I’ve worked in offices my entire adult life. In fact, I’ve never had a real job outside an office. In particular, I’ve worked in law offices. This is, of course, because I’m a lawyer. Even before I became a lawyer, I worked in law offices, first as an errand runner and then as a law clerk. All offices have cultures, rules and oddities all their own. I’ve thought about writing a book and maybe I will but not now. A book requires names and details, and I’m sure most of the folks with whom I worked would prefer anonymity. Plus, I like a lot of them, and I don’t want to be sued. As far as the ones I don’t like, why give them unwarranted fame? If I ever do write a book, here are some things I’ll discuss:
RULES ARE RULES
The bigger the office, the more numerous the rules. I had it explained to me that “We have these rules because they are important. We give them a lot of thought. We don’t treat them lightly.” Okay.
When I first started working, everyone wore coats and ties. Even women. Their ties were these odd, floppy neck pieces that looked like poorly tied ascots or cravats. Suits were the order of the day, too. Sport coats were a little too reckless. These were the rules. Over the years, times changed and ties became optional in most offices. My office was different. We didn’t have Casual Friday. Nevertheless, I stopped wearing a tie. This was a bad move. Why? Here’s another rule: Don’t stand out. If you stand out, people play attention to you. The more attention, the more likely they are to find something you’re doing wrong. At least that’s what happened with me.
Office rules are rarely written down. This creates flexibility in enforcement. For example, during a performance evaluation, one of my superiors said “You have a reputation for going to lunch.” This was bad, so I stopped. After that, I ate at my desk or in the office kitchen/lunch room. This made me look busy and too important to be bothered with socializing.
At my next evaluation, I was told that I needed to socialize more. Specifically, I was told to get out in the town during lunch and “be seen.” Being seen was important. It might have even been a rule. So, one of my colleagues and I started taking walks at lunch. We were seen by lots of people every day. I then developed a reputation for walking at lunch. This was bad. And so on and so on….
When I first became an attorney, my employer gave us office etiquette advice. These weren’t rules as much as suggestions. Don’t wear any weird ties or flamboyant socks. No saucy lace hose for the ladies (or men, I guess). Don’t discuss client confidences in public. There was even advice on how to act in an elevator (move to the back when people enter, don’t smoke, no loud talking, etc.).
For the past ten years, I’ve worked in a small office. We don’t have rules, mostly because no one wants the job of enforcing them. We work in sort of organized chaos. I recently told one of my partners “One day I’m going to walk in on a Monday morning and say ‘Today is the day we all get our heads out of our asses!'” Of course, I won’t do that. First, that’s exactly where my head is most of the time. Second, that would put me in charge, and I don’t like rules any more than anyone else.
Big law offices like to have retreats. A retreat is where the partners are forced to travel somewhere for a weekend to discuss the state of the law firm and future plans.You do things like make personal marketing plans, discuss branding and drinking excessively.
My old firm liked the French Lick Resort in French Lick, Indiana. If you’ve been to French Lick in recent years, I understand that it has experienced a bit of a Renaissance with casino gambling. When we went to French Lick, it was primarily known as the home of Larry Bird and Pluto Water. I assume you know Larry Bird. Pluto Water was a popular laxative about 100 years ago before the benefits of fiber were well-known. One of my partners described the resort as a “really elegant Motel 6.” Another said it was “the Place to Be…in 1925.”
My favorite place in French Lick back in the ’90’s.
We’d spend the weekend in French Lick (or the “Lick,” as I called it), more or less intoxicated the whole time.Once, my room was so decrepit that the title floor in the bathroom came loose and stuck to my feet. It’s quite terrifying to wake up from a semi-blackout in a bed full of tile.
Once, we had our retreat at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. This hotel is really nice, but it’s also a sprawling complex which combines Las Vegas sprawl with labyrinth-like architecture. You’d leave your room with no assurance you’d ever find it again. Despite the nicer locale, I still lost the will to live within a few hours of my arrival.
Your author at a law firm retreat in 1999. The sticker on my shirt says “I’M SO HAPPY!” I wasn’t really.
I finally concluded that the purpose of our retreats was twofold: (1) Other firms did it, so it had to be a good idea; and (2) Much like when your mother forced to play with a kid you hated, there was a belief that bringing everyone together would foster collegiality rather than contempt. I usually left with new names to add the list of folks I didn’t care much for.
THE NAME GAME
It’s fun to nickname people in an office but only if you never tell them about the names. Here are some of my favorites (I won’t include the ones that aren’t fit for a PG-13 crowd) :
The Egg Man (He tried to buy human eggs in the office)
Chief Speakforyourself (Someone once called our office The Island of Misfit Toys to which he responded “Speak for yourself!” (which, by the way, is what the speaker was doing)
45 (See below)
The Marm (looked like a school marm)
Queen Victoria (Hey, he looked like her)
The Generalissimo (This is a long story. It would be an entire blog post)
Porter Waggoner (The guy came to work with a fancy pompadour)
Catdog (Two lawyers so inextricably linked that we could not tell where one ended and the other began)
45 was typical of how you could get a nickname. We were at our retreat in Nashville, and a group of us younger partners were sitting in the floor outside the hospitality suite bemoaning our status. One of our senior partners staggered out of the suite and asked “You boys seen 45?” “Huh?” one of us asked. He said “Room 45? You seen 45?”
Okay, the Opryland Hotel has 3,000 or so rooms. There could be 200 room numbers including the number 45. Yet, he was insistent. “45? Room 45? Where is it?” Finally, someone said “Yeah, upstairs.” That seemed to satisfy him. From then on, he was 45.
