This Could Hurt by Jillian Medoff is a deeply funny and deeply affecting look at the twenty-first-century personnel machinations of a Manhattan market research firm’s HR department. Rosalita “Rosa” Guerrero, a woman of a certain age, has run the Ellery Consumer Research HR department with an iron fist wrapped in a St. John’s knitwear glove for fifteen years. The phrase in the title pops up in Rosa’s thoughts as she contemplates taking an underperforming subordinate named Rob to task, letting him know change is in the air.
If the book’s striking jacket design, featuring an iconic “pink slip,” hadn’t let us know already, we now do: Medoff plans to tell a story about loss. Rob will lose his job. Rosa will lose her mind to dementia (more on that in a moment). Other colleagues will lose spouses, opportunities, respect, you name it; a twenty-first-century corporate department reflects our twenty-first-century problems.
The plot steps off right then, with Rosa’s fully-in-charge demeanor disintegrating as she confuses Rob by mixing up the names of two peers. Something is not right, but Rob has too much chaos in his married-with-children life to do a lot about it. As Rosa deteriorates further, experiencing a serious stroke, it will be Rob’s equals Leo Smalls and Lucy Bender who save the day, doing everything from home care to office camouflage for their beloved leader. “From that day forward, Lucy took over Rosa’s project, Leo masterminded her day-to-day, and Katie handled her scheduling. Instead of waiting for Rosa’s go-ahead, the trio made decisions on her behalf.” Their carefully choreographed moves will be familiar to anyone who has cared for an aging parent or grandparent.
Wait, employees running interference for their cognitively impaired boss? Helping her home from the hospital, preparing her sickbed meals, and making sure no one notices when she’s gone (again) due to a physical therapy appointment? It beggars belief — but Medoff not only has a day job as a management consultant; she saw this scenario played out in real life when she worked for an HR executive who believed she was managing just fine after a stroke.
Real-life experience, no matter how painful, doesn’t necessarily translate into a terrific novel, but that is what This Could Hurt absolutely is. Medoff takes her raw material and molds it carefully, through the perspectives of Rosa, Rob, Lucy, Leo, and their department’s golden boy, Kenny. Each section has a distinct feel that mimics each person’s mental flow — for example, some of Lucy’s chapters include a plethora of footnotes, her mind’s way of keeping track of excess information. The details, too, are spot-on, from overweight Leo’s midlife need to have some “alone time” with his morning muffins to Rosa’s unblended chin foundation to Lucy’s hopeless crush on Rob’s old friend from Dartmouth. Most important: The stories intertwine and then untangle and then merge again with emotion and meaning. The five protagonists each have different information to provide about the others, and while This Could Hurt is not The Alexandria Quartet, Medoff uses their braided revelations to heighten the drama behind each storyline.
More significant, though, is the way this knitting-together reminds us that any group of human beings becomes a kind of family in which the boundaries between personal and the professional give way to a more fundamental dynamic. When we’re involved with an office “family,” there’s always at least one parent (Rosa is definitely the mother hen, until she becomes the lame duck), a few siblings (Leo and Rob quarrel, then form a truce; Lucy struggles with being an alpha female, Kenny with his golden-boy trajectory), and even assorted cousins and aunts who aren’t part of every decision but whose quirks have to be reckoned with when they drop in . . .
Medoff doesn’t let cisgender heteronormative males off the hook for one second, either. The “godfather” of Ellery is CEO Rutherford Beaumont, and his longtime retainer HR VP Peter Dreyfus functions as a sort of scapegoat for the 2008-era layoffs. Both men, we discover, have been in power too long, and while one of them will suffer the consequences for his actions, the other will not. Only two of the protagonists and the reader will ever know about this man’s predation.
So an employee is sexually preyed on, and the predator never has to answer for his actions — sound familiar? This Could Hurt was composed long before #MeToo entered our cultural lexicon, but it lands squarely on the concerns of the moment. As Leo says to Rob at one point, “You’re a white man with a wife. Your life is acceptable. You don’t have to hide in the shadows or pretend to be something you’re not.” Quietly and steadily, Jillian Medoff shows us how some weaknesses are supported by office-family devotion, while the corporate hierarchy tragically hides others.
In an epilogue, This Could Hurt concludes with a series of management flow charts that tell part but not all of the Ellery HR story, underscoring the idea that an office ecosystem can be as dysfunctional as any family — but more changeable. As the gig economy reshapes office life, employees may wind up forming different kinds of “families,” supporting each other differently but still supporting each other; and, in these charts, Medoff pays attention to new methods of collaboration — and fates for Leo, Rob, Lucy, and Kenny that may not classify as happy-ever-after but certainly offer second chances. A less generous novel might have been willing to sacrifice its characters in pursuit of the bottom line of social satire, but Medoff seems committed to treating her creations as more than human resources.