Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Receptionist: Everyone's Assistant

As the receptionist, I am at the receiving end of a lot of random projects from variousdepartments who have no one else with the copious amounts of unused time or skill that I do. Basically I get stuck with all the menial stuff that people can't/won't do for themselves but that they deem Highly Important. To be clear- none of it is Highly Important, but these formerly assistant-less execs become so giddy with the act of delegation that feel like they need to emphasize the difficulty and magnitude of these tasks.

Exec: So the spreadsheet has FIVE columns. Do you know how to label columns on a spread sheet?
Me: [blank stare from shock that is misread as confusion]
Exec: Ok, let me show you. [Starts to lean into my personal space]
Me: No, I think I'll be ok!! I heard there was a 'help' function or something. [Frantically grab the computer screen and hope they can't see the four Gchat conversations I have going as well as this here blog]

Now I'm not saying that my spending hours each day checking fmylife, playing spider solitaire and reading other people's magazines that are delivered to the office (I give them out- after I'm done with them) is necessarily contributing to the productivity of the company. Sure, there are probably better ways to spend my time, but better is a relative term (I mean, better for who?) and it still seems unfair for me to be everyone's assistant. Especially because I'm definitely not being paid to be everyone's assistant.

There is one exec in particular who has latched onto me as their fill-in-assistant. He asked me to do something once "as a favor" (lies!) and swiftly moved on to giving me orders, while still maintaining the appearance of asking. It's very sneaky. His favorite way to start a sentence is,

"How hard would it be to _____________" (fill in the blank with ridiculous task that only makes sense to him and has no greater value whatsoever)

He also likes to sketch out these assignments in unreadable chicken-scratch on envelopes and napkins. Those are for grocery lists and absent-minded doodling, not for people working in a multi-million dollar company. It also doesn't help that this man has the worst adult-ADD of anyone I have ever met. Ever. I once completed the same assignment for him 10 times over the course of a day because he kept forgetting to tell me everything that needed to be included. And what did I receive at the end of the day for all my hard work and frustration? A Worther's Original, you know- the butterscotch candy that your grandpa used to keep in his pocket. So now I get treats, but no raise? Nostalgia doesn't pay the bills buddy.

The adult-ADD also didn't help when he approached me with a copy of a report I had completed for him and HIT ME ON THE HEAD WITH IT. Ok- maybe hit is too strong- but he bopped me on the head with a manila folder, laughing about how forgetful I am for leaving out the changes we discussed as if to say "oh silly you!" Well I'm sure that would have been hilarious if we had talked about it in the first place, but instead it was another one of his absent-minded professor-like lapses.

Hilarious. But not really- actually embarrassing and demeaning AND in front of two coworkers, who didn't know whether to laugh or be horrified. So I had just a split second to decide how to deal with this situation, obviously he thought we had a much funnier/friendlier relationship that we do and I didn't want to yell. I decided to embarrass him back. Fair's fair, right?

"No hitting, use your words…" I said slowly as you would to a small child. He looked stunned- obviously no one has talked to him like that since grade school. I didn't care. I made him feel bad and the coworkers laugh- double win. Then came they part when he discovered it was HIS mistake in the first place. So at least I felt somewhat vindicated. And just to emphasize the point- the next time he walked past my desk I ducked and put my arms over my head.

"Aw, now you're making me feel bad" he said. My point exactly.

But later that day my air of smugness at having handled the situation so well wore off as I came to this realization: treats when I'm good, hit with a paper when I'm bad. Oh My God he thinks I'm the family dog.

Friday, August 21, 2009

High Powered Women Pt. 1: Playing to Win

My last post described the division of labor in the office; and while it remains true that most of the Head Honchos are white dudes, there are a few exceptions. Four women in the office hold high-powered jobs, three of them started in the last year. So they're making some progress in diversifying the top spots, which is a good thing (but NO people of color at the moment so not great). However, not all women in powerful positions are feminists, and it’s interesting to watch the elite women in this office either conform to or confront the male-dominated environment and how people react to women in power.

