Thursday, November 18, 2004

Life lessons from work

Warning: this is an uncharacteristically long post. I'm not quite sure why I'm so verbose in this one. I'm usually pretty clipped in my verbiage, but this time, I seem to have slipped into storytelling mode. Please read down to the bottom, as I'm looking for your feedback on an issue that's near and dear to my writer's heart - and to yours as well, I hope. Read well, and thanks.

The run-up to the end of the year always seems to spark a wave of introspection in pretty much everyone we meet. It's the kind of thinking that extends well beyond soon-forgotten new year's resolutions. Rather, it's a harder-than-usual look at ourselves and our immediate - and not-to-immediate - milieu, and the tabling of some serious questions about who we are, why we lead our lives as we do, and what else we could or should be doing to improve our place in the world.

The work world seems to have a profound influence on us in this regard. Now is the time when many of us have our performance reviews at work. Not coincidentally, it is also when many of us begin laying plans for a fresh career start in the new year. Even if you put on a happy face to those around you, I'm certain many of you are nodding your head as you read this. Although I don't have a webcam pointed over your shoulder as you peruse the Saturday morning paper, it's a safe bet that a good percentage of you are scanning the Careers section a little more closely than usual.

As these thoughts danced through my mind (yes, they do dance through my head...I have no control over them when they do) I received a link to a posting from the significant other of an Electronic Arts employee that throws this entire line of thinking into stark perspective. It's called EA: The Human Story. To make a long story short, the significant other (or "SO" in our acronym-crazy parlance) of a developer at this market-leading video game software firm wrote a highly detailed, highly emotional, highly effective critique of the company's work practices..

Although I can't say I have ever endured anything that comes close to the hell this person describes, I believe the thread is so unbelievably popular because it strikes a nerve in all of us. Regardless of degree, we have all experienced abuses at the hands of employers at some time in our respective career arcs. There's a little bit of truth in this person's message, and it's familiar enough that we all know how it feels and tastes.

This whole issue brings to mind some contract work I signed on for at a fashion magazine a bunch of years ago. I was still in j-school, but we were on break and I needed something to do. I called someone who was posting for writers on the school's bulletin board, and the next day I found myself in a nondescript building in Montreal's "Fashion District" - otherwise known as the Shmateh District - speaking to the publisher - a short, middle-aged ball of stress we'll call Herb - and his young, attractive editor who we'll call Charlene.

After the usual Reading Of The Resume and a stilted discussion of what a great writer I was, they proceeded to breathlessly share their "vision" of their magazine, a glossy, high-end rag that covered the latest happenings in kids' fashion.

The interview obviously went really well, because they offered me the job right there and showed me to my office. The writing was, frankly, not very challenging, and the overall project looked like a fun way to knock off a couple of weeks before school started again.

So I dug into researching the hot colors, fabrics, and designers of the season - mindless and fun - and had a fairly good first half-day. I turned in my copy just before lunch, at which point Herb and Charlene invited me to join them for the midday meal. Score, I thought.

I remember sitting down, ordering something simple, and watching their faces change from wall-to-wall smiling to dead-serious in the time it took us to reach for the partially-smudged water glasses the server had just brought. Herb, in a deliberate and serious tone, told me I'd better get ready for 24-hour days, and that he'd be bringing a cot in from home. Naive me, I thought he was joking.

Not quite.

I did my best to hide the visual impact of the blood rushing from my cheeks. I was all of, what, 20 years-old, and my work experience to-date - namely working as a lifeguard at my local pool - had been beyond charmed. Despotic bosses were alien to me. Until then, of course.

I remember feeling fear. Walking away seemed like a viable option at that point, but I really wanted to be published, and I didn't think a just-getting-started journalist could realistically walk away and hope to get hired in this town again, so I pretended to not be rattled. I said as little as possible through lunch, then followed them back to the office when we were done.

As I settled in at my computer for another afternoon of writing, I was suddenly jolted by Herb screaming into his phone. His partner was trying to rob him. His wife was a b---h. He hated his kids. Everyone he called seemed to get quite the profane, full-volume earful. My previously-virgin ears were assaulted by language I had only ever heard on the street in the rough parts of town, but never in an office supposedly populated by working professionals. Yeah, professionals: an apparent misnomer in this case.

When he meandered into my office after he was done, I held my keys in my pocket, ready to smack him hard if he came near me. Instead, he spoke to me in a soothing voice, telling me he hoped I didn't get the wrong impression of him (no risk of that, sir) and that publishing is an incredibly rough, dirty world, and you're always dealing with people who are trying to put you out of business. I nodded my head, thankful I didn't have to resort to a full frontal assault to preserve my person, and counted the seconds in the back of my head until he disappeared from sight.

