By Jeff Salter
This would have been even more mortifying had it happened TO me … but it was embarrassing enough just to be involved in it.
To comprehend this delicate situation, you’ll need a little background. I was the assistant director of a large public library system and one of my duties (for about 16 years) was overseeing the personnel functions. In some cases, the particulars were handled by others, but when the vacancy was for a new department head directly in my line of supervision, naturally I played a significant role in every aspect of the selection.
Well, we had one particular applicant – let’s call him Fred – who’d travelled some 400 miles for this day-long interview process. That marathon day included meetings with me alone, with me and the director, with me other department heads, and (of course) with the individuals Fred would be supervising in that department if he got the job.
I no longer recall the exact order of those various interview segments, but let’s say Fred’s meeting / interview / tour of the particular department was roughly in the middle of the day. It was my practice to give the applicant some time alone with the employees he would supervise (if selected) so I was up in my office trying to do a little work in a day otherwise lost to this complex and tiring structure of interview segments.
My phone rang and it was one of the ladies in the department where Fred was meeting the staff and taking the tour.
“Jeff, you need to come down here,” she said urgently.
Tired and annoyed that I wouldn’t even get ten minutes to myself that day, I asked her why.
“You just need to come down here.”
Since she wouldn’t tell me, I immediately had visions of some hostage situation where she wasn’t allowed to give away any details. But I was also skeptical. “Is this an emergency?” I asked.
She hesitated. “Well, it depends on how you define ‘emergency’. It’s definitely serious.”
“Is anybody in danger?” I probed.
“Nobody’s in danger, but it’s an emergency.”
“Is it a non-danger emergency that you can take care of?” I inquired.
With absolutely no hesitation she answered, “No.”
We weren’t making much progress, so I probably got a bit testy. “Just tell me already. What’s the problem?”
“It’s Fred. He’s… I mean it’s his pants.” She struggled for the words. “His, uh, zipper.”
Oh — the situation was immediately crystal clear and I finally understood this employee’s reticence to simply deal with the matter herself.
“Okay, I’ll be right there.” I hung up the phone, checked my own zipper – since one can never be too careful – and then trotted down the stairs. Before I opened the door to that floor, I paused. With such a delicate subject, I knew I couldn’t just blurt it out. And I certainly couldn’t discuss it in front of the others. Heck, I didn’t even know if everybody else already knew or if it was only the employee who’d called me.
I took a deep breath and entered the department. With that floor’s layout, it was fairly easy to spot a group of people so I went directly over to them.
“Excuse me, everybody. Sorry to interrupt, but I need to see Fred for a minute. There’s been a small change in the schedule.” That seemed like a good line. I purposefully did not even look below his sternum because – with all those other eyes on me – I knew I would get flustered if his zipper really was down.
So Fred shrugged and turned … and followed me into the small office which would be his if he got this job.
As we left, I could tell by the way the others quickly huddled and whispered that they all knew about Fred’s errant zipper.
Once we were in that office, I lowered my gaze enough to ascertain that the situation was real. Yep — it was a full-scale “zipper down” event.
I realized I needed words which specifically conveyed the problem but hopefully would not be too uncomfortable to Fred. There’d been no time to rehearse anything, and I didn’t recall any similar need for such admonitions since I was a kid on the playground at recess.
And then it struck me: go with the simplicity of that playground kid … just point out the obvious fact and don’t make a big deal out of build-up or context. So I just pointed to the area in question and said, “Fred, your barn door’s open.”
I was embarrassed, but Fred was mortified.
The moral to the story is: on an interview, always check your zipper.
What has embarrassed YOU?