One of these women is a VP in Sales, which basically makes her a professional motivator and all-around deal maker. She manages the sales people; figuring out how to make them more efficient selling machines- theories on which she likes to explore during 2 hour meetings every Monday. Not wildly popular. People describe her as a "go-getter" at best, but most descriptions are closer to "total bitch". I have to say that I am definitively NOT a fan of the b-word, especially not when it's used to describe successful powerful women who do their jobs and don't coddle (read: mother) their employees.

It's not that I personally admire her rigid adherence to numbers or her quantifying people into A, B and C levels based on performance (seriously, I typed that memo, she means it); its just that I doubt a male VP of sales who pushed his employees just as hard would be called names with the same force and frequency that she is. And even if he were, I don't think there's an equal slur for men; bitch is a term used specifically for women who violate the invisible boundaries of appropriately lady-like behavior (or for men who are being insulted for acting like women- but that's another issue).

So I don’t love this woman, but I wouldn’t call her a bitch either. What I would call her is a person desperately in need of a new lexicon. Because she makes sports metaphors All. Day. Long.

Granted, the metaphors are probably one way she can fit in to the good-old-boy network of major corporate business. What I mean is- in an industry where deals have traditionally been closed in male-dominated spaces like cigar bars and the golf course- you have to know the lingo in order to operate in that environment. What we should be talking about is changing the environment altogether rather than conforming to the norms of corporate culture. Then maybe I (and the people stuck in those 2 hour meetings) wouldn’t have to listen to the following:

"This isn't about intercepting the ball it's about putting it in the hoop!" (I think this was about closing sales- but really it could have been about anything.)

"Knock it out of the ballpark guys!"

"You've got to lean into the wind, antennae up!" (unclear what sport this is, NASCAR? skiing? ant skiing perhaps...)


I’ll talk about the other powerful ladies another time, but for now just put your head down and push through the defense- make it to the end zone- and score those points. Or something.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Division of Labor and the Origins of the Switchboard Girl

In a mega-office such as mine whose aesthetic provides all the visual interest of a North Dakota landscape, people are by far the most interesting thing to watch. And approaching this microcosm with an understanding of how society divides and people based on gender, race, and sexuality (among myriad other factors), it has become painfully clear to me how labor is assigned, and how people are treated, accordingly.

Office workers are divided into 3 categories:

1) Head Honchos- people with the most power, decision making and otherwise, in the office. They get paid the most for doing the least- delegate, delegate, delegate! They are, not surprisingly, almost all white dudes.

2) Regular Office-folk. They do the actual money making for the company. Some people sell things and some people market things. I'm not entirely sure what those things are, but knowing what the company does seems irrelevant to actually working here so I don't care.

3) Support staff- assistants, facilities staff, temps and me. The assistants are all women, gay or both (ME!); most likely because most straight guys are steered toward higher-paying entry-level jobs. Occupying this category has made me realized that holding a low-level job actually causes people to care less about you. Depressing, huh? People are rude; they demand instead of ask. They talk in front of me like I’m not there; however, this behavior has turned into one of the more interesting aspects of my job as people will stand near me to hate on their boss or tell the story of a one-night stand without regard to my presence. What I cannot stand, however, is when people refer to me by something other than my name. Just because I don’t get paid very much does NOT mean you don't have to learn my name and call me by it.

List of Names People Have Called Me...
Janice (not my name)
Melanie (also not my name)
doll [seriously- I'm beginning to think I'm in a gangster flick]
the switchboard girl

I am NOT joking. An older man called, and when unsatisfied with my ability to produce an individual who was not in the office, asked if he was speaking with "the switchboard girl". I became indignant and tried to inflate my meager job title as much as possible, "No you are not. I am the receptionist for the corporate office in New York."

Yeah, way to show 'em kidd-o.

What I meant was "I’m the switchboard girl WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU??"

Friday, August 7, 2009

One-Hour Lunchbreak: a Study in Gender, Space and Entitlement

Lunch time is troubling in Midtown- especially for those of us who don't have six-figure salaries or corporate expense accounts. I often bring my lunch to save money, but that leaves me with few options in terms of where to go for my hour-long break. The office break room is just too depressing and usually involves a very gendered fight over the TV remote (ESPN v. Food Channel- you guess who usually wins).