Still the naive, young journalism student, I came back to the office over the next couple of days. I marvelled at my ability to essentially say the same thing seven times, but to spin it in a fresh new direction within each article. Did you know gold and silver were going to be hot colors this year? Did you know that sportswear represented the emerging paradigm of chic? My writing skills sure kicked into overdrive that week, even as I knowingly cranked out the BS.

The yelling continued, though, and by mid-week, the little troll's outbursts were directed at me. My desire to go home at a reasonable hour and return the next morning didn't seem to sit well with Heart Attack Herb. I kept my keys in my pocket at all times, just in case.

His partner showed up Thursday afternoon and almost came to blows with Herb. When the dust had settled, the partner then quietly walked into my office, and whispered "Get out while you still can" to me before disappearing into history.

I went into the office Friday with every intention of quitting. When I told the woosome twosome that their employee satisfaction efforts seemed to be a bit misguided, they threatened to not pay me unless I lived in the building for the rest of the agreed-to-time. They also threatened to tar-and-feather me to every editor, publisher, and media outlet in Montreal. After a bit of back-and-forth where I threatened to bring in Quebec's workplace compensation board for a look-see, they saw my perspective and agreed to pay me for the time I had worked. I don't think I ever cashed a check that quickly.

I never again saw Herb and Charlene. I'm sure Herbie's aorta exploded sometime after the magazine folded - what, you're surprised that it tanked? - and Charlene never did reach the heights of publishing wizardry to which she aspired (I googled her once...she's a hack, and a bad one at that.) I, however, was left with a deep appreciation of the need to treat those with whom we work - in any context, at any level of the organization - with nothing less than absolute respect. It may sound trite and obvious, but it's just as easy to be a hero as it is to be a doofus.

The point of this meandering mess, then, is to ask YOU for your thoughts on the following:

  • Do some employers take advantage of employees by making them work long hours for no overtime? Has it happened to you?
  • If so, what was the nature of the abuse (or otherwise less-than-stellar treatment of employees)?
  • What did you do about it at the time?
  • Knowing what you know now, would you change anything about your reaction?
  • What are some specific best practices employers should be using to ensure employees continue to remain engaged?

As I've said previously: Discuss...


Anonymous said...

I once worked for a company that rolled out the ice cream cart just before handing out pink slips on Fridays. They would fire a bunch of people and then the ones left got an ice cream sundae party. I still can't look at ice cream without a lump in my throat. Pavlov had a dog...

Kate said...

Do some employers take advantage of employees by making them work long hours for no overtime?

Has it happened to you?

If so, what was the nature of the abuse (or otherwise less-than-stellar treatment of employees)?
When I worked at a daycare they wouldn't give overtime but expected things to be done that they knew couldn't possibly get done during the work day.
As a school teacher, my 'contract' authorizes the school district or principal to assign duties to me as they wish. With no chance of more pay, because now I'm salaried. Also, extra duties always come up. Tutoring, before school, after school and lunchtime monitoring, stuff like that. No extra pay for that either, and the regular workload doesn't decrease if you do get assigned these tasks.

What did you do about it at the time?
I don't volunteer for these things, and decline the things I am able to decline.

Knowing what you know now, would you change anything about your reaction?
Probably not, because Texas doesn't allow unions, so I have no recourse other than to quit my job. Which I like, and that also pays for my house.

What are some specific best practices employers should be using to ensure employees continue to remain engaged?
That's a tough one. I'll have to give that some more thought.

Mellie Helen said...

Wow. You're bringing back memories here I'd just as soon forget. The brief answers are yes, yes, and the description will have to come either as an email to you or as an entry in my blog, to give the complete response. Suffice it to say that there is a reason why (a) the Dilbert strip, (b) telecommuting, and (c) independent contracting have become so very popular. As well as (d) workplace related lawsuits.

Sorry you had such an experience yourself. Hope it's all water under the bridge.

Anonymous said...

I was recently hired on to work at at a company where at the time of hire, the hours were advertised as 8:30 to 5:30. Months into the employment our IT manager was either let go or quit at which time our new team leader said hours were from 9:30 to 4:30. This sounded great! However, what was expected was something completly different.

Hours recently seem to be running from 8:30am to 2:00am and weekend breaks seem to be a thing of the past. I of course refuse to work ridiculus hours since I have other things to attend to and I just can't be productive if I'm not well rested. I can get a whole lot more done awake and alert in 3 hours than I would tired and working an 18 hour shift.

I was asked to come into work a past Saturday to help test an incomplete product. They said that we'll have to go through and test it again once everything was complete. I of course refused and said I had things to attend to on Saturday (which I reeally did).

carmilevy said...

May we all eventually work for ourselves. Then we can have a schizophrenic episode when we disagree with our latest policy decision.