Thursday, April 26, 2007

Corporate Amazonia

It’s a good time to get into a job situation I had a few years ago that was one of the stranger work experiences of my life. It ended weird. I’m just glad it ended.

Doing temp and freelance work, I’d often find myself going back to certain clients once I learned the ropes with their companies. Most places I’ve worked have needlessly byzantine systems that take weeks or months to master. So when these folks see a halfway intelligent individual who shows a glimmer of understanding for how to function in their corporate environment, they tend to remember the name and put it at the top of their list when the need for an extra set of hands arises. From a worker's point of view, once you get rolling with a certain company, it's usually a pleasure to come back, as people know who you are, are glad to see you, and there's a pleasant novelty of you being there for a visit that rarely wears off.

One of the first places I ever did temp work at in the early 90s was a fashion company on the far west side of Manhattan. There are more than a few over there – I mean past 9th Avenue between the 20s and 40s in terms of street numbers. Their neighborhood was much the same the last time I pulled a stint there two years ago as it was over a decade ago: two shitty delis, a lonely pizza parlor, a strange bar and a fast-food joint were the only games in town for lunch. I would sometimes use the check-cashing place with bars in the window a few blocks away to get money orders for my cash-only landlord; invariably, there’d be a pit-bull chained to the gumball machine in the waiting area. If people left work too late at night, they often ran the risk of being mugged (which happened regularly) or coming across packs of stray crack whores heading out to certain spots near the numerous entrances to the Lincoln Tunnel to ply their wares.

On top of being located in a truly shitty, hard-to-reach neighborhood, the building wasn’t geared to handle the hundreds of workers who came pouring in every morning. There’d be a steady line of 30 people every morning waiting to squeeze into two small elevators serving about 15 floors, each floor with roughly 50 workers on each. The actual office space was pretty cool – an old factory vibe with hard-wood floors and great views of the Hudson – but everything else about the place sucked. I’d have to map out an hour and 15 minutes to get there, much of that time consumed by walking from my subway stop to their far-flung office in the Manhattan equivalent of a suburban industrial park in terms of its isolation.

A strange coincidence happened in that first stint with the Human Resources department. When I walked into the office of one of the women I was helping, I noticed a framed picture of the man who ran the banking company I had just worked in for the past four years. It was his daughter! This temp agency had no connection to my old job – I was sent to this spot by chance, and you better believe in a town the size of Manhattan, that’s a very strange coincidence. (I later learned the fashion company was owned by one of the clients of the banking company. I’m forever running into that sort of nepotism all over New York. Not to take anything away from that woman – she was a solid worker and smart to boot. But you can see where some folks get a foot in a door you never will without a solid connection like that.)

I found myself coming back to the place for the occasional weeks/months long stint over the years, often in Human Resources. I’m not all that crazy about HR departments as a result. From what I’ve seen, they’re staffed largely by women who are trained in that touchy/feely way of dealing with issues, and the vibe is more cheerleading camp than highly-trained individuals. And they all think they’re Sigmund Freud in terms of understanding human behavior. Most of them were terrible at reading people and resorted to dimestore psychology easily found in shitty bestsellers about hiding cheese and learning all you need to know in kindergarten. So you had this aire of all these spunky, can-do women smiling toothily at each other, when the reality was they were thrusting daggers in each other’s backs at every turn. Women can function pretty easily in an environment like that, as they know the ropes, but guys, or at least guys like me, can’t stand that sort of shit. I work well with women in general, but when you get a department where there’s only two or three guys and 30 women, shit gets strange, at least compared to the predominantly male vibe in most corporations.

The whole company was much like that, since it was a fashion company. Neurotic debutante chicks from the suburbs and snooty gay guys. It was fashion – it wasn’t going to attract a flock of Pabst-drinking bears in sleeveless denim jackets and size 42 leather pants. Most of the guys looked like Moby in horn rims and had attitudes to match. But they were far out-numbered by women. And I don’t know what this accent is, but so many of the women had this recognizable accent I can only define as suburban Northeastern. They’d drawl their words as if they were bored. They’d say, “I’m going to the stooooooore,” and their voices always had a raspy quality. The words “like” and “you know” found their way into every sentence. There were dozens of women with this fucked-up accent, and they always seemed to have the matching attitude: snide, arrogant, hard to deal with.

Women used to tell me, “Ooh, you’re a straight guy, this must be like shooting fish in a barrel for you to work here. So many women!”

Well, no. The worst thing about the company was that because the work population was so predominately female, it was unofficially OK to be strongly anti-male, especially considering that the company’s fashions were geared mostly to women. The HR people would have denied this vehemently, but even there, it was not unusual to hear the anti-male invective fly regularly. Usually women talking about boyfriends or husbands. But I’d often hear stuff like “all men are pigs” or “honey, they have penises, they’re all liars and cowards.” This sort of banter was rampant in the place, sometimes in a ha-ha funny way, other times in a clearly unbalanced way that was creepy. I heard it in every department, on every floor of the building, all the time.

