In the movie The Five Heartbeats there is a classic scene in which the singer Bird, disturbed by some irregularities with his royalty payment amount and frequency, confronts the cheerful record label owner (and gangster) Big Red at a party. Big Red calmly explains to Bird that Big Red prefers to handle business during his office hours, which are nine to five, and not during his time off. Bird expresses his displeasure at this stance.
Big Red then convinces Bird to see things his way. I recently remembered this movie scene when I was in line at the local post office. It was just before closing time. At closing time a post office employee will lock the entry door. At that point, if you aren’t already in line you won’t be allowed into the post office service lobby. Roughly two minutes after the workers had locked the entry door a man who may or may not have been mentally challenged came into the post office through the exit door and started ranting and raving about how he needed to pick up a package.
The workers said that the office was now closed. This man yelled that if he didn’t get the package today then he would lose his job. The senior post office worker responded that the man’s problems had nothing to do with them; the man needed to close the door and leave. The man left. But he was wandering around the parking lot gesticulating and screaming. Then an older woman who was apparently either the man’s caretaker, mother or grandmother came in. She also started yelling and making snide comments about how “you people” should help the man because he was about to lose his job. The senior post office worker again said that the office was closed and that the woman needed to leave! Things were starting to get heated.
After a tense but brief staredown, the woman muttered something unintelligible and left. The man came back in and sarcastically told the workers “thanks for all of your help”. By this time another postal worker had locked both the entry and exit doors to the post office lobby. So anyone else who came up wouldn’t be able to enter through the exit door. So after I was convinced that there was no imminent threat of violence not only did I think about the aforementioned movie scene but I also thought of how important it is to establish and maintain boundaries.
It often frustrates me that the local post office appears at times to be both understaffed and filled with people for whom the phrase “quick moving” remains a description they read about once but have never actually seen in real life. If I were a post office worker, being a gentleman, I might very well have been tempted to assist someone who slid in a few seconds after the posted closing time. The problem is that once you do that for one person you have to do it for another person and another and another. And you never get out of there. And I imagine that any such kind-hearted (soft-headed) post office worker wouldn’t get any additional money for his or her work.
When I think about my career I remember all the times I have been angered by people who don’t understand that lack of planning on their part doesn’t mean that I have an emergency. This anger is even greater when a supervisor or higher-ranking manager tries to make me do something outside of the agreed-upon time or scope. It’s not necessarily about being a lazy clock watcher although it certainly can be interpreted that way if you are in a long line waiting for someone to do their job.
The issue is that if you don’t respect your time and prioritize what your responsibilities are, no one else will either. So someone who comes in one minute after closing time gets treated the same as someone who comes in three hours after closing time. They don’t get your help. It’s nothing personal. It’s just business. And if they try to push the issue, as Bird did with Big Red, they just might find themselves dangling off a balcony until they comprehend the concept of work-life balance.
What’s your take?
Have you had to establish firm boundaries at work?