My most recent eviction from corporate America came as somewhat of a relief, though one must ostensibly make a living somehow, and it is really all I have done for decades.
After a while, though, the stress of the daily grind ends up outweighing the benefit of the pay cheque, at least in theory.
Recently I saw a post on a friend’s Facebook page about her spouse going “wow” repeatedly as the statistics of the earnings versus the cost of living in the 70′s compared to those of today (and it doesn’t look good in comparison, folks, hence all the wowing).
I have had some favourable experiences in my working life, but some of my most alarming experiences have also occurred while holding down a pencil-pushing “desk” job in corporate America.
Most people (at least normal ones) don’t really spend a whole lot of time scrutinizing other people’s toes. I mean feet are feet and they serve the purpose of carrying us around from one place to the other.
One place I worked at in Silicon Valley had a patent litigation paralegal on staff, a recent addition for a big case one of the partners was preparing to go to trial on. I was an overworked patent secretary, and a new addition to a smallish firm in an even smaller satellite office.
I had recently given birth to my son and as opposed to the current Canadian family leave allowances, we were only allotted a total of twelve weeks paid leave from the start of the leave rather than the birth of the child. I started mine two weeks before my son was born and so on the back end only had two and a half months with him before having to return to full time work. Had I not had a c-section delivery, it would have been even less, but given the recovery time of the abdominal incision, I felt quite unready to return to work and leave my newborn behind.
I’d started working at this place when my son was about five months old, and so I was still nursing at the time. I would spend my morning breaks and a part of my lunch hour pumping breast milk in the office building’s communal bathroom stalls on the floor I worked on. My elaborate set up to get the job done was carted around in a big plastic bag containing a portable insulated travel pack with a couple of cold packs to store and keep the milk cool after extraction, two portable handheld pumps with removable bottles, a very long and bright orange extension cord that I’d plug in to the power outlet near the sinks and snake into one of the bathroom stalls where I would plug in a power strip so I could hook up the two pumps and go about my business. Initially I had tried to use the battery operated pumps but the suction wasn’t powerful enough and the battery power wasn’t sustained enough to allow for the two daily sessions, hence this crazy but effective set up.
I did this for a half a year until my son was a few weeks sort of his first birthday. Between the sleep deprivation, the crazy pace and high demand at work, the ridiculously long commuting hours, and trying to keep a household smoothly rolling along, I’m surprised I survived that first year (or maybe the first three).
Most people eventually got used to the sound of the pumps going, and the big orange industrial extension cord plugged into the outlet signalled that I was in a stall hard at work being a human lactation device (which is how I felt oftentimes, but I don’t for a moment regret going through all of the extra effort to make sure my son had breast milk during the first year even in my absence).
In light of this, the last thing I was worried about were my feet, which I had only recently sort of been able to see again postpartum. I and my belly had grown to the size of a house during the last trimester of my pregnancy, and it took quite a long time before I could see my toes again even after I had delivered its occupant.
I dressed professionally enough (which for “big” people was difficult in and of itself without resorting to caftans and shapeless polyester outfits of the stretchy variety), though the Valley had always leaned toward more casual attire than anywhere else I had worked prior to or since, so I didn’t fuss much about wearing a tailored suit or pantyhose to the office. I routinely cut my toe nails and occasionally painted them with nail polish, but I had neither the time nor the resources to either do my own or outsource my pedicures. I was more concerned about matching my shoes to my outfits than worrying about what my toes looked like in my sandals. By all accounts (at least in my opinion) they weren’t at all hideous in appearance.
So this new addition to our team began making snide remarks about my toes and feet in general. The woman had issues, certs. Hers were never exposed to prying eyes and were always shrouded in dark hose even when she wore open toed sandals at the height of a summer heat wave. I’m pretty sure she also hadn’t yet (and perhaps never would) have the pleasure of welcoming an infant child into her life. It changes how you function on such a fundamental level – all that had once been important (namely you) no longer becomes relevant. You are merely a provider to this wholly dependent gorgeous little being that you helped manufacture.
