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Codes of Conduct

Office horror stories, and how not to become the star of one.

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Illustrations by Jason Lee
Avoiding Negatively Impactful Strategic Initiatives
Imperatives regarding total anecdotal veracity may be suspended to avert emergency.
(See item 1.)  

In theory, the office is a place where goals are fulfilled and prosperity generated. In practice, as evidenced in the following stories gathered from interviews with office-bound laborers in a range of industries, it’s a fertile breeding ground for threats to livelihood and sanity. And while the obvious response to many of the admittedly extreme situations described below would be to quit as soon as possible (which is something that several of our sources did, in fact, do), the issues raised can help illuminate situations in which resolution is not so easy to find. Read on for advice on how to use common sense, good manners, and the occasional deployment of well-intentioned deceit to make bitchy, passive-aggressive e-mail exchanges a thing of the past.

1. Swimming against the current of a terrible idea.
Problem
“I’d been at an Internet company for about a month, and we were trying to figure out how to draw attention to our booth at a technology conference. Someone suggested we hire dancing midgets on the logic that they were small people and our clients were small businesses. It kind of started out as a joke, but pretty soon someone was getting out their phone, like, ‘I know a guy who can make this happen.’ I got pretty angry because it was just embarrassing and offensive. But everyone told me that maybe the problem was that I couldn’t handle the industry.”

Solution
Even the greenest, most-midget-marketing-ignorant employee has unique expertise in one area: all the places he used to work. With the moral license allowed in the higher pursuit of saving one’s new employers from an unwise idea, it should be possible to craft a cautionary tale of failure that’s relevant enough to the current situation to be convincing, yet vague enough to be kind of true. (“We tried something sort of like this once, but it didn’t really work ... ”) Thus what is in reality the recognition of a transparently terrible plan can become, with only minimal dishonesty, flattery directed toward colleagues too savvy to repeat the mistakes of the past.

2. Curing a cubicle headache.
Problem
“We have this loud talker. It’s unbearable. If he’s in the room and he’s talking, you can’t get anything done. We’ve said things, but he just thinks it’s a joke. Now if you want to get someone’s attention, you have to IM them, because everyone bought noise-reduction headphones.”

Solution
Direct confrontation of a cubicle scourge can lead to resentment and retaliatory charges of hypocrisy. Or, as this example indicates, it can lead to nothing at all. To convey the seriousness of the issue without incurring a permanent grudge, consider staging a scene in which you take advantage of the open office plan by aggressively chastising a co-conspirator for his own loudness—making sure the encounter takes place in front of the nemesis and ends with your fellow actor apologizing abjectly for being so insensitive to co-workers.

3. Punishing a psycho boss.
Problem
“I was just starting out and wanted to make a good impression with the president of the bank I was working for, and he starts saying, ‘The problem with Jews is this, the problem with Jews is that, and if Israel only did this,’ all this anti-Semitic stuff. I’m Jewish, and I told him I wasn’t going to sit and listen to those kind of things. I got up to leave and he says, ‘Kid, sit down. I’m just surrounded by yes people, and I wanted to see if you had any balls.’ ”

Solution
When the perpetrator of misbehavior (e.g., strange, possibly anti-Semitic head games) is at the top of the food chain, the rumor mill is a wheel of sweet justice. Spread your story with the clear conscience that comes from knowing it’s the only way to get back at those who’ve achieved immunity through power! (Although, for the record, it should be noted that the consultant who shared the story says he’s been friends with the offending bank president for fifteen years.)


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