I’ve had some hellaciously bad office jobs. The kind that make The Office and Dilbert alike pale by comparison. I’m not talking about my present employment situation, for the record, but about past workplaces. Employers I had to pick myself up and drive to see five days a week, just about every week. Currently, I teach college English online. It’s a work from home job, and that “work from home” factor outweighs a lot of potential negatives. Thus, not only am I not talking about my present job, I won’t be talking about it until or unless I move on to something else. While I’m very good at biting the hand that feeds me, I do have at least some common sense. No, I’m talking about the past right now. In fact, I think I’ll narrow this to discussing one specific past job. About half the people reading this know exactly where I’m talking about.
Let’s start this off with Once upon a time, even though the story is completely true.
So. Once upon a time, in Lexington Kentucky, there was a squatty building with a warehouse and some office space. There were no cubicles in the offices, so no privacy, the parking lot flooded in every heavy rain, and the bathrooms stank like yesterday’s black-bean burrito after lunchtime. I worked in a wide-open room, where the door did very little to screen us from the warehouse. The warehouse manager spent her time screaming at her employees, and the company once lost seventeen of those warehouse employees simultaneously when they turned out to be in the country illegally.
Another manager, this woman in the other half of our room, spent her time making mistakes and blaming them on others, then accidentally e-mailing the pay raise list to her entire department. She refused to admit to her own errors, instead blaming them on her employees (when talking to upper management) and her managers (when talking to employees). She was far more interested in her next vacation to China than in the people who worked for her.
The foul environment and foul managers combined to run a decent company into the ground. Here’s an example of the kinds of things that would happen daily around there. A crate of our goods got returned unopened because of a supposed error on our part. The screamer-manager wrenched open the lid, where she discovered the container to be full of maggots. Yes. We had left the material in storage for so long (this through no fault of our own, I will admit) and in such lousy conditions that it had developed maggots, then shipped it to the customer without checking the product first (it’s this second part we could have controlled pretty easily). The buyer never knew about it entirely due to a fluke. The screamer-manager took matters into her own hands and threw the crate into a nearby dumpster, only to find herself criticized by one of the veeps for failing to save the box’s packing list. Can I get a witness here? I am not making this up.
Oppressive doesn’t even begin to describe the place.
As a final example, the company president painted his own office deep den-red and lined the walls with exotic animals he had killed. There was a buffalo head, among other things, to give you a sense of the place. He had a ghastly taxidermied exhibit consisting of a zebra-rug being trampled and eaten by some scavenger, I think a hyena. And these were all animals he’d shot on safaris and other expeditions and brought into work. Because he’d run out of room at home. Seriously. The employee unlucky enough to have to visit his office couldn’t help but imagine human heads on those mounts. I never had to go there, and I’d have probably been too stupid to be intimidated if I had.
I worked there for five years, rising as far as assistant manager before I outed a jackass manager who had been caught soliciting sex from a police officer. Using the justification that the manager was gay and suggesting I was a homophobe, though I’m pretty sure the real reason was that he knew some pretty dark company secrets, I was the one who got demoted and transferred. But it was just as well. I had been working under the blamer-manager, and was on the verge of quitting at that point anyway.
In fact, I only stayed in that job for one reason. The manager who hired me, the one they transferred me back to after I was demoted, was possibly the best boss I’ve ever known. I’m talking about Carol Macmann here, and there is no irony in my speaking. Carol carried the weight of our department, deflecting the worst of the bullshit handed down from on high, and helping us achieve job fulfillment when doing so was all but impossible. She brought in a sense of humor and a willingness to see situations in the best light. Her positive attitude defied everything those upper managers and her fellow middle managers dealt out.
Morale at that place was unbearably low. People clocked out in the middle of the day, then worked through lunch anyway to avoid having to go sit in the break room. The area where our product was stored had not passed EPA inspection for human occupation. The part the EPA had deemed safe for us to work in regularly failed fire code, and the company just kept paying fines rather than fixing the problems that led to the reports. Dead birds periodically showed up in the totes of work that arrived on our desks, freshly ferried over from the condemned part of the building. We dreaded the almost daily dictates delivered by safari-boss and his underlings.
And Carol came to work every day prepared for those same dictates. She came to defend her employees and run her department. She fought for us, spoke the truth to us, and worked together with us to make a truly appalling job tolerable. She had a knack for finding out what a person’s greatest skill was, and then turning that person loose to develop it. She was a constant whirl of activity. When she spun past my desk, I was guaranteed to pick up a new project along with some of the innate enthusiasm she brought along. Her presence was a blessed source of chaos in a dehumanizing environment.
Some days, she would walk through the door with a certain set to her shoulders and purpose to her stride, and we’d look at each other and say “Carol’s loaded for bear today.” And that was never a cause for fear among her employees. Rather, we waited to watch her at work, because she considered it her job to clear the hurdles upper management threw in the way of our jobs. ‘Loaded for bear’ meant she had discerned one of these blockades and was on her way to disassemble it single-handedly. Now, if one of us stopped working to potential, she took care of that, too. But her employees wanted to please her, and we did our jobs well in spite of the asshats above her. She stayed with the business until the end, leaving only after the company’s relocation to Illinois had been announced and we all had to find other positions anyway.
Carol and I are Facebook friends now, and I love hearing about the things she enjoys as the manager of a public library. I think she’s finally found employers who do for her what she does for others, allowing her to maximize her strengths and turn that enthusiasm and creative energy to a happy fulfilling workplace.
She’s started an online book group that I’ve joined. Besides all the great reading ideas, it allows me to see her incorporate technology into her job and maintain that cyclone of excitement around her it. I have no doubt that her employees want to come to work every morning and feel secretly disappointed when she has a day off.
In closing, there are horrible bosses who can ruin a good job, and there are awesome bosses who can turn even a bad job decent, then make a good job into a dream-come-true. Carol Macmann, you are surely knit from the latter wool, and my hat is off to you. May you and those you love live happily ever after.