In any case, the toe scrutiny and hating continued. I began to feel so insecure and ashamed of my toes that I decided to go get a professional pedicure. That still didn’t appease and I simply decided to ignore her and her mania, though my reputation as the one with inappropriate foot etiquette in this small office was clearly becoming established fact. I was the foot exhibitionist.
Some people just need to get their priorities straight.
At this same place the attorney I was working for (who was a weirdly neurotic genius type who couldn’t communicate orally but who loved the Simpsons and collected Peanuts Whitman’s chocolate toys) and I were tenuously learning how to work together. He revised his work product often, and the workload was both relentless and copious. We mostly worked on patent applications of the electrical and mechanical variety, but he did have a few that involved medical apparatuses. In any case I had my three month preliminary review, at which time I was deemed fabulous and wonderful and went from a conditional employee status to actual employee. This was a small victory, yet it emboldened me to feel a little more comfortable in taking my place there.
Of course there were office politics. There was a small handful of secretaries working at our office (four) and while I was doubled up with the lawyer and a summer student who would eventually become an associate, the two older guard each worked for partners and were in a one on one situation. The other secretary, who was the only friendly face in this very small crowd, had a two on one set up as well. One of the partnership secretaries viewed herself as an interim office manager and thus also had the expectation that I would do her overflow work. While I was hustling to keep up with the immense onslaught of daily correspondence and the generation of reporting letters for same (with a three day turnaround window from arrival time), as well as a massive and active patent prosecution docket, she would leisurely read through the daily newspaper each morning, have time to work on her personal side-job (and totally nonwork-related) newsletters, spend inordinate amounts of time chatting with everyone in the office or on the phone and yet offload a lot of her shit work that she didn’t want to do onto my desk.
I was doomed.
At review time, which occurred at my nine month mark and six months after my initially glowing one, the lawyer arrived to the meeting with a ream’s worth of paper – he had saved every single sheet of paper upon which I had made a typo in a folder (not accounting for the fact that he had subsequently revised most of the rest of the material on the draft pages anyway, and would have rendered my minute typos inconsequential). My workload and turn-around timeframe was ridiculously high in the former case and ridiculously short in the latter one. There was no way that I could work at the speed at which I was required to work and still have time to slow down enough to be completely error free. That was the issue for most of my patent work life. At least until the economy tanked and the paced slowed down enough so as to allow for more “attention to detail”.
Patent work dried up in the coming years, and with my move back to Canada, where the dynamic of the patent process is different from that of the US and the number of businesses engaged in producing sizeable patent portfolios is minimal, I have unfortunately not been able to use my hard earned though very niche skill set, which is now dwindling to obscurity due to lack of use or knowledge of current law and procedure.
More recently I worked at another office in which I had used some transferable skills, which I had highlighted in order to be hired. Having never worked in the industry before, nor performed the function for which I had been hired, the “transferable skills” were a large selling point. It not being rocket science – the task should not have been all that difficult to accomplish, but creating appropriate correspondence in an unfamiliar industry area requires some specific instruction and guidance despite my having mad word smithing skills.
My manager would come to me with requests for correspondence and ask that I not use the previously used correspondence as an example but create something different based on her very vague “something like this” criteria. I was a forms letter girl and I could do business correspondence until the cows came home, but this, it appeared, was a different animal, one whose arcane language I had yet to but would have to somehow acquire by mind transference.
The level of mutual frustration that my manager and I experienced as a result of this inability to communicate needs and delivery of goods had already taxed our somewhat tenuous professional relationship. Much of it had to do with our differing statures in life, as well as differing personalities. I was quiet, and spent a lot of time in my head mulling over myriad things. She was the opposite and while quite brilliant and educated, she also carried the attitude of innate entitlement. It must have been the rock I had lived under my whole life, but when I admired and complimented her shoes, she expressed shock at my not knowing who John Fluevog was.