Another favorite involved a guy named Dale Josey. I use his name here for two reasons. One, I have nothing bad to say about him. In fact, I didn’t even know him. He worked in our firm’s marketing department doing something important, I’m sure. Second, the story requires use of his name. Why? Because we called him the Outlaw Josey Dale. That still brings a smile to my face.
A TIME TO PRAY
I have nothing against prayer. In fact, I do it myself. I worked in an office where it was quite popular, so popular that there was a morning prayer group. They’d pray about things. Usually, someone in the office was ill, so that would be a good subject. All in all, it was rather benign. Oh sure, there was the time that someone distributed literature which conclusively proved that the Pope was the beast of Revelation. That aside, the group seemed like a fairly affable bunch.
One of our senior partners like to pray, too. I once visited his office to discuss a personal matter with him. Before I finished, he reached for dog-eared Bible which was copiously marked with Post-it notes. It was kind of what I imagine Mark David Chapman’s copy of The Catcher in the Rye looking like. He started flipping through and said: “Can I pray for you?” What am I supposed to say? “Sure” was all I could muster. So, he did. Right there. I wasn’t sure of the protocol, so I just closed my eyes and said my own silent prayer–one in which I beseeched God to stop the other praying. It probably says more about me than it does him, but the whole scene made me uncomfortable. When it was over, I felt like I had been stripped naked.
I found out that I wasn’t alone. Others had been prayed over, too. It wasn’t like he thought I was especially evil or anything.
At some point, all office workers are exposed to scandal, sometimes even their own. Discretion prevents me from offering many details here. Let’s just say that if you suspect two (or more) co-workers of engaging in inappropriate sexual congress, you are correct. In fact, by the time you suspect this behavior, it will have been going on for quite a while, maybe even years. Your suspects are almost always married but never to each other, of course. Just accept their shenanigans and move on. Judge if you must, but understand there are others in the office doing the same thing, and you don’t even know about them. Don’t you feel left out?
Sometimes, things get stolen in the office. The first thing you do is blame the cleaning people. After all, they are a sketchy group with free rein in the office. Only God knows what they do when you’re not working. If you don’t want them stealing from you, then stay at work, you lazy bastard.
Here’s the truth: The thieves are almost invariably someone who works in the office. We had a lady who had been arrested a dozen times for various forms of theft. We didn’t do background checks in those days. She came in and stole from us, too. Quit blaming the cleaning people.
Later, a purse was stolen in the middle of a work day. First, we blamed the cleaning crew. Next, we changed the security codes for the office. It never dawned on anyone that it almost certainly was someone working in the office, since we didn’t really have problem with drifters roaming the halls. Oh, well, we all felt safer knowing that it was now slightly more difficult for the thief to enter the office.
NO REST FOR THE WICKED
I could write a whole book about office restrooms, maybe not a book but at least a lengthy pamphlet. Even in an office of well-dressed, educated people, the sights, smells and sounds of a public restroom rival your worst nightmares of any poorly maintained highway rest area. I’ll spare most, but not all, of those details. For example, there was the man who steadfastly refused to flush the toilet after making a major transaction. I assumed it was a statement of some kind, a protest against injustice. “This will teach those sons of bitches,” I imagined him fuming as he left the stall. His fiber-rich diet was no mere healthy choice. It was a weapon used to battle The Man.
One lawyer couldn’t hit the urinal. These were the big, trough-like urinals that stick about a foot out from the wall. You could sit on the damn things. Still, he missed it. He would zip up and nonchalantly walk away, unconcernedly shuffling through a pool of urine. The worst was to be beside him at the other urinal. I feared being soaked from the knees down. Fortunately, the privacy divider took most of the offending spray. Most of it.
The strangest–and certainly most disturbing–event concerned what became known as “The Device.” One morning I sauntered into the handicapped stall as I did on occasion. I normally eschew such activity at work, but nature has her own ways. When I entered, I saw it–a white plastic bag emblazoned with the name of local medical clinic. I should have run screaming, but curiosity got the best of me. I just had to look. Using my right foot, I pulled open the top of the bag and saw The Device. It was an orange cylindrical container with a tapered spout on the side. Below is my crude rendering of this dubious medical aid:
The top was sealed and it was packed in ice. Yes, ice. Whatever it contained required ice. What the hell was it and what was in it? I consulted my closest friend in the office, but I wasn’t able to show him because he was out of the office. (For you young people: This was in the ancient days when we didn’t carry cameras or even phones with us at all times). I didn’t dare ask anyone else. What if it belonged the person I asked? I would then have to hear about his hideous health condition which required this contraption. I could only conclude that it was some kind of sampling device to take specimens of God knows what. Based upon my description, my colleague speculated that is what some kind of crude colonic irrigation aid. If you know what this is, let me know. On second thought, don’t. Perhaps it’s best left a mystery.
I HAVE MET THE ENEMY
Offices are full of many different types of people, but they all have one thing in common–each thinks that he or she is the only “normal” person in the office. That’s always been true with me. Everyone else is a weirdo or social misfit of some sort. This is especially true in the law office. Let’s be honest–most lawyers were not “cool” when they were young. One of my partners once confided in me that she had been “kind of a nerd” when she was young. Really?
The sad truth is that each office has a culture, and you contribute to it. Maybe you’re like me and question everything. If so, you’re one of the reasons that they have rules. You have to be kept in line. Maybe you like to make rules. If so, there’s a place for you at the top, assuming you don’t get stabbed in the back on your way up the ladder.
I’ll post other office musings as time goes on. There’s really a lot of material here. Maybe a book is the way to go after all.