The summertime offers more relief as I can actually leave my mind-numbing office and be outdoors for a bit. "Outdoors" is a term I use liberally here, as it often a paved space that just happens to occur between a street and a building facade that gives the illusion of public space; although I assure you someone owns it- probably all of it. However there is one place with grass and a few trees that has saved my sanity on a number of occasions: Bryant Park. Although it's only the size of a city block and packed with people as soon as the weather gets just warm; I find it nice to see something other than concrete for that precious hour. The city provides tables and folding chairs for the milieu of Midtowners that go there to enjoy some peace on their lunch hour.

Today I had finally found a seat in the crowded park and started into my pizza when I looked up to see this scene right in front of me:

In this busy park two men are eating lunch together at two SEPARATE tables! In the background you can see the lunch break crowds and that many people are eating off of their laps or the ground due to a lack of tables and chairs. But these guys see fit to take up TWO tables?! This story is not uncommon; many men taking up more than their fair share of space because they have been socialized to feel entitled to it. In a city as jam-packed as New York this unequal allocation of space plays out in other public areas like the subway, when a man sits with his legs wide open taking up 2 or more seats (we know- your penis is SO big you have to sit like that!).
But maybe I am too quick to judge, there could be a reason they need two tables or two subway seats, if they sit too close to each other someone might confuse them for homos.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Charity Week, or- I'm Watching You Asshole!

This week is charity week at work! Whoa- hang on- don’t get too excited that the corporate masses have given up their hierarchical ladder-climbing ways in exchange for selfless; charity week basically consists of a decoupaged box sitting in the lobby wherein people can drop their loose change for a good cause and feel like they have contributed to the world. Besides the obvious issue of confining charity to one week a year and feeling self-satisfied, there are other ways that this drive brings out the best of the worst in so-called charity.

First, this is no random throw it all in the pot kind of change drive, this is specifically a PENNY drive, to which the office denizens say: 'hey, here's a way to get rid of those things I didn't want anyway and feel good about it. Double score for me!” As if the charity = money equation isn't problematic enough, charity = useless money takes passive activism to another level.

I know, I know- the additive power of all our pennies can make a difference. But can you imagine what the 150 people in this office could do if they came together to clean up a park, tutor kids or support grassroots organizations with much smaller budgets than the current beneficiary of our drive- UNICEF. Yes UNICEF the United Nations Children’s Fund, whose operating budget for 2006 was $2.8bil. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against UNICEF- they do good work supporting maternal and child health all over the world and have managed to piss off anti-choice Catholics with their support of contraceptives (hey- the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?). But I digress.

The real revelation about the true meaning of charity came after just the first day of do-gooding. As the receptionist- the lobby is my domain (believe me in a corporate office full of tiny identical cubicles and elementary school-grade carpeting everyone stakes out their domain) and therefore I am responsible for putting away the penny-filled box every evening. Which, of course, I forgot to do. Maybe it was that charity is so far outside the realm of what I am typically assigned (read: things I don’t remotely care about) that it didn’t occur to me, maybe I was on overdrive to get the fuck out of this office at the end of the day (most likely), or maybe it’s because the neurotic person in charge of charity week moved the box about 50 times trying to find its precise feng shui location.

How does one person have so much time to attend to one single box? Probably because it is half of her job description. This particular overpaid corporate head honcho is in charge of ‘Special Projects’- for which no one seems to have an actual definition. As far as I can tell she organizes the charity week and complains about people using too much paper (otherwise known as jumping on the “going green” bandwagon- more on that in a later post). Basically she gets paid 150K a year to act morally superior and shame other people in the company into doing the right thing- shit…I could do that!

So after the box has finally found a home, I forget to move it to a super secret hiding spot for the night (re: under a desk) and the next morning there Ms. Special Projects is waiting to berate me the second I arrive (I guess shaming was early on her very busy schedule that day). She want to make sure I know that someone could have stolen the hard-earned pennies. Yeah, “someone,” by whom she means the housekeeping staff that work overnight. Oh right, I forgot, because poor people steal. Glad I had her there to help me sort that one out. Does she really think that someone working nights making minimum wage is in the position to risk their job for a handful of pennies. Not to mention the ridiculous elitism of collecting money for impoverished people all over the world (who you don't ever have to see), while judging the low-income people right in your own office based the classist stereotype that poor people are liars and theives. Can't you just feel the charitable spirit?