Maybe that was a reflection of the self-confidence that she clearly possessed and which was lacking in myself, but while I tried to figure how to get comfortable in communicating with her, I don’t think that I was ever extended the same courtesy. My counterpart, though nice enough toward me, had been there for over a decade and a half and was not impressed that I had come onboard with an almost equivalent position and yet had to be trained and shown the ropes. This was never specifically expressed but rather implied by attitude, body language and the content of our conversations. We both reported to the same manager, and they had over that lengthy time established a relatively open way of communicating, though even she felt put out from time to time about certain demands or the lack of proper direction. So I was feeling really out of place but trying really hard to find SOME way in which to shine.
A little while into this enterprise I had a car accident – I was okay but my car not so much, and so effectively became carless for a little over a month during a critical time of the year, one in which the most significant annual social event that the organization undertook would take place – right when I didn’t have access to a vehicle and I would have to rely solely on public transit to get me from home to work and back and though I didn’t live extremely far away, I was definitely in the suburbs.
During rush hour this was a relatively smooth proposition, but after hours it became a lot more difficult as well as lengthy to do this commute loop. On the evening that the big event took place, I had already worked a full day and was also expected to go help out offsite. I was there until about 8:30 pm by which time the event was well underway and any stragglers arriving late to the party had been admitted (by me, because I had continued to man the reception desk long after all of the other staff had gone into the auditorium).
Instead of staying for the event, which ended quite late, I opted to leave so that I could get home at a semi-reasonable time. My son was still a young teenager at the time and though I could have left him alone for one night, I felt by far more comfortable knowing he was attended to and up and out the door to school the next morning. Issues with school attendance and participation in general were already in play at this point, so I felt like I had to be there. At this time we were in the throes of adolescent rebellion and parental angst – this was pretty much at the peak of it.
It took me about two hours to get home from the event, all said and done, but I got home just in time to have a semi-decent night’s rest and get up and head in the next day somewhat refreshed. I might also add that nowhere was I told that attendance to the whole event was mandatory or summarily expected. Maybe I was too obtuse to fully appreciate the nuanced suggestions to attend. Also, since I was a salaried worker, any time I worked in excess of my work day was basically unpaid time, so I felt that I had done my part in helping out at the event. Prior to the event I had spent many months and a whole lot of prep time in getting together the string of related correspondence that was intended for release prior to and post event.
The following day I arrived to the office and every single person in the office who assisted in pulling the event together had a lovely cellophaned bouquet of flowers waiting at their workstation – except for me. The worst part was not the fact that I had not received any flowers, but that those who had received them and noticed that I had not were keenly aware of the discrepancy, yet apart from the pitying looks I received from them, not a single person spoke to me about it.
I was never given an explanation for why I had failed to meet the unwritten expectation, nor was I willing to humiliate myself further by inquiring about why I had been singled out. I felt that I had done my part – had gone above and beyond normal job functions in order to contribute to the overall success of the event, despite the fact that it apparently wasn’t sufficient enough to merit a gesture of thanks that the bouquet implied and which was extended to every single staff person but myself.
It wasn’t the first time that I had felt mortified at my place of work but it was certainly the most recent time. I felt that it was the most irresponsible, juvenile and undeserved act of retaliation I had ever been subjected to. Coming from someone in an executive managerial position, I truly believe even now that this could have (and should have) been handled in a much more tactful and classy way.
Human dynamics are always an interesting proposition. We often behave in ways that are within the spectrum of our comfort zones depending upon the situations we encounter as we go along. If I feel empowered and comfortable, I will perform much better and more confidently than if I am under constant derisive scrutiny. The self-professing result of inadequacy propagates itself in the absence of respect, kindness and empowerment.
The coined term “engagement” is something that can only happen when employees feel they are supported to be their best selves and that a neutral yet productive dialog can be had within the context of our working relationships.
