The Long Game

Monday morning. I’m in my office, at my desk. My door is open (company policy). A female employee, in her mid-twenties, enters, sits herself down uninvited (lack of education). She’s been with the company for about two months. She’s pretty; the short-lived prettiness of being young and new to working in an office job. I’ve been there. But right now she looks depressed. Another abuse case, I think. Or worse, she’s going to announce a sex change. That’s where I will draw the line. With the rough patch we’re going through as a company, a change of hairstyle puts people on edge these days. I recently sat with the works council for half a day after our HR director had suddenly turned up with two axes tattooed in the way of an Andrew’s Cross on the top of his left hand. “Why on earth?” I yelled at him. Then I wrote him an email: “Your services are no longer required.” He was a self-employed interim person. I know my rights. HR I can do myself.

The girl (?) starts hemming and hawing:

“I’m here… erm… I thought I’d drop in to… uh… to tell you something… erm…”

I try to come across encouragingly, but not too encouragingly. I’m not ready for just anything. I have my boundaries.

“It’s about Patrick… Oh God, I’m so embarrassed having this conversation with you… “.

I’m not aware we are having a conversation. Patrick is a senior legal counsel, and a prick. The girl is a junior in his team. I don’t like where this is going. The company needs Patrick. I need him. He’s ambitious. Briefly, he is the perfect person to delegate things to that I should be doing as a CLO, but mostly lack the energy to lift a finger at.

“Patrick, you know, he has this body odor. I mean… uh… it’s very natural of course… I mean, I think it’s wonderful and so on that he doesn’t use deodorant and stuff. It does show independent thinking… it’s very advanced, but… erm… an entire room has this oniony smell just minutes after he has joined a meeting. And it’s still there half an hour after he has left. It’s… you know… It makes me feel sick… and…” (suddenly miraculously coherent) “I don’t know how to continue working with him that way!”

I stifle a sigh of relief. This is not about sex, or change of. As for Patrick, yes, he is a natural. Like an organic onion going bad, except much worse. I avoid as much as possible being in my office with him. People might think I’m the one stinking up the place.

Assuming a conspiratorial girl gang tone I say to the girl:

“Look, Chloé. It’s a problem he has. He has such a pretty wife. You saw her. You were at the wedding too. In the Twiggy range of models she’s more spectacular than Twiggy or any of her epigones.

(Twiggy? I think I see Chloé’s eyes glaze over).

“Look her up on the internet. Patrick’s wife has better hair, too. And a prettier face, or better make-up. I think she’s Bengali. I always wonder what discussions concerning his smell they have between them. What’s the sort of advice she would be giving him? What do you think? What do you think we can do about this?”

“You could, uh, like, speak to him about it?”

“Confront him?”

“Well… “

“I guess it’s pathological though.”

(Seeing the girl’s stumped look) “Meaning he can’t help it. It’s a disease…”

“… like.” (I add, trying to reconnect at her level).

“Ah, yes… What about confidential counseling?”

I don’t think this kind of thing is in the contract we’re having with the agency providing employee counseling. Could I ask Chloé to look into this? See if the agreement ought to be amended, the scope? It might take her mind off things. Getting to work on something instead of shooting your mouth off complaining usually does. But what scope would include counseling a person’s stink away? I decide this would be too tall an order for Chloé.

“Patrick must have tried all antiperspirants you and I and a counselor can possibly think of. Probably has been seeing specialists about this. I don’t think he needs someone to confidentially tell him that he has this problem and how people normally deal with it.”

“Can’t you ask him to work from home as much as possible? Do his meetings in Teams?”

Yes, Chloé, I could to that. But telling him what for a reason?” I’m getting pissed. A person dropping a problem on my plate should at least have an idea of how I can solve it for them. Chloé isn’t delivering.

“Or you could give me permission to work from home? On days I have meetings scheduled with Patrick?” She sneezes. C-O-V-I-D? I think I see a way out of this. But it is a long shot.

