Better Work Stories: An Essay Series
In this series of essays, I’ll be divulging the good, the bad and the downright ugly stories from my working life so far. From working at a filthy pet store and slipping over on cow placenta during my time as a veterinary nurse, to the real life The Devil Wears Prada boss I had whilst working at a lifestyle magazine, these are the unforgettable experiences that have lead me to where I am today.
My first boss in London was an older gentleman; I was working a temporary stint as a compliance officer. He started out as pretty innocuous, but I quickly realised he had a severe case of Ass Kissing Syndrome when it came to our CEO – a small, foul-breathed man who drank seven cups of instant coffee a day out of a stained old mug and had the red-rimmed eyes of someone with a weekday cocaine habit. My boss, let’s call him Jim, would follow our little red-faced CEO around like a lost puppy, almost begging to be told to “jump!”, just so he could then ask in return, “how high?”. It gave me that whiffy feeling of nausea – the kind you might expect after a windy car journey in the sticky heat of summer.
Jim was as bland as bland could be, the complete opposite of the sort of person I thought I’d be working with, now that I was based in London. The only thing I really liked about him was that it looked like he wore eyeliner. I wondered if this was his version of giving the middle finger to the self-imposed life of routine and monotony he’d created for himself.
Despite being put forward as a potential employee by a woman who Jim trusted implicitly, who had waxed lyrical to him about my extensive CV and the fact I was a qualified journalist and writer; not to mention, the fact that Jim had interviewed me at length and read my resume cover to cover, he seemed to have absolutely no idea about what I had done career-wise or who I was as a person. In fact, he seemed to assume I was completely illiterate and incapable, straight off the bat. He even went so far as to spell out the word ‘indeed’ for me, when I was typing up a letter for him once. Yes, ‘indeed’. I-N-D-E-E-D. Indeed. As Jim sounded out each word, letter by letter, I imagined smashing my head down onto my keyboard - my frustration was so immense, I could almost physically feel the pain of the keys crunching against my skull.
Although Jim had worked for the same company for over twenty years (and bragged about it any chance he got) he was unable to type up his own letters. So, even though my time in the office was supposed to be spent investigating compliance claims and staff misdemeanors – something I actually found quite interesting at the time, despite being a self-proclaimed creative by nature – a good portion of desk hours were used up by typing Jim’s letters for him. This wasn’t a once-in-a-while event either: Jim sent a good three or four letters per day, sometimes more. He’d bustle back to our desk pod, exuberant after a thorough ass kissing session with our smelly CEO, tie askew, papers flying, and demand: “I need a letter typed up. Right… Dear – D-E-A-R – Mister Smith – S-M-I-T-H….” And so on. Real head-smashing-on-keyboard type stuff.
Looking back now, I realise Jim wasn’t incapable of typing. Nor was he unable to construct a formal letter himself. Oh no. For him, the act of getting a woman to type for him as he leaned back in his chair, spelling out what he wanted to say, was an act of power. Jim hailed from the age of office work where women were predominantly typists, secretaries and general dogsbodies, bustling about bringing cups of tea to big, important suits in boardrooms and frantically hammering away on keyboards. There wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell he was going to let me run my own investigations or give my opinion on what disciplinary actions we should take with a staff member who’d been caught stealing. God forbid a woman should feel empowered enough to do such a thing – better to keep her relegated to letter-typing and minute-taking.
I knew the end of my time working for Jim was nigh when, on our monthly ‘mufti day’ (something he never participated in himself, of course), he told me I needed to dress more appropriately. I was wearing a navy blue shirt and dark blue jeans with black pointy heels and a blazer. I must have given him a quizzical look, because he instantly elaborated, telling me that although the rest of the staff could wear whatever they wanted on these days of so-called freedom, he would prefer it if I still wore corporate business attire because, you know, I worked for him. I don’t think I nodded in agreement, but I didn’t speak up either. I simply stared at him in disbelief.
I should explain: this particular workplace had a very, very strict dress code. Were we customer facing? No. Were we given a workplace wardrobe allowance? No. Were we working at a massive London law firm representing elite clients from around the world? No. We were, in fact, employees of a used car sales yard based in the back blocks of one of London’s least salubrious suburbs; sandwiched between a high-security prison and a refuse station. So why the strict dress code? Again, I can only think this came down to the middle aged (and older) men who ran the company, wanting to exert their power. The dress code was so strict that a woman was once sent home for wearing a blouse that was deemed too baggy and too bright. She was eight months pregnant at the time.
My daily work outfit consisted of a brown, black or grey pant or skirt suit, paired with a white blouse and sensible court shoes. The very antithesis of my normal wardrobe, which was (and still is) made up of thrifted vintage finds, bohemian kimonos, Perspex-heeled boots and A LOT of colour. It was pretty soul destroying to say the least. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that we used to have our pay docked if we were more than two minutes late on more than one occasion during the week…
But, dowdy work uniforms, docked pay cheques and patriarchal overlords aside, the final straw came when I hit one of the absolute rock bottom low points of my entire life. A very unexpected health incident, let’s call it, caught me off guard late one summer’s evening and resulted in my having to take the following week and half off work. This incident floored me both physically and mentally, so much so that I couldn’t communicate it to Jim myself and had to have my sister make phone calls to him on my behalf. On doctor’s orders, I relegated myself to my bed and surrounded myself with my friends and loved ones while I tried to build my mental and physical strength back up.
After ten or so days of recovery, I was strong enough to face the office again, but still had a number of daytime appointments I had to attend, to ensure I was on the right track to regaining full health. As soon as I arrived at my desk on that first day back, I explained to Jim that I would be needing to take a couple of extended lunch breaks or finish early/start late on a few days in order to make the arduous trip north to the women’s hospital. Jim stared at me in disbelief and, maybe it was horror, I’m not sure. I could see plain as day what he was thinking: Surely, surely, she isn’t asking for more time off! For her health?!
I waited a beat.
Finally, he spoke: “I don’t want you doing that during work hours.”
My face grew hot. Doing what? Going shopping? Having a long, boozy lunch? “I have to,” I explained. “I have to see this particular specialist, at this particular time during the week – and it has to be at this hospital. None of this was my choice – this is what I have been told I have to do, by a doctor.”
Jim glared at me. “Well,” he concluded. “It’s not a good look – for me. It’s not a good look to have my staff leaving during the day to go to appointments.”
A million garbled messages screamed through my brain. My blood felt hot with rage and my eyes felt like they were shaking with anger. “Sure,” was all I could manage. My fury subsided and I was overcome by a sense of calm serenity. It was time to call it quits.
I finished up at the car yard a few weeks later, terminating my contract prematurely and taking a week off to reset before starting my new job in a dynamic young marketing team, in a fun office in Shoreditch. On my last day of work, Jim took me out for lunch at the staff cafeteria. I paid for my own meal and he ordered the same thing he’d had every day for the last 20 years: an egg sandwich, a Dairy Milk chocolate bar and a can of diet Coke.
As I packed up the last of my things that evening, Jim was nowhere to be seen. I thought about waiting for him to say a proper goodbye but then decided, for want of better words, ‘f___ it’. As I walked to the exit and swiped my employee card for the last time, I saw Jim, in the CEO’s glass corner office, in the middle of a frantic ass kissing session. I hope he one day realises there’s more to life, but something tells me he’ll still be sitting at the exact same desk, twenty years from now.