Thursday 20 September 2018

Me vs An Expanded Discourse on Working With People

Some time ago I posted about the joys of working with people, however I left out one particular adventure (nightmare), as it was just a bit too difficult to share at the time. But here we are. Maybe it's cathartic to write it down. Maybe enough time has passed that I feel like I finally can.

I should post a bit of a disclaimer before I start. I have worked with many good people (and still do), in good offices, and these stories make up only a small, albeit memorable, portion of my career. None of the people involved are people I still have contact with, and any names and places have been changed to protect the idiots. They don't deserve it, but there you are: guilt-free schadenfreude for all.

I share these experiences mainly because we all have them. We've all worked in a soul-sucking office, staring out the window and fantasizing about developing Carrie-like super powers. We've all had a red stapler that we've prized more than we should because of what it quietly represented to us alone. We've all imagined a catastrophic power outage or water main breaking, closing the building for the day just so we didn't have to go in. We've all worked with that one person who took a special joy in making the hours you spent with them as interminably miserable as possible, just because they could. And we've all wondered how realistic selling everything and living in a van would be. (pro tip: it's not realistic)

I mean, we all have...right?

It's happened to all (or at least most) of us, and we have had to put on our grownup pants and deal with it. However these experiences do make you appreciate the good places, and so I guess the shit jobs perversely serve a purpose as a reminder that we have to rise above and deal with it sometimes. It's not a nice purpose, but it's a purpose none-the-less. 

Now, travel back with me to a time when I was young and idealistic, and thought that my university degree meant something besides unending debt. I'd graduated 6 months prior, and had only the faintest glow of my education-based entitlement left, as it had taken me what felt like an eternity to find a job in the crumbling economy of the mid-to-late 2000's (...the bank holding my loan also felt like this was an eternity). I certainly wasn't enough of a special snowflake to expect to land a 6 figure salary right out of the box, but I had done my time in the soul crushing customer service industry, and I was going to move up in the world, so help me God.

By some miracle, or at least I thought so at the time, I landed with a group of lawyers as an administrative assistant,  which translated roughly to "office slave". That said, the phone almost never rang, and we didn't interact much with the general public, so primarily I sat at my desk and tried to look busy.  This is harder than you'd think.

The two legal assistants, or as I prefer "desk harpies", took an instant dislike to me. They were the keepers of my job, and derived great joy in handing me only the smallest scraps of work. I choose to believe that they didn't like me because I represented a threat to them, but it could also have been that I didn't like reality tv as much as they did. I guess we'll never know.

I spent an inordinate amount of time photocopying, and they always made sure to put a sticky note on the piles reminding me to remove the staples before copying.  Because without that note I most certainly would have shoved 30 sheets of stapled material through the photocopier at once. Thank the Lord they reminded me! At one point, I was actually made to unstaple 200 document packages because I had not stapled them horizontally along the top of the page, but instead diagonally across the top corner like a normal fucking person. She smiled as she ripped the pages apart, yelling at me for my terrible stapling oversight (which to this point had NOT been an issue).  From that point on I referred to her in my mind only as Staples.

The other assistant, however, was more of a mine field. She got irrationally angry about bizarre things, like how the delivery guy wore shorts in the winter (weird, but not generally seen as a character flaw...), or like how I had to walk by her desk to get to the printer. At one point she told me that I could only go to the copier 4 times a day to pick up documents because it was bothering her, so I had better make my trips count. And she was constantly taking to Staples about being single. Let's all take a moment to be surprised by that revelation. Her name became Tantrum. A good, strong, super villain name. 

It was during this time that I developed a close relationship with the movie Office Space, and convinced the desk harpies that I needed a new stapler for the droves of documents I now stapled ONLY horizontally across the top. Specifically, I needed a red Swingline stapler, and to my surprise they actually included one for me in the quarterly stationary order.  I don't think they ever figured out why it brought me so much joy. But it really, really did. 

Over time, and in an effort to avoid going postal, I learned to manage these people.  I gave up trying to look busy, because in any given day, they would give me at most 2 hours of actual work to keep me occupied. Each nightmarish day would begin with a soft approach to ask them what they needed done today, as God knows I wasn't responsible enough to manage my own work load or have my own list of daily tasks.  By 10 am I would have completed whatever crumb of a task that was given, ask if there was anything else I could do, which there rarely was, and then I would read a book. At my desk. And no one cared in the slightest. Most of them never even realized I was there.