“Chloé, do you have a cold?” I reach in a drawer and hand her a tissue.

“No”, she says, “just an itchy nose. Sorry.”

“Did you test for COVID, Chloé? Don’t tell me you never even tested!”

“It isn’t a cold. I was just an itch inside my nose. And COVID isn’t even a thing anymore.”

“Yes, Chloé, it is a ‘THING’!” (I do agitated air quotes). “In this company, all COVID is considered long COVID, perennial COVID. Go see if Patrick is in. Then bring him to my office. I want you both at my office.”

Enter Patrick, preceded by Chloé, who tries to avoid being in the wake of his smell. Both remain standing. There’s just one chair across from me. The company offered two. I declined. I don’t want employees to overestimate the reach of my hospitality.

“Now look, Patrick” (olfactory signals intensify), “I’m so sorry I asked you to step into my office. Chloé here has a running nose; she has a sore throat. And a headache. And she has shortness of breath. No, Chloé!” (cutting her off the moment she opens her mouth). “Let me finish! Patrick, you know the symptoms. This has written COVID all over it. Checks all the boxes. I’m going to send Chloé home. She will take a test. I’m sending you home. You must take a test. I will go home myself. I’m going to take a test.”

“Are we sending everybody home that you and Chloé and I have been in contact with in the past week?”

“No, Patrick, just the three of us. I don’t want this to get blown out of proportion. Go home, take the test. Stay home until the end of the week. All your meetings will be in Teams. Stay online. Keep yourself available for when I need you.”

“Why did you want me in your office in the first place?”

Wise guy. I let that go.

The next day Patrick calls me on my cell. “I tested negative.”

“Good for you”, I say. “A self-test?”


“I’d like you to re-test at an official test site. Go see your physician. Give it until the end of the week. Then get the test. There’s no need to be jumping any guns on this one. I haven’t been able to get a test appointment myself yet.”

I call Chloé: “On second thought, I think you should return to the office. I may have been interpreting your symptoms wrongly. Did you test?”

“I did.” (she sounds bitchy). “Although it was hard to find a shop still selling self-test kits. Clean bill of health.”

“I couldn’t take any risks. Patrick’s situation is unsettled. He said he needs another test, a doctor’s test. He didn’t sound well.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. He looked just fine yesterday when we were at your office.”

“I’ve not been feeling well myself lately. I still have to take my test.”

I’m not taking any tests. I’m feeling relaxed. I’ve never been feeling better in my whole life. I text the CEO: Dinner with brother on Saturday. He just called, saying he tested positive for COVID [grimacing face]. I have symptoms. [puke face]. Keep you posted [placard].’

CEO texts back: ‘Bummer [wilted flower]. Get well soon [bouquet of flowers].

I call the CEO the next day. Then I call Patrick. Then I call Chloé. Email exchanges and formal announcements follow. There are going to be some changes. Chloé is promoted secretary to the board. She’s assigned the annex to the CEO’s office. Patrick is asked to keep working from home until everything is arranged for his transfer to our Kolkata office as Global General Counsel. We opened that office, our only foreign presence, two years ago, hoping to regionally spin out from a project the company picked up in West Bengal. This never happened. In fact, the project never happened. The office is just a room in Spaces with a laptop and a wireless conferencing system. Patrick is instructed to keep himself available for when I need him. It’s not very different from having your IT done at a faraway service center by people you wouldn’t miss if they didn’t exist.

I return to the office four weeks after I had sent myself into quarantaine, a time well spent on looking up old friends and overseeing some home redo. I have our COVID policies deleted from the HSE section on the company’s intranet. I defend the decision in the board, saying it took me weeks to get a test, and that it returned a negative result.

“It turned out my physician had to order a test kit from China! COVID just isn’t a thing anymore. We have to put a stop to employees going AWOL invoking these outdated policies.”

What was not to agree to anything I said?


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