I find those most likely to come to my office to wheedle a better grade are female. I would guess that the female/male ratio is like 3/1. I think the males do gripe about their grades just as much, but they will do it in an email. (And they’re more likely than the women to display anger.)

    • Marian says:

      Jim, I agree that the women grad students would tend to behave as such, and the men would express more anger. I don’t think we can entirely avoid our hormones (nor would we want to), but just be aware of them. I just posted a second story on this prompt, and in one of the little vignettes, the women were in tears and the men were angry, true to form.

  4. Suzy says:

    Marian, I’m glad you wrote about the view from the interviewer’s side of the table. And the complication created by an attractive woman applicant, when the women can see that she’s not qualified, and the men don’t notice, is fascinating. I’m glad you think the men learned from the experience. I wonder if it’s any different today. I’d like to think it is, but I have my doubts.

    • Marian says:

      I have my doubts too, Suzy, but if there is any encouragement, if the men are aware of the attraction and acknowledge it, they can get past it if need be. There was a time when, for a woman, being “too pretty” resulted in not being taken seriously, but being unattractive wasn’t a good option either. I don’t know how much that has changed.

  5. Marian, I understand your concerns about Kathy, and kind of you to say you didn’t entirely regret the year you had to hold her hand.

    But I must say I think human potential movements like EST have value. I was at several weekend retreats with an EST offshoot called Lifespring and found it enriching!

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Interesting story, Marian. Men hiring a woman for her looks rather than her abilities is a tale as old as time. I’m glad they learned from this experience. Clearly, it was unfair to Kathy as well as for those with whom she had to work, and must have been a terrible year for all.

  7. This is truly a superior narrative, Marian, one of the best I’ve read on Retro! The way you introduce the “Kathy legacy” after she’s long-gone, and then go back in time to introduce us to the protagonist herself, with such a clear and somewhat provocative description, and then move on to identify the ways the women and then the male colleagues responded to her, and right on through the events of that entire year. You even drew lessons and themes out of your experience. You had us right in the middle of the “Kathy storm” and then you had us with you, reflecting from the perspective of later years. Wonderfully realized!

    • Marian says:

      Thank you, Dale, I’m flattered! As you can tell, Kathy and our experiences with her had a big impact on my department and on me. Although the women rightfully objected to hiring her, the dilemma was what to do once she was hired. I hope we took the high road, and we tried to do the right thing. Alas, her garbled files affected people who weren’t even there during that crazy year.

  8. Excellent story, Mare…I’m late to the table and pretty much everything that can be said about it has been said, so I’ll just add that I especially agree with Dale in his praise of the way you told the story. A pleasure to have read!

  9. Joe Lowry says:

    Good story and lessons learned by your male employees. I had an experience, similar but not the same. I need a couple of secretarial people to assist on a project, and attention to detail was a must for this work. The company hired a some workers through a temporary agency. No real interviews were done. After two weeks, it became evident that one lady could not do the job in spite of the extra help I gave her. I had to let her go, a very hard thing to do. She understood that it was not the job for her. However, the number of comments I got from fellow male workers for laying off this great looking woman surprised me.

    • Marian says:

      That’s fascinating that some of your male colleagues made those comments, Joe, and would expect you to keep someone who couldn’t do the job. It’s one thing if she could have done the job, but I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised at those comments.

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