In the matter of Susan Hawk, the Dallas County district attorney who finally resurfaced after three weeks to say she's taking another four weeks unpaid time off to deal with depression, I know my primary empathy ought to be with her in her need to discharge her duties as head of a large high-profile government agency with power of life and death over people. But all my life I've been a rank and file employee myself, so I can't help feeling even more sorry for the people who work for her.
Plus, as I told my boss yesterday, I feel that this whole issue of mental illness in the workplace is one in which a person with a long history in the newspaper business can bring a lot of personal experience to bear, taking note that I did not say useful experience necessarily. I just want to reach out and say to Hawk's staff, "Been there, done that, my brothers and sisters."
I'm not really worried about Hawk's staff. It sounds to me like they're ahead of the game already. I saw in one story about how many of her employees are avoiding the entire floor of the building that she works on. This is excellent. In fact that was the first thing I was going to tell them: Avoid the entire floor that she works on.
The principle here is, "Out of sight, out of her mind." And let me offer a caution here. We do not know that Hawk is a full-on lunatic. All we have are hints, like her firing her old associate and longtime political adviser a few weeks after getting elected, apparently because she believed he had been sneaking into her home and removing "compromising photos" of her. For a DA, that's nuts, even though for a newspaper editor we would probably just say to her, "Define compromising, please."
Also, she disappeared. For three weeks no one could find her. Her political image consultant, Mary Woodlief, did an absolutely virtuoso job of insisting that she hadn't disappeared, she just can't be seen. I truly love that, because it's sort of the whole tree falls in a forest thing. Did you see her disappear? No. Do you know where she is? OK. So how can you say she disappeared?
I think it's genius, except for one thing. This is never ever the kind of debate you want to be having about a district attorney. Some guy you hired for your kid's birthday party maybe — "Oh, wow, he disappeared! Hey, wait, where's the silver?" But not the district attorney.
So, just in case, let's go back to my theory on out of sight out of her mind. Based on long experience in the newspaper business, I feel quite safe in saying that most truly disturbed bosses — and I'm talking about the moon-howlers — only think about things they can see. Hence, the importance of not even getting off on their floor.
Sometimes even being glimpsed for an instant at the back of the elevator is enough to get you accused of being part of a home-breaking compromising photo-stealing conspiracy. The flip side, however, is that you almost never get in trouble for disappearing. I guess because they didn't see you disappear.
And remember, doing any kind of work is the same thing as prancing around on the bad floor, because she might see your work, and that will make her think of you. The true survivor knows that when in doubt, do nothing. When in a lot of doubt, don't even get out of bed.
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Let's say the worst happens — group lunch outing with boss. Always walk behind. Never walk to one side, because peripheral sightings are even worse than direct (may cause impression you are sneaking up).
If forced to speak at the table, say only things that make no sense whatsoever, like, "I hate birds." It works sort of like a magic spell. I think people who are way out there are always straining to see back in. If you say something that's even more out there than they are, it sort of flies by right behind their heads, if you are lucky.
This is last ditch advice, the kind I hope Hawk's employees will never have to employ, but if worse comes to worst, you get called to the floor, she asks specifically for you, the only chance you have is to stare right back at her and try to make your eyes kind of spin around like pinwheels. Sometimes it wards them off somehow. Or you get frog-walked to the parking lot.
Oh, almost forgot. What if you're not her employee but you are a person with criminal charges pending against you in Dallas County? Only one word for that, Sport. Brazil.