Corporations were not on the job market radar for me, a liberal arts major who only cared about when the next Dead show was, how best to get there (friend’s battered Volkswagen, Greyhound or hitchhike), and which hot hippie girl would be invited to tag along. Flash forward fifteen years and here I sit in middle manager hell, the title Employee Relations Manager emblazoned on my business cards. My sociology degree and I started off with the best of intentions — something about saving the world. But then the college loans started coming due, and then the marriage led to a mortgage and the next thing I knew I’m a corporate drone selling my soul for a steady paycheck and a PPO plan. I have officially entered the first circle of hell – Dilbert in 3D. Like a scratched and skipping LP, I can hear David Byrne of Talking Heads singing, “Well….how did I get here?”
Day Eleven: “Targeted for synergies,” a sappy metaphor for “getting fired,” slips out of my mouth and I hate myself. I sit in the champion seat of corporate bullshit. My head teems in a cesspool of empty jargon, so massive that I can feel the shit oozing out of every pore like a bad case of the runs.
About a month ago it was announced that my company, Stay Light, was being acquired by Titan, the leader in feminine hygiene. In my three years at Stay I have learned more about feminine hygiene than a man should ever know. My wife Ally really digs the free samples. Titan, a heavyweight in the industry, has been gobbling up competitors like Stay for years. In fact the Fresh Forever acquisition had barely closed when they announced their intentions with us. Ever since 9/11 — that tragedy, cum excuse for everything bad that has since happened in the world, our company has been hovering above the toilet in terms of performance. We knew Titan had their sights on us, or more specifically, our engineering talent.
See, we hold the patent on this amazing product, a thong-sized maxi-pad marketed as Swayback, replete with a popstar promotional tie-in. Rumor has it that a marketing intern, who’s on the local university football team cheerleading squad, pitched the idea to the Director of Engineering – a fifty-odd-year-old-man with a brand new Porsche and a receding hairline. I believe the pitch may have happened on his lap, but my investigations proved fruitless. Due to the success of the campaign we’re rolling in cash. Our pads are bearing down on Titan’s tampon market. We’ve set off their attack alarms: Must Buy Competitor.
Much to my dismay, my boss appoints me head of the HR-side of the integration team. I take my charge, leading the human capital concerns related to the integration. I turn my charge into a favor that flies high on a lance, held brave in a knight’s strong arm (mine of course), as I ride through the sterile hallways of our office building with pictures of my fourteen-year-old self acting out Monty Python scenes. It’s my official directive from Titan management to make sure that everyone’s fears are abated. Stay Light’s management seems to have had their souls sucked out of them the second the acquisition was announced. I can’t get my boss to sign a purchase requisition for a pencil, let alone anything I really need. I already report to the new man.
Day Twelve: A malaise grows like fungus across the building. It sprouts up in odd pockets like the first floor bathroom or second floor break room, doping us with anxiety. By now my role is nothing more than a social service worker. I’m good with people – but not that good. Instead of managing budgets, lining up vendors for anti-harassment training (please note the very important difference between harassment and anti-harassment training), and implementing new software to bring more efficiencies, I am spending my days answering an endless barrage of questions from a growingly insecure employee base. They fling their fear at me and my super-human powers attempt to redistribute it back as peace and tranquility.
The questions I get on a daily basis run the gamut from “What happens to my underwater stock options?” (to which I desperately want to reply, “Don’t you know that stock options are fool’s gold?’) to, ‘Can I continue with my scheduled gastric by-pass surgery (due to morbid obesity, they have to add), to which I simply wish to say t.m.i. In my dream world, the whiny engineer who wants to know how Titan will reimburse him for the three days that his 401K funds will be out of the market will be forced to ask that in front of the single mother of three, who’s losing her $11.50 an hour job as a shipping clerk. She’s wondering how she will be able to afford $1,000 a month in COBRA while on unemployment. Day care will no longer be in her budget. A 401K never had been.
Day Thirteen: A thoughtful employee asks how I am coping. Alcohol, I reply – she laughs. It’s the truth. I’ve taken to keeping a flask in my desk drawer for the dreaded end-of-day-zone from 3:00 until quitting time. By 5:00 most days I’m a sip away from a D.U.I.
