At work, you encounter a number of people from different places, different upbringings and different ways of thinking. In my first job in the D.C. metro area, I was hired under the pretense that I would handle some administrative duties for our project team, but also that I would inherit work from this guy who was supposed to move onto other things.
True to his words from the interview, my boss, the program manager (an Army lieutenant colonel), insisted on making his own travel plans and processing his own travel vouchers. The ones who wanted help either approached me with a humble demeanor or else they were demanding. “I need you to do X, Y and Z, fax it and give me a copy.” Evidently they didn’t get the boss’s message that the administrative tasks were going to fall back on the individuals—that was why the secretary position was eliminated and I was hired. But when you’re in a secretary desk with a half wall, and you’re placed directly outside of your boss’s office, then it’s hard to shed that label. I looked like a secretary (sorry, administrative assistant), handled mostly secretary-like things, so therefore…?
This entry is also about the guy I was supposed to be working with—the one who was supposed to leave his job to me while he moved onto bigger and better things. Apparently no one told him this or what I tend to think is that he was perfectly aware of this, but he preferred to carry out his own agenda. It didn’t take long to discover that there wasn’t a whole lot to his job. The biggest duty was the daily “hotwash.” The term “hotwash” has nothing to do with the temperature in which you should wash your dirtiest laundry. It was a teleconference, scheduled daily at noon (just in time to interfere with the possibility of lunch plans), in the boss’s office. Having it here meant everyone strolling into the office took the liberty of dumping their stinking banana peels and odoriferous tuna packets in MY trashcan, which was just outside of the office.
After the guy (we’ll call him “Important Job,” or “I.J.” for short), took roll call, the boss took over the meeting and everyone talked about the newest developments in the product development since the last hotwash (only now do I see how close that word is to “hogwash”), 24 hours earlier. I had steno pads full of notes and assigned tasks, busy work to keep me gainfully employed. The daily teleconference was easy; it was the weekly video teleconference that was the big show. This involved an extensive slide show, and coordination of VTC facilities. The slides had to be printed and copied—color copies for the boss, full sized black and whites for the people at the table, and, if time permitted, handouts for the ones in the cheap seats. This would turn into an all day task thanks to last minute changes and no set deadline short of the meeting’s start time to make the changes. Once we finished preparing for the meeting, the next step was to gather everything together and schlep it over to the one building that had VTC capabilities. It was here where I assumed the role of “slide advancer,” another duty I.J. was probably more than happy to shirk.
After receiving orders from I.J. to make copies, shred the two tons of documents that he had exhumed from his rathole cubicle and do all the other suspiciously administrative-assistant-ish work, I eventually realized that I.J. was never going to give me any of the more important stuff. That was because there wasn’t a whole lot for him to pass on and because he had been doing the same job for 15 years and was coasting his way to retirement. Giving anything to me meant he was obsolete unless he took on a slew of new tasks. Why would he want to do that? Why would he possibly want ruin a perfectly good set up?
The thing that killed me most was that he had a daughter not much younger than I was. This girl was clearly the light of his life. He bragged about her field hockey skills and took obvious joy in the weekends when she came home. “Oh!” He’d announce at the end of the work week, “My daughter’s coming home with her friends! The scourge is coming! They’re going to clean out our fridge and do laundry!” All of this said with a twinkle in his eye. He didn’t mind it at all.
Upon her graduation, he bought her a brand new car and told us all how he was having a sunroof cut into it, because that was what she wanted. She was going to be commissioned into the Army as a second lieutenant. Here’s where I get confused—generally when you come to work there is someone out there who wants to help you succeed. Sometimes they’re assigned as a sponsor, sometimes it’s as informal as pulling you aside to let you know they are in your corner. Sometimes you learn from them through short conversations in the hallway, sometimes it’s out at lunch, away from the office politics. Given that I.J. was supposed to be teaching me the ropes, he seemed like a shoe in as my mentor. Given that he had a daughter who was going into the Army--much like I had done not too many years before--you would think he would look at me and make the connection. He was supposed to think “I wouldn’t want my daughter doing B.S. admin stuff when she wasn’t hired for that and she’s capable of doing so much more. Hey now, wait a minute," he was supposed to say, "the same applies to this person. If she were five years younger, she’d be in my daughter’s shoes." And that's where the synapses would fire and he'd rise from his cube shaking a fist and shouting about the injustice of it all--
"And if I don't expect my daughter to have this kind of crappy job, then I shouldn't expect her--" (he points to me slaving away in my half-walled cube)-- "to do it either!” Then we'd all break out into some ode to the working stiff musical, waving jazz hands and dancing on our desks and on the low pile carpet in moves so perfectly coordinated and yet, somehow completely natural in our fluorescently lit environment.
Mais non. That version of the story only happens in this blog.
He had no qualms about telling me to buy doughnuts for the next day’s meeting. Saw nothing wrong with sending me to the Xerox for a new set of copies after the nineteenth miniscule change in the slide presentation. Never once did he ever acknowledge that I was overqualified for the things he was passing down. Nope, to him, I was merely the one there to take over the mindless, unimportant parts of his job while he kept the interesting bits all to himself. When you realize the person who should be looking out for you isn’t, it’s time to take control of your fate.
My problem was that I had just come off of 1 ½ years of unemployment when I accepted the job. When you haven’t had a job in that long, your confidence wanes. But it took so long to land this job, you think, why risk it? But I kind of like having a paycheck, even if my dignity is taking a hit. Or: Well, at least it’s not a hard job.