On one level, I accepted that as typical “blowing off steam” rhetoric between the sexes and didn’t frown on it. On another level, I thought it was absolute bullshit, because I’d never been in a male-dominated corporate environment where such blatant nonsense was tolerated. Sure, you’ll hear occasional stories about sexual harassment, but in general that’s not how most companies operate. Mixed with my knowledge of how touchy/feely HR was about most issues, save this one, I always got the feeling I should never let myself get caught off base there. Never hit on anyone. Never flirt. The few straight guys I knew in the place had that same constricted way about them, and I suspect as full-time employees, they knew the score much more implicitly than I did.

On top of all this, the entire company had the worst meeting culture I've ever encountered. They'd have meetings over which way the wind was blowing that morning. Every person I dealt with, usually between the hours of 10 and 4, had either a non-stop block of meetings, or maybe one or two half-hour windows to come up for air. Thus, the real work most of these people had to do wouldn't get started until 4:00, at which time, they'd be at it for the next four hours, at least. It was sick. I know corporate culture, and that a vast majority of meetings are worthless and time-consuming, that the same result can usually be reached with one email and enough cc's to cover all parties involved. Granted, I became an MS Outlook wizard as a result, but I could see that if you got anywhere from the mid-level manager on up in that place, your days would be an endless maze of shitty, droning meetings in which you fiddled while the Rome of your actual job burned.

My last gig there was in a department that was, typically, all women, 10 of them. Fill in for two months until a new assistant to the department head was hired. It was a pretty easy assignment, and I was getting along well with all involved. Even though the anti-male shit, again, was constant, with one woman in particular occasionally glaring at me for reasons I never quite understood. It occurs to me now the environment in some departments in that building was like an evil girl’s school from a horror movie. I suspect, as I do with most work places, that a vast majority of the workers are stoked to the gills on anti-depressants and other prescriptions meds, so that any given day, I’m working with people who are stoned. I can feel it, and I sure as hell felt it in that particular department.

The spot wasn’t bad, but one of the worst aspects of it was I had to page through countless weekly and monthly women’s magazines to find pictures of the company’s products used by chance in fashion spreads. This also gave me a chance to read women’s magazines, and I can assure you now, I would rather nail my dick to a burning building than read another women’s magazine. The sick mixed signals that were constantly sent (an article about how having a positive body image is a must for any woman, followed by a fashion spread featuring a 15-year-old thinner than an Auschwitz survivor), the constant reminders that wealth and status were all that mattered, the demented casual attitudes towards sex (how to discuss fellatio with your teenage daughter) – it became clear to me after a week of reading that mind-bending shit that women in our society are expected to be crazier than shithouse rats with all the mixed and wrong signals being foisted on them.

I’m terrible with fashions; if something has a logo on it, much less a status-symbol logo of wealth, I don’t want to wear it. I like blank clothes that don’t advertise a way of life or support of millionaires. Oddly enough, I could see that very high-end fashion had the same attitude as mine, save I didn’t see myself spending $1,000 on a dress shirt and black pants combo that didn’t look much different from what I normally wore for about $60. In short, I couldn’t spot the company’s wares in a magazine even if the fashion spread had flaming red arrows pointing at the items.

This became a running joke with the woman who used to have that particular position, but had moved to a new job in another department on the next floor up. She seemed pretty unhappy in that spot after a few weeks, as she had gone from a place where she had a less than nine-hour work day to one where it was expected everyone in the department would hang out until 9 or 10 every night. What’s even stranger was that on a different stint two months earlier in Human Resources, I had arranged the numerous interviews between her and the various department heads to get her this new job. When she learned I was coming back to temporarily take the spot she had vacated, she was glad to see me.

Since she knew the job inside and out, I often had to consult with her, mainly with the whole "spot the product" issue in magazines. (It seemed like an archaic function, but the scanned-in pictures of products would be placed on a website that their retail stores had access to, so if a customer came in rambling on about a coat she had seen in a particular magazine, the salesperson could easily find out exactly what she meant and make the sale -- it made sense.) I would scan in pictures of what I thought were company fashions, email them to her, and generally be told I had just scanned fashions from their direct competition. It got to be a running joke, with me responding, “Phew, thank you for re-affirming my heterosexuality.” It was a fun laugh between both of us. Every other day, I’d email a jpeg of one of these things, and always be told I was wrong, with me not really sweating it, nor her.

One day, I emailed her a picture of some shoes, got the unexpected response that I was right for the first time, and responded something like, “Phew! I better start looking at the fashion spreads in this month’s Cosmo so I can have some heterosexuality affirming erections!”

