Wednesday, April 7, 2010

My Favorite Kind of Politics

There is hardly anything so nuanced as office politics. It's a minefield we all tread carefully upon day after day. Volumes have been published on how to deal with coworkers, how to manage up, how to manage down, what to do when you're on the bottom, how to stay on top, how to get on top, etc. It's a topic everyone can relate to and everyone has a story to tell. Why do you think The Office is so popular?

I've been working in offices since I was 17 years old, and like everyone else, I have a million stories that would make you laugh, cry, and shriek in horror better than anything Hollywood could produce. I could easily add to the volumes that have been written (and perhaps I will, via this space, over time). Recent workplace drama got me reflecting on some of the crazier things that have happened to me over my office years.

My first job was working for a woman who was friends with my mother (What can I say? Nepotism works!). Additionally, my mother sat as president of the board of this organization. I was 17, and wasn't so priviledged to expect special treatment. I just wanted to come in, do my filing, collect my $12 an hour, and go home. My mother's friend, the Crazy PhD, was nutty as a fruitcake. She ran a department, largely full of academics supported by a team of five administrative assistants. She also had her own assistant, with whom she had worked for many years. My task was to provide general support as necessary for any of the assistants or their bosses.

CPhD was loaded. She drove a sleek new convertible, wore $2,000 St. John suits, and never wore shoes. She had shoes, she just chose not to wear them. She would waltz around the office, leaving hellfire and damnation in her wake, all in bare feet. She could regularly be heard in her office "firing" one of her staff. She'd dial the phone, and before the person on the other end could even speak, she'd bark, "Gerry? Do you want to be fired today? No? Then I suggest you straighten up and fly right!" I can't tell you how many times I heard her fire people. The first time it terrified me, but when the offending party was still around the office the next day, I realized she was all bark and no bite. And still, I did my best to avoid the bark at all costs.

One day in the middle of the summer, when most of the staff was on vacation, I had nothing to do. I asked the office manager for something to fill up the time until I could go home. Her inbox was also empty, so she suggested that I dust the wood furniture in the office. There's something soothing about the smell of lemony Pledge, so I was happy to oblige. I was on the second desk in the front office area where the assistants sat when CPhD breezed by.

To this day, I can still see the scene that followed as if it's a movie playing on a screen in my mind. She walked by me in her bare feet, and backed up. "What. Are. You. Doing?" she barked at me. I had just spritzed some Pledge on the side of the desk, so I was wiping it up when she asked a second time, "I said, 'What are you doing?'" I thought it was pretty obvious what I was doing, so I stammered, "Um, well, uh Pledging this desk." CPhD was having none of it, "Oh no you are not. Stop that right now!" I thought she meant right after I finished wiping the smear of Pledge on the side of the desk, so I took another pass at it and she snatched the cloth out of my hand and boomed, "Now!" My hand was frozen in the air, mid-wipe. The assistant whose desk I was wiping was dumbfounded.

"Who told you to do this?" she demanded. "Uh," I barely managed. "Who? Who told you to do this?" "Uh, Teresa," I said as I threw the office manager under the bus. CPhD looked from me to the assistant whose desk I was cleaning and screamed, "The daughter of the president of our board DOES NOT CLEAN DESKS! Now, GET UP!" I turned 17 different shades of red and slowly got up off the floor. And with that, she was gone with a swirl of her suit, leaving a cloud of Cinnabar mixed with Pledge in her wake.

The assistant and I just stared at each other in shock before we dissolved into nervous giggles. Neither of us could believe what had just happened, nor could we figure out if we were in trouble. One thing was for certain, the office manager was about due for that call, "Teresa, do you want to be fired? No? Well you better straighten up and fly right!" And to this day, I can't even begin to think about office politics without being reminded about that first taste of crazy. I also can't smell Pledge without flashing back to that office during my freshman year of college.

I'll bet CPhD doesn't even remember that day, but I know that I'll never forget it. But what I took from that experience is that if you don't want to be fired, you better straighten up and fly right. And I have, ever since.

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