I dream of ways to numb my employees, and myself, to the stress. I imagine setting up a Prozac salt lick by the water cooler. Accountants and engineers will get happy together as they take turns with their tongues – smiling in the beauty of the balm. I envision cutting my office door in half and dispensing Valium when advice isn’t enough to soothe jangled nerves. I will hang a sign from the doorframe ala Lucy in Peanuts, ‘The Doctor is In’. Perhaps just an elegant candy dish of Valium in our lobby will do the trick. Cutting the door will require too much effort.
A few engineers and I get serious about stress release plans as we discuss the logistics of pumping pot through the duct-work. We can start with Marijuana Mondays, we decide following that with Boozy Tuesdays, revisit pot on Weed Wednesdays. Thirsty Thursdays has a great ring, and then we end the week with Fuck-It-All Fridays where you can pick your drug of choice, or simply call in sick.
Day after endless day I continue to assure employees that their jobs are secure; all the while having no idea of the future of mine. For the first time in my three-year career at Stay I hate coming to work.
Day Fourteen: I’m ready to walk. The drone of the fan from the Infocus projector has numbed my mind. My butt has long ago fallen asleep in the plastic folding chair that lacks lower back support. I can no longer tell where my butt ends and the chair begins.
The Talking Head stands illuminated under a spot light at the front of the room. He has the vibe of a cult leader, and I wonder when he’ll be leading us in a rendition of Kumbaya, and who, if anyone will have the guts to oppose? He speaks of “soft landings” which immediately drum up visions of employees falling from the fourth floor window into piles of warm, soft cash – clutching their boxes of personal items as they drift down. At 6:35 we are still in the Copper conference room (an interior room, with no outside lighting, named after Copper Mountain Ski Resort, which always reminds me of how I am definitely not skiing at that moment).
He rambles on about cultural integration, time to market, and always, always, his comments are peppered with “synergies”. Every fucking thing is a synergy. Before Titan, I used to kinda’ dig the word. I look at my watch for the fifth time in half an hour. It’s quickly approaching seven, and no one appears to be going home any time soon. Did I mention it’s Valentine’s Day?
When he starts in on market share, branding, and employee loyalty a subtle groan surfaces in the crowd. I think of my wife, Ally pacing in our kitchen, by now probably shoving toothpicks into pictures of me on the fridge. Phantom pains appear in my arms and legs. I look at my watch for the hundredth time, this time bringing it to eye level and making a dramatic gesture of the movement. It’s past 7:00. The florists will be down to carnations and cheap lilies by the time I get out of here. Any remaining roses will be the ones in the back of the case; wilted and small, thoroughly picked over – the good ones are always gone well before 5:00. I should have gone at lunch. Some other couple is probably enjoying our 6:45 dinner reservation.
Someone coughs a bullshit for added punctuation after the Head’s speech about work life balance. It garners a wave of snickers. A few minutes later the prisoners are released. My car clock reads 7:20 as I back out of the parking space. There are six missed calls on my Blackberry – all from home.
Day Fifteen: After a bottle of champagne and endless promises that I will quit this job regardless, Ally has forgiven me. Dealing with the barrage of questions and data requests are particularly challenging as my hands clutch my head and my stomach threatens to rebel. I know better than to come to work hungover. I should have called in sick. The meetings begin at 7:30 – a mere twelve hours since I’ve left the building. By 8:15 I am excusing myself from an integration meeting to toss my cookies in the bathroom. I excuse myself again at 9:00. Pete in product management nudges me, “You got the flu?” I shake my head no, before whispering, “meth overdose.” I don’t make it home until 8:00 that night.
Day Sixteen: Ally calls in sick for me before I even awake. I feel amazing. I spend the day posting my resume on every website I can find, but I can’t seem to locate “Nothing but high paying, non-corporate jobs dot com.”
Day Seventeen: Just after the 3:00 drinkin’ time begins, my angel arrives. I’d always hoped that she would resemble a Victoria’s Secret Angel, and that she would come drifting into my office, sit on the edge of my desk, and tease me with a feather – but it isn’t quite like that. A recruiter is calling. She wants to make me aware of a terrific opportunity. I smile my first non-sarcastic smile in weeks and shut my office door.