So I tire of this less than satisfying interaction. I realize it is very much in part due to human nature and the breadth of our capacity to communicate with each other. These things continue to occur in places where one would hope the level of maturity would surpass this lower level of communication but I have found this not to be the case, at least not in my experience. And I’ve had plenty. From the start of my career working as an office support person thirty years ago, I have held (including temporary positions) a total of twenty one jobs.
While I don’t, generally speaking, dislike the work that I do – in fact excel in many areas of the function I’ve been serving over the years and play well with others, particularly peers – I suffer condescension poorly, as well as many of the other similarly poor human dynamics that often times present themselves in an environment which can only be identified with familiarity breeding contempt.
I do also realize that a lot of this has to do with temperament. I believe that the performance framework of the post-industrial world has lost sight of what made work good (which in turn resulted in good work). It is now quantified by a performance/production:reward dynamic rather than one which engenders work excellence and pride in same. Those last things are the things that make getting up each morning worthwhile, which in turn increases the level of engagement in our work.
The “fake it ’til you make it” adage is thrown around a lot, and clearly it seems to work for many people. I’ve seen it in action, many times. In fact the outward show of confidence in one’s own skills, knowledge and performance often influences others’ perception of actual work quality and outweighs whatever shortcomings the actual work product might possess. This has been well-documented, and I’m sure you’ve all seen and read plenty on the subject. The thing is, it takes a certain kind of personality to pull that off, and I don’t have it.
I am tentative at first. While I’m in an uncertain, learning, phase, I proceed with caution and question everything I do, and ask for reinforcement on how I am progressing as I go along. This by no means is a matter of being reliant on praise, but rather looking for a small indication that allows me to make course adjustments in order to perfect my processes. If this occurs seamlessly, in that the critiquing takes place in a clear and matter of fact way which explicitly instructs rather than criticizes, I will learn and integrate the information and move on to the next level of expertise.
Eventually I become so well tuned to working with another person that my production level is almost inhuman. For that to occur, though, the learning process has to have happened in an organic and nonthreatening way, one which assumes a level of mutual respect and the understanding that it is a work in progress and there is a learning curve, and as a human I am prone to make mistakes.
I know I’m smart. I can, at times, be brilliant; often, if given the chance. In fact, because I have such a high expectation of myself and I will continue to finesse and adjust my performance until it is as close to perfection as I am capable of, chances are the end product of my performance will eventually outshine that of someone’s who fakes it ’til she makes it because oftentimes they start to believe their own crock and their work suffers for it because they stop reaching for excellence.
But this post really isn’t about excellence relative to work performance but rather excellence in quality of life.
I think we create far too much unnecessary drama in our day-to-day lives. Our need to interrelate events – to quantify them, to put them into context, to see how they fit into the compartments we’ve spent our lives categorizing – keeps us from really seeing things as they are rather than as we think they are, and this leads to miscommunication as well as poor human dynamics, and thus, also, poor work performance in the workplace. This also leads to a poor quality of life and a ridiculously high level of stress where there should be none. None!
I thrive on interaction and cooperative work product but I also require a level of independence that allows me to figure things out on my own, allowing me to adapt the process to my own strengths. How I get to the end product should be in my control, not micromanaged, although providing a loose outline of how to get from point a to point b is welcome as a starting point, and expected prior to my commencement of the work rather than after the fact as a point of criticism in my reasoning capabilities.
These seem like silly things to concern myself with, though, don’t they? A century or so ago people were just happy to get to middle age and that they had enough food to feed their families with and a roof over their heads. There was no existential yearning because people were too busy surviving. This is still the case in many less fortunate parts of the world. My dad had a saying that equated to “be glad you have a hole in your butt.” That pretty much sums it up. Yet in this semblance of good fortune, we still yearn for relevance and meaningful contribution.
So I will close this post by saying that I am still uncertain on how to proceed with going from being unemployed to earning a living again, at least in relation to my three decade long career as an office professional. It’s akin to choosing a new partner for a relationship, and dammit if I’m not gun-shy.