How the Hell Did I End Up Here?

"Good morning, you've reached _____________, how can I help you?"

That pretty much sums up my job. Forty hours a week I answer the phone and greet clients. And smile- a lot. I am paid to be cordial and pleasant. Easy enough? Yes. Complicated and problematic? For me, also yes.

I am a queer and feminist-identified woman working in the heart of corporate hell. And I do mean the very heart of it- midtown Manhattan- a neighborhood (if you could call it that) so choked with white guys in power suits it looks like the Republican National Convention is in town- E-V-E-R-Y DAY. And within this male-dominated corporate culture, already providing a glass ceiling plenty thick, I inhabit an especially gender-stereotyped position: the receptionist. Ugh.

And so I ask myself- how the hell did I end up here? This is not what I had in mind when I graduated from college one short year ago- I majored in Women’s Studies for god sakes! Turns out that those ideals are a lot easier to adhere to in the protective womb of a college campus than in the cold harsh real world; and choosing the year of EPIC economic downturn to learn this lesson made it all the more jarring. Which isn't to say I didn't try to find a more useful and suitable profession first. I did, but it, uh, didn't work out. I'll explain that part later, back to my pre-NYC idealist phase...

When I graduated I was ready to run off to New York City- the queer Mecca of the east coast- and spread my wings (or feather boas for us femmes). I was planning to sell my car, bunk up with my partner, and not look back. It was a big gay dream. But that happy bubble started to deflate when my 'rents informed me they were not down with this plan. What?! Ok- so maybe telling them I was queer and moving 1,000 miles away and going to live with my partner they had never met was a lot of information at once. But clearly they didn't understand MY point of view- I had ideals that were just too big for a medium-sized metropolis in the South. And despite our close relationship I was not about to sacrifice all that possibility just for parental approval, even if that approval was supported by way of cash. Look at me, I thought, no one can use money to make ME compromise myself. That right there is what we call foreshadowing.

So I packed up my belongings and headed up Interstate 95, without a financial safety net, save for the money I had made in college (well the money I hadn't spent on beer I mean) plus the cash from selling my '96 Camry. Once arrived and stuff moved in (up four flights of stairs!) I could not believe myself when I scored a job within the first week and an ACTIVIST job at that. Pssshh- who says New York City is hard?! I am makin' it! I was wide-eyed and optimistic- eager to explore, make a niche for myself, and most of all start my first Big Girl job.

The job was to work with student activists on a college campus to implement the organization's campaigns. Sound vague? Well it was. They worked on a little bit of everything- the environment, transportation, consumer advocacy etc. Now how could any organization cultivate a meaningful understanding of and effectively combat so many issues simultaneously? You see where I'm heading here...they can't! This is what I call assembly line activism- the goal being to get as many people as possible to make phone calls or sign petitions on a given campaign without actually engaging with them on issues, much less exploring the underlying inequalities that lead to these issues in the first place. You can forget those women's studies discussions of intersectionality and the matrix of domination. [sigh]

Assembly Line Boss-man: This week we are working on a campaign for the environment.
Me: What aspect the environment?
ALB: Saving it. Duh.
Me: Right. Can we address a specific topic?
ALB: You mean like recycling?
Me: Er, no. How about a round table discussion about environmental racism? Or a panel on how environmental degradation specifically affects women?
ALB: ...[silence]

As one of my former fellow coworkers says, I refused to drink the Kool-Aid. And ALB said it "wasn't working out". So my first foray into uniting my ideals and my work- fail! Maybe I should have been a little more discrete in trying to bring some depth to their superfluous campaigns, but discrete has never really been my style. I'm working on it...

Months of unemployment followed, punctuated by a brief stint in a vegan cafe, but after deciding that 14 hours a week did not constitute a full-time job I was left sucking up for temp agencies which landed me here. Although a paycheck is a paycheck, especially when the '96 Camry money is long gone and I'm running out of options. So here I am, answering phones and smiling and using the leftover brainpower not employed by those hefty tasks to critique and undermine hegemonic corporate culture.

How can I help you?