The Road to Hell Essay
John Baker, chief engineer of the Caribbean Bauxite Company of Barracania in the West Indies, was making his final preparations to leave the island. His promotion to production manager of Keso Mining Corporation near Winnipeg – one of Continental Ore’s fast-expanding Canadian enterprises – had been announced a month before, and now everything had been tidied up except the last vital interview with his successor, the able young Barracanian, Matthew Rennalls.
It was crucial that this interview be successful and that Rennalls leave his office uplifted and encouraged to face the challenge of a new job.A touch on the bell would have brought Rennalls walking into the room, but Baker delayed the moment and gazed thoughtfully through the window, considering just exactly what he was going to say and, more particularly, how he was going to say it. John Baker, an English expatriate, was 45 years old and had served 23 years with Continental Ore in East Asia, several African countries, Europe, and for the last 2 years, the West Indies. He hadn’t cared much for his previous assignment in Hamburg and was delighted when the West Indian appointment came through.Climate was not the only attraction. Baker had always preferred working overseas (in what were termed “the developing countries”), because he felt he had an innate knack – better than most other expatriates working for Continental Ore – of knowing just how to get along with the regional staff. After 24 hours in Barracania, however, he realized that he would need this entire “innate knack” to deal effectively with the problems that awaited him in this field.
At his first interview with Hutchins, the production manager, the problem of Rennalls and his future was discussed.There and then it was made quite clear to Baker that one of his most important tasks would be “grooming” Rennalls as his successor. Hutchins had pointed out that not only was Rennalls one of the brightest Barracanian prospects on the staff of Caribbean Bauxite – at London University he had taken first-class honors in the BSs engineering degree – but being the son of the minister of finance and economic planning, he also had no small political pull.
The company had been particularly pleased when Rennalls decided to work for it rather than the government in which his father had such a prominent post.The company ascribed his action to the effect of its vigorous and liberal regionalization program, which since World War II had produced 18 Barracanians at mid-management level and given Caribbean Bauxite a good lead in this respect over all other international concerns operating in Barracania. The success of this timely regionalization policy led to excellent relations with the government.
This relationship was given an added importance when Barracania, 3 years later, became independent – an occasion that encouraged a critical and challenging attitude toward the role those foreign interests would play in the new Barracania.Therefore, Hutchins had little difficulty in convincing Baker that the successful career development of Rennalls was of primary importance. The interview with Hutchins was now 2 years old, and Baker, leaning back in his office chair, reviewed his success in grooming Rennalls. What aspects of the latter’s character had helped and what had hindered? What about his own personality? How had that helped or hindered? The first item to go on the credit side would, without question, be the ability of Rennalls to master the technical aspects of the job.From the start, he had shown keenness and enthusiasm and often impressed Baker with his ability in tackling new assignments as well as the constructive comments he invariably made in departmental discussions. He was popular with all ranks of Barracanian staff and had an ease of manner that placed him in good stead when dealing with his expatriate seniors. These were all assets, but what about the debit side? First and foremost, there was his racial consciousness.His 4 years at London University had accentuated this feeling and made him sensitive to any sign of condescension on the part of expatriates.
It may have been to give expression to this sentiment that as soon as he returned from London, he threw himself into politics on behalf of the United Action Parry, which later won the pre-independence elections and provided the country with its first prime minister. The ambitions of Rennalls – and he certainly was ambitious – did not lie in politics, because staunch nationalist that he was, he saw that he could serve himself and his country best – for bauxite 1 was responsible for nearly half the value of Barracania’s export trade – by putting his engineering talent to the best use possible. On this account, Hutchins found that he had an unexpectedly easy task in persuading Rennalls to give up his political work before entering the production department as an assistant engineer. Baker knew that it was Rennalls’ well-repressed sense of race consciousness that had prevented their relationship from being as close as it should have been. On the surface, nothing could have seemed more agreeable.
Formality between the two men was at a minimum: Baker was delighted to find that his assistant shared his own peculiar “shaggy dog” sense of humor so that jokes were continually being exchanged; they entertained each other at their houses and often played tennis together – and yet the barrier remained invisible, indefinable, but ever present. The existence of this “screen” between them was a constant source of frustration to Baker, because it indicated a weakness that he was loath to accept. If he was successful with all other nationalities, why not be successful with Rennalls?At least he had managed to “break through” to Rennalls more successfully than any other expatriate. In fact, it was the young Barracanian’s attitude – sometimes overbearing, sometimes cynical – toward other company expatriates that had been one of the subjects Baker had raised last year when he discussed Rennalls’ staff report with him.
