When I was 14 years old, I got my first summer job. The only place in town hiring kids that young was the college dining hall, where as a dishwasher I was responsible for dealing with the waste of a few hundred (give or take) students, three times per day. The college kids were often less than civil about the process: despite giant signs that said “THROW AWAY ALL TRASH” and “PLACE CUPS IN RACK”, many would simply drop their tray onto the shelf and walk away, leaving a wobbling stack of gross dishes and utensils. My mother still enjoys telling stories of me coming home with spaghetti in my hair.
But that wasn’t my worst job. Not by a mile. I wouldn’t want to do it as a career, but getting to eat whatever you want is quite appealing for a 14-year old, especially when half the meal options are deep-fried. Likewise, getting paid $6.75 an hour sounds piddling today, but when you aren’t responsible for rent, bills, groceries, clothes, or gas, you find yourself looking at more money in a paycheck than you know how to spend.
No, the worst job I ever had was astronomically worse than poor hygienic standards and poorer pay. That said, it wasn’t really that bad of a job. Like so many other aspects of employment, the actual work itself was not particularly frustrating or stressful: it was a 9-to-5 office job as a technical writer for a big corporation’s customer service department. I won’t say which corporation, not because of NDA legalese or other stipulations, but because it doesn’t matter what the company was, it matters how the company treated its employees, and this company treated its employees terribly.
I’ll start by saying there were many things about the company that I did like. The pay was good. As mentioned, the workload was fairly light: I was on a team with about a dozen writers, and for the life of me I don’t know why the company didn’t decide to axe half of them for lack of things to do. In the first month of the job, a new employee was only responsible for short business updates (e.g. “Product X is launching next week with new specifications” or “We are partnering with Company Y to give this promotional offer”), and might only have to write a few one-paragraph updates per week. Even as I progressed, was promoted, and got more responsibilities, I probably only did 10-20 hours of actual work in a typical week. The rest of the time I could browse the Internet, find an empty conference room to play on my phone, or even freelance for other companies. I also really liked the other team members and we would often go out for lunch and/or drinks, or simply banter while we had nothing else to do. The company even offered some decent perks, like automatically depositing money into an HSA each month. And as a big corporation, they had the money for things like a cake on every birthday and a party when we met major goals.
But all those benefits wash out in the face of two major issues that made it harder and harder each day to care about getting out of bed and adding more bananas to the company’s bottom line.
The first is that there was a pervasive sense that every employee was 100% replaceable. This was manifest in several different ways, starting primarily at the top. The CEO is infamous in business circles for his short temper, high expectations, and lack of empathy. Like every other CEO in the history of business, he loved to hear himself talk, and often held talks or QA sessions where his antipathy towards his employees was made quite clear. I remember someone asked him a softball question about how the company can succeed. “Our competitors aren’t leaving at 5:00,” he replied. “Our competitors aren’t taking the weekends off.” Man, I thought, just say that you want us to work 110 hours each week and be done with it. That antipathy filtered down to the directors of our department, who rarely (if ever) responded to emails of anyone below them on the food chain, and often belittled people’s input.
This attitude was reinforced by a culture of numbers. Some big corporations have no tools except numbers, nor do they have managers who know anything except how to improve those numbers, and the more the numbers mattered, the less each person felt that they mattered. As a member of the customer service team, I was responsible for communicating company initiatives to the poor souls on the front line, answering phones for 8 hours a day from angry customers. It was my job to tell them how to improve their average call time, how to reduce their hang-up rate, how to better their upsell rate. The more I told them how to improve their numbers, the more I realized that all their numbers reflected on me. I was a number and my managers need not look any further than a Byzantine array of statistics to determine whether I was doing well, poorly, or somewhere in between.
That was the first issue.
The second issue was Dan.
My first boss at this company was, and remains, the best boss I’ve ever had. He was supportive, genuine, and left me alone to get things done. He knew how to communicate, how to lead, and how to support his team. I would probably be OK staying at that company longer, perhaps even for an entire career, if I could have remained on his team.
But after a year of good times, he was replaced by Dan, who turned out to be the polar opposite.
I distinctly remember when there was news that our team would get a new manager, my outgoing manager told a co-worker not to trust him. “He’s a snake” was the exact hearsay related from my co-worker to me, and I cannot boil down his character any better than those 3.5 words. Dan was a person that you distrust as soon as he opened his mouth, someone who would promise you the sky was purple and the Yankees have a small payroll, then feign being hurt if you expressed doubt. He analyzed every decision through the lens of his own career advancement and if your work did not improve his prospects, you would be reprimanded in a patronizing fashion. He was fawning towards superiors and dismissive to subordinates and every day it became harder and harder not to dislike the man.
One particular anecdote stays with me. During the weekly team meeting, he referenced a video communication I had done, without referencing me. He said it would have been lousy, but luckily was saved by another team member’s performance. I said that it was my work, that I did it that way because I trusted the team member to pull it off and would have taken a different tack for anyone else on the team. Rather than use the opportunity to reinforce the importance of team dynamics, Dan waved his hand and said that we had to collectively be better. How? No explanation. Just be better.
Dan disliked me and I disliked Dan and when the rubber hit the road, only one of those two opinions mattered to the company. Dan fired me and a week later I met a former co-worker for a drink. “You look amazing,” she said.
“Yeah,” I replied. “I didn’t spend 40 hours working for Dan this week.”