Monday, November 07, 2005

In Through the Out Door

Three of the best movies about working in an office are:
- Office Space
- Brazil
- Galaxy Quest

Office Space nails the inanities that everyone faces in the workplace with an accuracy such that you'll find yourself matching movie characters with people at your job.
Galaxy Quest is an allegory about what happens if you pretend you know what you're doing: Someone will appear and actually expect you to do the real thing.
Brazil is about the hopelessness brought about by incompetence rising to the top - an pre-Dilbert take on "The Dilbert Effect" - and the inevitable outcome for those who try to do the right thing in spite of it all.

I bring this up like our cat brings up a hairball because I have faced a waterloo at work and spent one night distractedly bumping into walls from being overwhelmed with the tsunami of stupidity I'd endured. Coming into work the next day, a compatriot reminded me that I'm still getting paid to do the inanity I've been asked to do, so at least there's that. A reasonable perspective, I decided, and so I put the box of shells back into my trunk. (I kid. I kid.)

This brought to mind the worst job I'd ever had to date, that being a clerk at a chain bookstore. Helping customers, basic shelving, and the incessant tidying up after customers have pawed through a rack (as they should) were actually not all that unpleasant, in a raking-the-Zen-rock-garden sorta way. No, what made things bleeding gums and clumps of hair falling out was bizarre company policy and a manager who simply thought that if someone asked you to pound a railroad spike to China, well they probably had a good reason, so don't ask why.

The main culprit of woe was a stack of paper literally a foot high that was a list of all the books in the store, generated from computerized inventory list the main office kept of all books in every store, that was maintained by our cash registers and shipping centers. Our job was to go through the entire store, write the number of copies we had in the little square next to the title, and if the price on the list differed from that on the book, we had to change the price mark on the book. This in itself was not a bad idea, or a bad thing at all, because over time shite happens and the computerized inventory becomes incorrect. What was silly is we had to do this twice a year, and it took about a month to do, resulting in the discovery of maybe 5 to 10 "lost" books, and maybe 15 price changes (of about $1 each). The sheer cost of printing this had to have outstripped the gains of exercise. This was a thing that should be done every third year on the outside, and once a year at most. The biggest sin was because it was so labor intensive, customer service suffered directly for those two months a year. If you're in the middle of counting 27 copies of something and a little old lady wander up to ask if you've got the new Harlequins in, you couldn't give her the "wait a minute" gesture, finish and help. No, you had to drop everything and help, which made us begin to hide out, or literally run from customers just to finish some notes or a count.

And that was just one of the many insults we had to endure for minimum wage (and even less during the month of December, where we were expected to put in an extra 10 hours a week for free).

I think the sole reason I had that job (and I'm one of those who thinks most everything happens for a reason) was to give me perspective on the relative suckitude of jobs later in life. As much of a pain as things are right now, at least I'm not in the midst of marking up one of Bill O'Reilly's blowhard tomes only to have a mother appear around the corner of the shelves announcing that her child with Dizzy Gillespie cheeks is about to barf and where's the bathroom?

(Which reminds me another challenge of the bookstore job; we didn't have a public bathroom. Moms were always running in with a desperate child asking to use the bathroom. We were told we could under no circumstances (even Dizzy Gillespie cheeks) allow a customer to use the bathroom; one item on the multi-page list as to reasons why not was that our stockroom was a hazard what with all the stacks of books lying around. (It was safe for us because we were professionals, and had apparently signed something upon hire that bereaved families were forbidden to sue the company should one of us die due to a case of terminal papercuts should a stack attack.) Once, out of the sheer goodness of my heart, and the empathetic fact of actually having a bladder, I let someone take their child back under full escort from me to guard from malicious book assault. I was alone in the store and thought I'd be safe. Well, an employee of another store across the way in the mall spied my deviation from policy, and made sure my manager found out. I was taken into the back room and given a severe tongue-lashing and a warning in my file. Sometime later an elderly and terminally annoyed regular customer asked if she could use our bathroom. She got very angry (I'm surprised she didn't pee on the carpet) and said the policy was stupid. I agreed and even told her what had happened the one time I'd transgressed. Well, mentioning my manger gave her an idea, and of course she called her. The next day I was taken in the back room for another tongue lashing for angering a repeat customer for not letting her use the bathroom.)

One of the things that stick in my craw is the futility of being able to do much when the train jumps the track at work. As an employee, you pretty much have to find another job if you don't like the way things are going because:
1) If you try to present the situation to upper management as an issue that needs fixing, you are the messenger and you will be shot.
2) If you take it to Human Resources, you will simply be viewed as a problem employee and it will go in your record (unless sexual harassment's involved). Chances are if they talk to upper management, they will only mention that you are a problem, and won't mention the problem you're trying to bring to light.
3) If you try to "transform it from below," this will merely provide an opportunity for those who are responsible for the bad policy in the first place to pinpoint you as someone not following the rules, and you will be reprimanded or fired.

No matter how many assurances from the company that this is not the case, this is the case 99% of the time. This is because organizations that are broken enough to allow the situation in the first place are typically broken to the extent that fixes will not occur without great trauma to staff (loss of jobs, for those of you in the cheap seats, even for those who are trying to correct things - the great correction machine is blind to who's helping and who's hurting, because it's often considered too objective a thing to really ascertain in time), and this is only after trauma to the bottom line has occurred.

I've always wondered if it's better to search for a job at the end of the year or the beginning in regards to layoff odds. Companies tend to balance the books on the backs of their staff these days, meaning that if in the 4th quarter things aren't going as planned, a lot of companies will simply schedule layoffs, which is why there are so many layoffs in American at Christmas. My theory is that if they hire you in the 4th quarter, it indicates that they're doing well enough to do so, and so you probably have a safe year, at the very least - more if they are competent enough to manage their finances accordingly. If a company hires you early in the year, while the budgets are flush, it means you are a step below contract work because you have no indication if the company is one of those that does egregious Christmas layoffs (and they certainly won't tell you that in the interviews even if you ask). You are one step below contract work because at least they know their job has an end date, and they even know what it is (in theory, because I imagine companies can just tell a contract worker to just leave, too - I've not done contract work, so I don't know firsthand).

That's it for now. This guy in a jumpsuit just showed up in my cube to invite me to work on a software project located somewhere in the belt of Orion. I hope they have good benefits...

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