When you fill out a job application, one of the things you're invariably asked under "previous employment" is the name of your immediate superior (a term that survives despite the current mania for equality) or supervisor (a vaguely offensive term in its implication of monitor). Presumably these people are regarded as some sort of authority on your value as an employee. But are they?
Think about your own experience for a moment and see if you don't agree with this: It's not the person on the next rung up who really knows your work -- it's the person on the next rung down.
All the little foibles we may manage to camouflage in front of the boss are immediately apparent to the watchful eyes of our underlings. Who are the people who pay attention when pur lunch hours start before theirs and end after? Who is it that must suddenly drop everything and attend to an "emergencv project" when our own procrastination has put us up against a critical deadline? Who gets the full brunt of our crabby moods -- or notices when we come in glassy-eyed and smiling little secret smiles, wearing yesterday's outfit? Who has mastered the taxonomy of our idiosyncrasies -- our vague manner when giving orders, perhaps, or our habit of burying matters that require special exceptions, or our last-minute changes of instructions -- in order to preserve their own sanity? Not the boss!
I don't know about you, but I've never been consulted about the qualifications of my past supervisors. I wouldn't pass up a chance to write references for some of the bosses I've known. For example, Sherman R: domineering, supercilious, tactless. My recommendation: hire him if your employees have a morale problem, as soon as he's gone they'll think they're well off, no matter what. Or Lisa N, who responds to stress by arbitrarily scrapping existing procedures and announcing her own half-baked systems. Hire her only if things are going too well and your Employees are getting complacent. On the other hand, I could recommend Alice R, who is competent, unprepossessing, reliable. Unremarkable in manner or appearance, she is not likely to rack up spectacular triumphs or make a strong impression on higher-ups. But she has a capacious memory for detail, her instructions are clear and thorough, and she is a patient teacher with a leprechaun sense of humor that often relieves tension. The best supervisor I ever had.
Someday perhaps enlightened employers will change their application forms to request "immediate subordinate" instead of "immediate superior." Then they might get a real estimate of their prospective employees. I stand ready to do try port.
Come to think of it, though, they could hold off a little -- at least until after I've filled out my last application.
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