I didn’t think anything of it. The office was strangely quiet that afternoon. The woman I was helping out stayed in her office. 4:55 pm rolls around, I start putting my coat on. As I do, I notice this guy Jody from Human Resources sauntering casually down the hall. Jody’s a strange guy. It’s understood that he’s gay – as it is with 90% of the guys working there. But he’s a gay guy with no fashion sense working in a fashion company. He’s the size of a house, and he’s made his trademark look the “casually untucked dress shirt” look that came into vogue a few years ago. (I hate this slovenly look.) Jody doesn’t seem to realize he: a. looks like a standard-issue fashion victim; and b. looks like he’s trying to cover up his enormous belly by having his shirt always untucked. It’s a lose-lose look for him. He’s a nice guy in general, but this weird aspect of his lack of fashion sense, on top of his gayness, makes me not trust him.

He sees me and says, hey, Bill, can we step into this empty office here and have a word. This is strange. 4:55 on a Friday. There’s no reason to talk to me. And I don’t trust anyone from HR initiating a conversation that goes beyond the weather, as I know how full of shit these people are on a regular basis.

We sit down, and he pulls out a copy of the email I sent to this woman earlier. He tells me that I’ve gone too far, and that I have to leave the company immediately and never return, that he’ll escort me to the front door, and that I’m to never come back there again.

I think he thought I was going to go apoplectic, break down in tears or produce an ice pick from my gym bag and go after that woman. Or ask why, why, why. But I don’t think he realized how fucking tired I was of working in the place, for many of the above-noted reasons. I had a week to go on this particular stint, but as my 70+ year old mother was just getting out of the hospital after a serious operation, I frankly had little problem with blowing this stint earlier and heading directly home to see her.

I was annoyed that my character had in some way been called into question – I had made a joke, much like a few dozen other jokes I had made with this woman in the previous weeks. I never found out how that email reached Human Resources – whether this woman had somehow decided she was now offended at our regular joking, or whether the word “erection” had tipped off some internal word search in the company’s email system and sprung them into action without her knowledge or approval.

In either event, I didn’t give a shit. I was smiling at Jody and shrugging. Their way of dealing with this scenario was typically hypocritical. They pride themselves on sensitivity training and “talking things out” – nothing was being talked out here. I was being told to get the fuck out of there, not given any opportunity to sit down with that woman and clarify the situation or apologize, and being held to a radically different standard than a vast majority of the company was held to in the level of off-color banter that was openly allowed. (My mistake was that it was in writing, not verbal, i.e., evidence if this woman got strange and demanded some type of legal action if the company didn’t take appropriate measures.) On top of this, a gay guy was imposing this abnormally harsh judgment on me … when people sharing his sexuality have been experiencing centuries of equally harsh judgments and over-reactions over something that’s really not that big an issue.

I didn’t expect Jody to grasp that irony – HR folks are not about irony, they're about efficiency, save you could fire 90% of any HR Department, and the company would go on functioning just the same. (Oops, sorry for that inappropriate jab.) In all fairness, Jody was pretty cool with the whole situation. Since he was in HR, I’m sure he’d been privy to many freakouts and crying jags, and situations far more heinous and strange than this. On the way out at the elevator, he nodded sagely and said, “Learn from this, Bill. Learn from this.”

I laughed. But I did learn from this. I learned never to monkey around in email, because laws are such that putting something in writing takes communication into a whole new legal realm that doesn’t seem to apply with the spoken word. I learned to be real careful around apparently unstable young women, that they could easily create strangeness and misunderstanding at the drop of a hat if they so desired. Them’s just the breaks in corporate America today – things are slanted to cater to women, albeit in an ultimately meaningless way that has no effect on the real power in any given company. (I suspect if I was a key player in that company, which is run by men, the same scenario would have resulted in Jody sitting in my office with downcast eyes asking if I could “tone it down” and apologizing for any inconvenience … while I yelled at him about double standards and contacting my attorney, fuck you, get out of my office, etc.) I’m not sure what that woman was thinking, if in fact she did initiate that action. That I was coming on to her? Harassing her? Neither of these was true. I was indulging in a practice both of us had been engaging in over the past few weeks and that she had apparently consented to a few dozen times over … but the magic word “erection” suddenly made her suspect I was Jack the Ripper waiting to pounce?

You tell me. I laughed on the way out and am glad as hell I won’t be going back to that god-awful part of town to work in that strange company. Again, I didn’t much care for having my integrity called into question – I’ll put my work-place ethic and demeanor up against anyone’s. I gather the best plan of action for anyone is to turn yourself into such a bland, generic, vanilla worker that you couldn’t possibly offend anyone of any race, sex, creed or ethnicity – as if you were some new P.C. version of a caricature from a 1950s training film on how to get along in the office. But I’ve also found most work places aren’t as deeply confused and contradictory as that company is. I learned what I always knew: some places you should just stay the fuck away from, no matter how much money you stand to make in them.

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