He knew, too, that he would have to raise the same subject again in the forthcoming interview, because Jackson, the senior draftsperson, had complained only yesterday about the rudeness of Rennalls. With this thought in mind, Baker leaned forward and spoke into the intercom, “Would you come in, Matt, please?I’d like a word with you”. As Rennalls entered the room, Baker said, “Do sit down”, and offered a cigarette. He paused while he held out his lighter, and then went on.
“As you know, Matt, I’ll be off to Canada in a few days’ time, and before I go, I thought it would be useful if we could have a final chat together. It is indeed with some deference that I suggest I can be of help. You will shortly be sitting in this chair doing the job I am now doing, but I, on the other hand, am 10 years older, so perhaps you can accept the idea that I may be able to give you the benefit of my longer experience”.Baker saw Rennalls stiffen slightly in his chair as he made this point. Consequently, he added in explanation, “You and I have attended enough company courses to remember those repeated requests by the personnel manager to tell people how they are getting on as often as the convenient moment arises and not just the automatic ‘once a year’ when, by regulation, staff reports have to be discussed”. Rennalls nodded his agreement, and Baker went on. “I shall always remember the last job performance discussion I had with my previous boss back in Germany.He used what he called the ‘plus and minus’ technique.
His firm belief was that when a senior, by discussion, seeks to improve the work performance of his staff, his prime objective should be to make sure that the latter leaves the interview encouraged and inspired to improve. Any criticism must, therefore, be constructive and helpful. He said that one very good way to encourage a person – and I fully agree with him – is to tell him about his good points – the plus factors – as well as his weak ones – the minus factors. I thought, Matt, it would be a good idea to run our discussion along these lines”.
Rennalls offered no comment, so Baker continued. “Let me say, therefore, right away, that, as far as your own work performance is concerned, the plus far out weighs the minus. I have been most impressed, for instance, with the way you have adapted your considerable theoretic knowledge to master the practical techniques of your job – that ingenious method you used to get air down to the fifth-shaft level is a sufficient case point – and at departmental meetings I have invariably found your comments well-taken and helpful.In fact, you will be interested to know that only last week I reported to Mr. Hutchins that, from the technical point of view, he could not wish for a more able man to succeed to the position of chief engineer”. “That’s very good indeed of you, John”, cut in Rennalls with a smile of thanks.
“My only worry now is to live up to such a high recommendation”. “Of that I am quite sure”, returned Baker, “especially if you can overcome the minus factor which I would like now to discuss with you. It is one that I have talked about before, so I’ll come 3 straight to the point.I have noticed that you are friendlier and get on better with your fellow Barracanians than you do with Europeans. In point of fact, I had a complaint only yesterday from Mr. Jackson, who said you had been rude to him – and not for the first time either. There is Matt, I am sure, no need for me to tell you how necessary it will be for you, to get on well with expatriates, because until the company has trained sufficient people of your caliber, Europeans are bound to occupy senior positions here in Barracania. All this is vital to your future interests, so can I help you in any way? While Baker was speaking on this theme, Rennalls sat tensed in his chair, and it was some seconds before he replied.
“It is quite extraordinary, isn’t it, how one can convey an impression to others so at variance with what one intends? I can only assure you once again that my disputes with Jackson – and you may remember also, Godson – have had nothing at all to do with the color of their skins. I promise you that if a Barracanian had behaved in an equally peremptory manner I would have reacted in precisely the same way.And again, if I may say it within these four walls, I am sure I am not the only one who has found Jackson and Godson difficult. I could mention the names of several expatriates who have felt the same. However, I am really sorry to have created this impression of not being able to get along with Europeans – it is an entirely false one – and I quite realize that I must do all I can to correct it as quickly as possible. On your last point, regarding Europeans holding senior positions in the company for some time to come, I quite accept the situation.I know that Caribbean Bauxite – as it has been doing for many years now – will promote Barracanians as soon as their experience warrants it. And, finally, I would like to assure you, John – and my father thinks the same too – that I am very happy in my work here and hope to stay with the company for many years to come”.
