Maybe it’s the utter mundanity of office life that leads people to act the way they do. My friend John Brancaccio has a theory that people are stuck in this artificial environment, these cubicles and gray colored offices with artificial air and light all day long, and, in a peculiar way, it drives them insane. We were not meant to live like this so, in a sense, we revolt. Not that we quit our jobs or anything; we still have to pay the rent and the mortgage and be able to afford the skiing in Aspen and trips to Disney and Costa Rica and the cruises, the private school tuition and the payments on the Mercedes, and the expensive clothes, and the horse riding lessons and the dance lessons and the limos for the Sweet Sixteen Party and the latest iPhone to take pictures of all this bullshit to put on Facebook and Instagram to show our friends that our lives are better than theirs.
But all of this comes at a cost. We know it, and we resent it. But what can we do? Tell our boss to fuck off? Not really. It’s frustrating. That’s why people do the bizarre things they do at work. The resentment and bitterness has to come out somewhere. Of course, we have been trained to be polite and cheerful and say, “Hey there!” and “Happy Friday!” and talk about Netflix and sports. But, underneath it all, we burn.
So people act out. They say things and do things that piss of their coworkers; people get pissed off at rather insignificant things that their coworkers say and do. The smallest things become a huge deal. Someone makes an innocuous comment and someone else takes offense and now there is an issue. This is where Human Resources has to step in.
There is a whole industry of trained professionals whose mandate mainly consists of being the monitor on the playground. They create manuals of rules and regulations on how adults are supposed to govern themselves in the workplace. Most of it one would assume we all learned in kindergarten but many members of the work force seem to have been napping at that time. Most of it is just common sense: keep your hands to yourself, flush the toilet, wash your hands, if you don’t have something nice to say don’t say anything at all, don’t take things that don’t belong to you, share, etc.
But life is just not that simple. And, in truth, if it were, it would not be so entertaining.
My friend Jim Adams works as a Technical Recruiter in a Manhattan firm, placing people in jobs for companies that need people with specific skill sets. A member of his team, I’ll call her Stephanie, was pregnant at the time. (Personally, I hate working as part of a team. Most of the time it just creates problems.) He felt that Stephanie was using her pregnancy as an excuse to keep dumping work on him and he was not liking it. He himself had a six month old daughter and many, many obligations. However, since she was pregnant, he kept his mouth shut about her attitude. He felt like he would probably come out on the losing end of a conflict.
However, one night things came to a head when Stephanie wanted to leave early and Jim would be stuck with the project they were working on. Jim told her so.
She said, “Well, I’m pregnant.”
Jim replied, “I understand that but we all have our problems in life.”
The next afternoon, Jim was summoned to his manager’s office, who told him that Stephanie had filed a complaint against Jim.
“She said that you told her that her pregnancy was a problem.” Brian told him.
Jim told Brian what he had said and under what circumstances; Jim resented being stuck with work that Stephanie was supposed to be doing and that she had been acting like she was his superior. Brian told Jim that he understood and that they had to have this “official conversation” because the complaint had been filed but there would not be any official repercussions. He just asked Jim to try and be more sensitive.
Jim told me later that the irony of this “official conversation” was that, earlier in the month, his manager, Brian, had had to have an “official conversation” with his superior. Apparently, some ladies in the office had filed a complaint against Brian. There is a breastfeeding room on the sixth floor. Brian was stopping in occasionally and asking for a “few drops” for his coffee. (I mean, Jesus Christ, does HR really have to tell grown adults to not do things like that? It’s kind of funny of course, and I admire his chutzpah, but still.) The ladies were creeped out and Human Resources had to explain to Brian that the ladies found his remarks to be offensive and could be construed as “sexual harassment”. (Jim heard the story from one of the HR people). Brian said he was sorry and that he had just meant it as a joke. He got off with a warning and instructions to be more sensitive.
Sometimes, it’s tough to negotiate the workplace. If some pregnant woman was pissing me off at work, I would be reluctant to say anything to her because I don’t want to look like a bully. However, some things are rather simple. Don’t go to the breastfeeding room and ask for breast milk for your coffee. Chances are, someone will find that offensive. And, it’s creepy.
So, it’s off to sit in front of the computer for another eight to ten hours, hours which will be punctuated by useless meetings, trips to Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts and talking with my coworkers about a TV show.
Is there another way to do this?