One moment can define the trajectory of your career for years to come. One such moment, spoken among colleagues on our way to dinner, may have helped me more than I could guess. A cautionary tale and some thoughts on why guarding what you say at work — even after hours among colleagues — may be the smartest career move.
“I’ve got to get out of this hotel!” Frank waved his hands at the group of us in the hotel lobby. “Let’s get out of here and do something fun.”
Frank, the senior vice president of the division, strode to the concierge desk. Within minutes, he returned and announced we were all going on an adventure. Would I like to join him and a few colleagues for dinner?
After nearly ten hours staring at hotel wallpaper in endless workplace training seminars, I snatched at the chance to leave the hotel and meet my new coworkers. Hundreds of employees from across the United States had gathered for the company’s annual meeting and I knew very few people outside of my own department in the New York City office. Dinner offsite sounded like a welcome respite and a great chance to relax and get to know everyone.
Night descended on Miami, the inky blackness broken by palm fronds caressing the sky in the light tropical breeze. I climbed into the rear seat of the sedan with two colleagues while another slid into the passenger seat next to Frank. The remaining colleagues joining us were left to catch a cab.
Frank drove through the night streets with two thumbs on the steering wheel, his fingers tapping time to Latin dance music crooning softly from the radio.
Our polite getting-to-know you conversation, “Where are you from? Which office did you say? Oh, yeah, I know him, he worked with me in California in the sales unit for a few weeks” turned to excited chatter when we realized he drove away from the business downtown area where the conference was held and into the streets of Little Havana. A former Miami resident himself, Frank had decided for all of us that a boring day of meetings was best ended with mojitoes, flamenco dancing stage shows, and authentic Cuban cuisine.
As the car zigzagged among the traffic, “Barbara” turned from her position in the passenger seat and asked “Mary” seated to next to me if she could read the book next.
“What book?” I asked innocently. I loved to read. Maybe my coworkers shared books or had a book discussion club? What an exciting thought!
Not so fast.
Mary, Barbara, and Steven burst into peals of laughter. Frank kept his eyes on the road and hummed softly in Spanish under his breath.
“Did you read Chapter Six?” Mary demanded.
“I couldn’t believe it!” Steven gasped.
“What book?” I asked again.
Frank’s quiet voice broke through the laughter echoing in the car. “The CEO’s ex-wife just published a new book,” he said. “A kiss and tell book.”
Our CEO was famous — as was his wife. He had been a successful businessman and self-made millionaire whose name often made national news. He was friends with Important People. His face had graced the cover of slick newstand magazines.
His ex-wife, too, was famous, perhaps even more so than her successful husband, for she was in the entertainment industry. The book published by his ex seemed like a cruel trick played on him at a time when his new position at our company meant a fresh start.
I had heard about it already through the company grapevine but hadn’t picked up a copy. Everyone at work talked about the publication of the bombshell book that shared, in lurid detail, what should have been private between two people.
I should have known by the way my coworkers were talking that “the book” meant THAT book.
Mary rummaged in her voluminous tote bag and pulled out the hardcover book. “Here,” she thrust the book at Barbara. “Your turn next.”
Barbara hestiated. “Do you want to read it?” she asked.
“You’ve got to read it,” Steven urged. “It’s just too good not to.”
Mary jumped into the conversation. “I can tell you all about Chapter Six. That’s the juicy part.”
Frank stopped tapping and humming to the music and drove with fierce concentration.
I fidgeted in my seat. “Um, the juicy part?”
“His sex life,” Steven whispered with exaggerated politeness.
“His ex goes into detail about their sex life,” Mary giggled. “Every last detail.”
Barbara held the book over the divider between the front and rear seats. “Here. Read it. You can have it next.”
Did I want to read the kiss and tell book? Of course, part of me was curious. But part of me was repelled by their behavior, like junior high school kids hearing about a first kiss.
Barbara and Mary were whispering more about Chapter Six. I leaned forward and handed the book back to her.
“Thanks, Barbara,” I said firmly. “I’ll pass.”
“Are you sure?” Mary exclaimed. “You’ll really get some insights into his personality.”
“Is that what they call it these days?” Steven queried, raising an eyebrow to the laughter of the others.
“Yes, I’m sure.” I looked out the car window. We had just pulled up to the restaurant and waited in a line of cars for the valet. “I really don’t want that picture in my head when I’m meeting with the CEO. I don’t want to sleep with the guy — I just want to work with him.”
Frank’s quiet voice broke through the uncomfortable silence.
“Socks on, socks off, lights on, lights off in the bedroom — what does it matter what he does in the privacy of his bedroom? This is a book written by a disgruntled ex-lover. What would you do if your ex lovers wrote books about you?” Frank handed his keys to the valet.
Mary retorted, “Oh, we don’t care about that. It’s the rest of the book that’s interesting. His ideas and so forth.”
“You’ll find out his ideas soon enough,” Frank said. “You don’t need a book to tell you that.”
Back in Manhattan a week later, Frank took me aside when he passed me in the hallway on the way to a meeting.
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
“For what?” I asked.
“For being professional” he said. “That night. In the car. About The Book.”
I shifted uncomfortably. “I’m sure the others didn’t mean anything. It’s just the curiousity of having a CEO featured in a tell-all book. Let’s just forget the whole conversation.”
“It showed great maturity. I appreciate that, and I’m sure the CEO does, too.”
How far had our seemingly innocent conversation gone? Frank was friendly with the CEO. Had he shared details of what I had said with him?
Many months after that night in Miami, Frank invited me to join a lunch meeting at the restaurant down the block from the office. It was known as the place where our executives gathered and I was flattered. Lower level managers didn’t get invited to The Place.
Joining us at our table was Harry, Frank’s second in the department, and Joseph, the vice president of human resources.
Over genuine New York pastrami sandwiches and bottles of San Pelligrino water, Frank offered me a promotion to lead a new department the CEO was creating. It was the chance I had been waiting for and I accepted eagerly.
As he signed the check and Joseph and Harry offered me their congratulations, Frank said proudly to the others, “I noticed her leadership qualities at the Miami meeting.”
I had almost forgotten the car ride to the Cuban restaurant and The Book.
To me, it had just been an uncomfortable moment when I had stood up for my boundaries.
To Frank, it was a turning point where I had proven I could be trusted. I stood for something. I wasn’t just a yes person; I was my own person.
One moment, in a casual conversation after hours, had set the stage for my raise and promotion months later.
I never found out what was in juicy old Chapter Six, but a few months later, finding myself elbow to elbow with the CEO, I was very glad I hadn’t peeked between the pages.
The CEO smiled and asked my opinion of the report on the table in front of us as he leaned way back in his chair and crossed his legs, flashing his argyle socks as he crossed his leg over his knee.
All I could hear was Frank’s voice rumbling through the car that night. Socks on, socks off, what does it matter?
My future was written somehow in a darkened car in Miami when I refused to borrow a book.
Remember that no matter how casual and friendly, conversations among coworkers after hours are still conversations with coworkers. You never know where, how, why or when they may be repeated to others — or what the consequences will be.
I still don’t know what was in Chapter Six.
I’m glad I don’t.
All names and identifying details have been changed in this story to protect the innocent and the man who may or may not keep his socks on in the bedroom. A few situations were altered too in order to protect a few folks. It doesn’t change the moral of the story.