Rennalls had spoken earnestly. Although not convinced by what he heard, Baker did not think he could pursue the matter further except to say, “All right, Matt, my impression may be wrong, but I would like to remind you about the truth of that old saying, ‘What is important is not what is true but what is believed’.Let it rest at that”. But suddenly Baker knew that he didn’t want to “let it rest at that”. He was disappointed once again at not being able to break through to Rennalls and having yet again to listen to his bland denial that there was any racial prejudice in his makeup. Baker, who had intended to end the interview at this point, decided to try another tactic.
“To return for a moment to the ‘plus and minus technique’, I was telling you about just now, there is another plus factor I forgot to mention.I would like to congratulate you not only on the caliber of your work but also on the ability you have shown in overcoming a challenge which I, as a European, have never had to meet. Continental Ore is, as you know, a typical commercial enterprise – admittedly a big one – which is a product of the economic and social environment of the United States and Western Europe. My ancestors have all been brought up in this environment for the past 200 or 300 years, and I have, therefore, been able to live in a world in which ommerce (as we know it today) has been part and parcel of my being. It has not been something revolutionary and new that has suddenly entered my life”. Baker went on, “In your case, the situation is different, because you and your forebears have had only some 50 or 60 years in this commercial environment. You have had to face the challenge of bridging the gap between 50 and 200 or 300 years. Again, Matt, let me congratulate you – and people like you – once again on having so successfully over come this particular hurdle.
It is for this very reason that I think the outlook for Barracania – and particularly, Caribbean Bauxite – is so bright”. Rennalls had listened intently and when Baker finished, replied, “Well, once again, John, I have to thank you for what you have said, and, for my part, I can only say that it is gratifying to know that my own personal effort has been so much appreciated. I hope that more people will soon come to think as you do”. There was a pause, and for a moment, Baker thought hopefully that he was about to achieve his long-awaited breakthrough, but Rennalls merely smiled back.The barrier remained unbreached. There remained some 5 minutes of cheerful conversation about the contrast between the Caribbean and Canadian climate and whether the West Indies had any hope of beating England in the Fifth 4 Test before Baker drew the interview to a close.
Although he was as far as ever from knowing the real Rennalls, he nevertheless was glad that the interview had run along in this friendly manner and, particularly, that it had ended on such a cheerful note. This feeling, however, lasted only until the following morning.Baker had some farewells to make, so he arrived at the office considerably later than usual. He had no sooner sat down at his desk than his secretary walked into the room with a worried frown on her face. Her words came fast, “When I arrived this morning, I found Mr. Rennalls already waiting at my door.
He seemed very angry and told me in quite a peremptory manner that he had a vital letter to dictate that must be sent off without any delay. He was so worked up that he couldn’t keep still and kept pacing about the room, which is most unlike him. He wouldn’t even wait to read what he had dictated.Just signed the page where he thought the letter would end. It has been distributed, and your copy is in your tray”. Puzzled and feeling vaguely uneasy, Baker opened the confidential envelope and read the following letter: From: AssistantEngineer To: Chief Engineer, Caribbean Bauxite Limited Assessment of Interview between Baker and Rennalls 14 August It has always been my practice to respect the advice given me by seniors, so after our interview, I decided to give careful thought once again to its main points and so make sure that I had understood all that had been said.As I promised you at the time, I had every intention of putting your advice to the best effect. It was not, therefore, until I had sat down quietly in my home yesterday evening to consider the interview objectively that its main purport became clear.
Only then did the full enormity of what you said dawn on me. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that I had hit upon the real truth – and the more furious I became.With a facility in the English language which I, a poor Barracanian, cannot hope to match, you had the audacity to insult me (and through me every Barracanian worth his salt) by claiming that our knowledge of modern living is only a paltry 50 years old whereas yours goes back 200 or 300 years. As if your materialistic commercial environment could possibly be compared with the spiritual values of our culture. I’ll have you know that if much of what I saw in London is representative of your most boasted culture, I hope fervently it will never come to Barracania.
By what right do you have the effrontery to condescend to us?At heart, all you Europeans think us barbarians; as you say amongst yourselves, we are “just down from the trees”. Far into the night I discussed this matter with my father and he is as disgusted as I. He agrees with me that any company whose senior staff thinks as you do is no place for any Barracanian proud of his culture and race – so much for all the company “clap-trap” and specious propaganda about regionalization and Barracania for the Barracanians. I feel ashamed and betrayed.
Please accept this letter as my resignation, which I wish to become effective immediately. cc: Production Manager Managing Director