I also made the delightful discovery that Tantrum was only capable of being maliciously angry at one person at a time. This was both useful, and a revealing insight into her overall capacities. In an effort to make sure the target of her rage wasn't me, I would throw someone else under the bus. I'm not proud of this system, but it was the only coping mechanism I had at the time.  As such, the delivery driver took a lot of heat he never knew about, as did the shipping/receiving guy, other law firms, and any number of baristas that were never required to have actual contact with this woman. Their failings were the focus of her wrath, and I told her I would deal with them on her behalf. This was a win win situation for all involved. They were truly the unsung heroes of my time in that office, blithely absorbing Tantrums wrath without even knowing it. 

I mentioned earlier that this was a small law firm, and the lawyers were by no means freed from the shackles of being ass hats to me. They made less than no effort to be kind, or to make my time with them any more tolerable than a root canal.

Every morning when the lawyers walked by my desk, I would say good morning, and every morning they would walk past as though I wasn't even there. No normal human social interactions at all.  So I decided to play. I became obnoxiously cheerful. My standard "good morning" became pointedly enthusiastic and was followed immediately with questions about their weekends that they couldn't pretend not to hear. It visibly irritated them to talk to me, and it brought me great joy. Not red swingline level joy, but still joy.

My favourite of these co-workers was The Law-fish (please note that I use this term ironically, as she was neither my favorite, nor did she consider me anything other than an irritation in her day, let alone a co-anything). This lawyer was about my age, freakishly tall, grumpy AF, and took substantial time out of her day to show me how much better she was than me. I guess this meant at least she talked to me???

She would give me tasks that were impossible to complete, as she would usually leave out a document or two that were critical to the job at hand. The first time I thought it was accidental, but after this happened repeatedly, I overheard her laughing with another lawyer about how she had asked me to do this job and left out one of the files needed to do it. GO TEAM! In light of this I did actually try going to the manager, however was politely told that I was probably reading the situation wrong. In hindsight, I still don't think that I was reading it wrong,  but I digress. In case you were ever wondering, workplace bullying is a very real thing.

The Law-fish's name was derived from her shitty, shitty office. It was by far the worst in the building, and I feel like she knew that. I hope she knew that. It was a tiny cell whose only window was a giant glass opening directly behind my desk, making her office view the back of my head. Basically, she worked in a fishbowl, and I could feel her judgemental gaze drilling into my back every single day.  It was just lovely. 

And then I discovered her achilles heel. 

The Law-fish hated eating. I never saw her put food into her mouth.  She hated people eating around her. And most importantly, she hated when I ate. It didn't matter if I was munching crackers, eating an orange, or having a granola bar, she would get up from her desk and shut her door. Every. Single. Time. (And for all the people who will inevitably ask the question, this is not a statement on my eating habits....she would shut her door regardless of the food type or sound level)  She obviously ate food at some point, but she must have held the opinion that eating should strictly be done in private?

Because she was such a right bitch to me, I decided to subtly use this to my advantage. I would eat a single cracker. She would get up, close the door, go back to work for 15 minutes or so, then get up and open the door again. Then I would eat another cracker.  She could just never reconcile her desire to have the door open (despite the enormous window, she wasn't hiding) and her conflicting want/need to never experience any part of someone else consuming valuable calories.

I could do this all fucking day. And I did. Every day. Every single fucking day for the rest of my time in that nightmarish office.
And it was glorious.

So, to summarize this rather lengthy post about malicious coworkers and toxic work environments: You are not alone. Office bullying is a real thing, with real consequences for those subjected to it. Even though you may feel stuck and helpless to resist, know that there are other offices filled with reasonable human beings, and you don't deserve to be treated like an 18th century servant. 

I've moved on to an office that I enjoy going to, and don't dread having to interact with the people around me because they treat me with kindness and respect. Looking back, those years had me in a bad place, and getting out and moving on has been one of the best decisions I have ever made to improve my mental health.

So, do your level best to get yourself to a healthier place, and if that isn't possible, at least try to find yourself an office spirit-animal to help you get through the hard days, be it a stapler, a "Hang In There" cat poster,  or otherwise. 

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