They’re the kind of news stories we don’t want to think about too hard. Just during the time I was reading This Could Hurt, a series of them flashed by: 5,000 jobs cut at Macy’s stores, 63 Sam’s Clubs shuttered, layoffs for hundreds of steelworkers and dozens of magazine journalists.
We shake our heads and murmur that it’s too bad, and what we’re really thinking is, "Thank goodness it’s not me."
In This Could Hurt, the mordantly funny new novel by Jillian Medoff (I Couldn’t Love You More), those people are far more than faceless numbers. Set in 2010, at the nadir of the Great Recession, the book focuses on the staff of the human resources department at Ellery Consumer Research, a midsize company headquartered in Manhattan.
At the book’s heart are two women. Rosa Guerrero is Ellery’s executive vice president of HR. She’s a rarity among executives, not only because she’s both female and Hispanic, but because she’s fiercely loyal to her staff. (Not for nothing does her last name translate to "warrior.")
She’s also unusual in that she has maintained an executive position into her mid 60s — she has been on the job long enough that 25 years before she was a mentor to the man who’s now the CEO. Rosa is acutely aware of how vulnerable her age makes her, but, impeccably turned out in St. John suits, Chanel Rouge Noir lipstick and carefully blown-out honey gold hair, she holds the years at bay.
Widowed and childless, Rosa lives for her job. She’s the kind of HR chief workers dream of, always thinking about ways to develop employees, sometimes coming up with paths they never even thought of that play to their strengths. As a result, she’s a beloved figure, especially by those who work closest to her.
One of those, Lucy Bender, is the other woman the book revolves around. She’s one of the vice presidents who work directly under Rosa and the one most likely to succeed her.
It’s not a given, though. "Eminently capable but reluctant to self-promote, Lucy wrongly believed her hard work would speak for itself," Medoff writes. As the book begins, Lucy’s in a slump, coming to the office in outfits a peer compares acidly to a Red Lobster uniform and wasting energy on a "work wife" relationship with an affable but unambitious colleague.
The recession is taking a toll on both women. Before, Rosa made HR an invigorating place to work: "Once Lucy asked Rosa if she minded the chaos. ‘Mind?’ Rosa had laughed. ‘I love it! I’m like the Wizard of Oz, handing out hearts, brains, and courage to people in need.’?"
Now, though, they struggle with laying people off instead of helping them. Rosa reflects, "Right now, it seemed like her entire career had been one long fifty-year meeting focused on a single theme: profits were imperative, people were expendable."
Everyone else in HR is struggling, too: Rosa’s other VP, Leo, who’s gay, overweight and unbearably lonely; Rob Hirsch, Lucy’s pal, who wandered into his career and doesn’t seem to know what to do with it; and Kenny Verville, who has a Wharton MBA and a high-powered wife but is almost as aimless as Rob.
Coming up behind all of them, of course, are hungry younger employees. Some of them Lucy mocks: "At twenty-three, Maisie Fresh spoke in Facebook posts: Malia Obama’s poise (Like!), cheese enchiladas (Like!), or yeast infections (Dislike!)."
But everyone loves Katie Reynolds, "smart, plucky, kind, and full of energy." Someone will love her a little too much.
A medical crisis will throw the whole department into chaos — and, eventually, make clear just who has learned from Rosa’s wisdom and resourcefulness.
Medoff, who has a long career in management consulting in addition to her work as a writer, paints her characters’ work life in sharp detail. She also warmly sketches their personal lives, as parents and children, husbands and wives, and especially in their friendships with one another.
Indeed, for most of them their work relationships are among the most important ones in their lives. It’s one of the reasons they so fear losing them to a layoff:
"That’s what happens when you leave a company. You cease to exist. The hole you once filled knits together, or someone else takes your place. Soon the people who knew you go, and all that’s left of your presence is your slanted signature on yellowing invoices."
But in This Could Hurt, Medoff tells a tale that suggests that even in the worst of times, there really are human resources.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.