It took the better part of a year to get angry enough to actively start looking again. Before I did I thought it was only fair to talk to my manager first—give the guy an opportunity to correct the problem. The odd part about being a contractor at a government site is that you have two bosses—the government people you work for every day and a manager who handles the company related stuff—the paychecks, your timecard, your yearly reviews, etc. I stopped by my manager’s desk and informed him that I was considering a move. My complaint was that I wasn’t doing much and thought I could do more (for more money, except I didn’t mention that part) elsewhere.
My manager was caught off guard, but he recovered quickly. I could see the wheels spinning as he promised me a solution.
"We're going to do something to change that." He said.
What was the solution?
“You’re going to Fort Bragg!”
Um, thanks? I didn’t have any excuse to *not* go, I just figured I would stay in the office and support everyone else who did go. It was a 5 hour drive and honestly, with the things I had heard about the place, I wasn’t particularly thrilled about going, but okay, I’ll take it for the sake of “professional growth.” I’d never been to North Carolina. Despite the "North" in the state's name, that was officially considered "The South," right? Maybe it wasn’t as terrible as I imagined.
When a co-worker heard this, she said, “Oh, yeah—they’re just sending you away so you can’t interview.”
Yes, that certainly made sense. I didn’t get any additional tasks, I just got sent to do—oh, I don’t know—we had a daily teleconference at the end of every day—that was important, right? We needed to pick up supplies to set up camp in the old building we were working out of--that was important, right?
I wasted no time getting to work. The first morning I was there, I posted my resume on the website of the company I worked for in El Paso. They had openings, I had internet access and a saved copy of my resume on a disk; it was worth a shot.
The trips to Bragg (yes, I said “trips”—I.J. and I worked out a schedule where we rotated after I made it clear that I wasn’t okay with being there for five weeks straight) were a waste except that I got to see my best friend from college, who was no longer the Army, but in the area because her husband was still on active duty. Her husband was deployed and she was in the last days of her second pregnancy. I wouldn’t have gotten to see her otherwise. This was the silver lining, so to speak. That and the realization that North Carolinians were vastly more patient and polite than the D.C. metro-ans.
Once I was done with the Fort Bragg stuff, it was back to business as usual. I.J. liked to fill the silence of the office by spouting off his crazy ideas, one of which was the nine day week. “Six work days and a three day weekend. That’s what I would do.” He’d say. How he planned to overhaul the entire world’s ingrained acceptance of the seven day week never came into discussion. And then what about the Beatles song, “Eight Days a Week?” It would be rendered obsolete—someone would have to change it to “Ten Days a Week.”
Another one he liked to share was, “I’d eliminate income tax entirely and put a flat sales tax on everything.” Not such an outlandish idea, but it’s a bit oversimplified. He would repeat these ideas loudly, maybe with the thought that saying them often enough would start a revolution right there in the heart of building 317.
In your life you have pivotal moments (commonly known by AP English students as an epiphany, or, for Oprah viewers--a "lightbulb moment")—these moments usually involve events that change your path irrevocably. My moment was not when my company canned a co-worker (one who, unlike me, genuinely seemed to enjoy her job) on a Friday, immediately after she arrived at the office. It was not when I drove 3 hours to get to work after the worst snowstorm of the decade, only to get sent home an hour later for a 2 hour trek back. It was not when an Army major flat out asked how much I paid for my car (Who does that?). No, it all went down when our boss had a meeting in a nearby building. I had gotten everything set up—60 cup capacity silver bullet of coffee with powdered creamer and sugar, doughnuts, and even fruit and juice for the health conscious. Thanks to me, all of it was in place before the ever-important attendees arrived. I got back into my car and drove back to the office thinking my work was done.
A few hours in, I.J. calls my desk and asks me to make more copies of the briefing; apparently that other building does not have any copy machines. Fine—I make the copies and shuttle them back over to the meeting location. I slip into the conference room, hand them off to I.J. and make my exit. As I’m walking down the hallway towards the doors, I hear I.J. call out my name.
A flash of uncertainty passed through his eyes. Was he going to thank me? Tell me that everything had gone off without a hitch because of that morning's spread? I waited for his words.
“Could you make another pot of coffee? We’re all out.”
In a meeting of at least fifty people, he thought it was acceptable to call me over from my desk to make a fresh pot? Was he not capable of going down the hallway with the empty bullet and starting a new batch during a break? Was he for real?
I stood there for a moment, feeling the most speechless I had ever felt in my life. He had baited me over there with a request for additional copies and thrown in the “well, while you’re here…” to hook me.
Mais, non. Not this time, buddy.
Heart pounding, I turned away from him without a word. It was an unprofessional move, but surely anything I had said to him just then would have been infinitely more unprofessional than pretending not to hear what he had said.
Besides, what was more unprofessional than what he did? After doing the job I understand the intricacies of being an administrative assistant—it’s not as easy as people assume, but the hardest part about it wasn’t the actual work, it was the lack of respect that comes with the very moment you’re seated behind that half exposed cubicle. It’s the “Oh, she’s just the admin” mentality. Now if people had any sense at all they would take care of their admin assistants and I don’t mean giving them a wilted bunch of supermarket roses and a cheesy card for Administrative Assistant Day. Every day show respect to that person—or else it’s going to be, “Oh, I don’t know if you ever gave me that file,” or “I’m sure I entered your time for the week, what do you mean you didn’t get paid?” or “Hm, I thought I sent that voucher to the finance department last month, I don’t know why you haven’t been reimbursed yet.”
That moment has stuck with me and it probably always will. The moment that caused me to turn away without another word was the very thing that convinced me to leave. When you’re working in a place where people feel they are too good to do the most basic things for themselves because it is “beneath” them and the leadership does nothing to tell these people they’re wrong, it’s time to say “Mais, non” and move on.