Monday, June 16, 2008

Work it out

Jezebel has this post up about horrific workplace stories. It's a hilarious read, and as many regular readers know, I've got a few of my own. Let me add a couple of others!

When I was 14 years old, I got my very first summer job in the Calvin Klein store at the local mall. I started on Memorial Day weekend. That very Saturday, I came into work to find that all of the associates had been arrested for shoplifting the night before. They'd had a racket going for a while; they would fill garbage bags full of clothes, throw them in the dumpster, then come back to the store in the middle of the night to retrieve the bags. They got caught when the store's security guard, suspicious at the unusual amount of garbage going into the bins each night, hid in his car in the store's back parking lot after hours, his eye fixed on the dumpster. Sure enough, the girls drove up around 1am, did the dumpster dive and were caught red-handed. I wound up completely stuck, working 12 hour days as the only associate on a crowded holiday weekend.

It was hell, but if I'd had any idea as to what my early corporate jobs would be like, I might have stayed there.

Ten years later, I was hired by a wholesale distributor to work in their in-house advertising department. This was my first real corporate job, about a year after I had moved to Boston. I'd spent the previous year working two jobs; one at a print shop, the other at a CVS in my neighborhood of Allston-Brighton, which is situated right between the Boston University and Boston College campuses.

I was excited to finally be a full-time paid designer with medical benefits and vacation time, but quickly learned that my new place of business was a den of iniquity. The number of sexual harrassment charges that had been quietly settled for money filled a very fat file in Personnel. Many of those charges had been (rightly) leveled at the founder of the company, a squat, vulgar man in his 70s who, fittingly, looked like a pig would if a fairy godmother waved her magic wand and made him human. Not one to age gracefully, he dyed his hair (what I referred to as) 'piss-yellow,' and his penchant for regular chemical peels kept the skin on his face a very bright pink. Instead of looking younger, he looked like a sunburned Porky Pig with a yellow toupée. He hired handicapped people to be living examples of his magnanimity, then treated them like circus animals; after hiring a young woman with Down's Syndrome to stuff envelopes, he made her a special feature when he gave tours, pointing and saying, "Look! I have this little mongoloid girl working here." Porky fancied himself a ladies' man; I guess he thought that inviting female associates into his office for 'business meetings' and then grabbing at their breasts and behinds qualified as innocent fun. One of my own coworkers, a shapely blonde with a loud, infectious laugh, came running down to the photography studio one day in tears after he'd done it to her. Even worse? He was a friend of her family's and had known her since she was a child. She had trusted him and refused to believe the rumors she'd heard about him. Worse than worse? Because of his relationship to her family, she was guilted out of filing a complaint.

El Jefe Gay Male Boss once told me, "A fish rots from the head." He was absolutely right. Porky Pig had set the standard for male behavior in our office, and that standard was pathetically low.

When I started working for Sexual Harrassment Central, I was 24, naive, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and cuter than I thought I was, as we all are at 24. Only a year out of college, I was used to being judged by the quality of my work. Cute, right? How sweet I was. Sadly, it rarely takes long for female cubicle dwellers to be disabused of the notion that corporate America is a meritocracy. Thanks to SHC, my naivete was collateral damage in less than three months.

I worked for a guy I'll call Marcus. He was creepy; he was one of Porky's closest cronies. He always looked down at you when he spoke, even if you were his same height; he'd pull his wire-rimmed glasses down to the end of his nose and tilt his chin down to look over them at you. He was incredibly homophobic, and made disparaging (and sometimes graphic) remarks to gay employees; he also referred to them as "Miss [first name]" when he wanted to be particularly condescending. He leered at female employees and made (usually physically based) comments about them when they left the room.

There's an old Irish proverb that goes like this:
May those who love us love us.
And those that don’t love us, May God turn their hearts.
And if He doesn’t turn their hearts, May he turn their ankles,
So we’ll know them by their limping.

Seems off topic, I know, but Marcus had an odd gait, as if he had a permanent limp, Richard III – style. One of the very few chuckles that I had at Marcus' expense was based in the idea that he was so odious that God had actually given him a wonky walk to warn people he was coming. Mind you, there was nothing actually wrong with him; it's not cool to laugh at the handicapped. It is, however, perfectly fine to enjoy the occasional laugh at the expense of an asshole who treats his subordinates like shit.

Every day in Marcus' presence brought something new to amaze and disgust, but I quickly learned that complaining got you nowhere at SHC unless a) somebody put their hands on you and b) you had a witness who was willing to speak up on your behalf. Needless to say, that didn't happen very often.

Marcus immediately had a problem with me. "Ginger asks so many questions," he'd whine in a faux-joking tone. "Don't get into it with her, she'll ask you a ton of questions." Asshole Extraordinaire did teach me one very important thing - you can judge a boss by how well s/he deals with questions. Marcus was a Status Quo guy, and the status quo was whatever he decided; thus, we worked in Asshole Central. Questioning him meant that other people might get ideas of their own; therefore, to him, I was trouble. He made fun of his "Little Questioner" in front of people whenever he got the chance.

My favorite Marcus moment happened one day when I accidentally dropped a Zip disk underneath a counter. I was perfectly capable of picking it up myself, but I was wearing a skirt that day, so I had to be strategic about it. In many agencies, the design/marketing department is one large room, separated into cubicles, and SHC followed that format. One runs the risk of flashing one's coworkers in such a situation. How embarrassing! I'd rather not, so whenever I had to pick something up that had fallen under a counter or desk while wearing a skirt, I utilized a tactic that I called the "triple tuck":

1. Tuck skirt between back of thighs.
2. Kneel, tuck legs under butt in side-saddle fashion, resting weight on one hip.
3. Tuck skirt between front of thighs.

Use this method and you can safely reach under anything you like without showing your undies (or punany, if you're the adventurous type who likes going commando. Personally, I'm not one who enjoys a breeze in my nethers).

I did the triple tuck, retrieved my disk and came out from under the counter... see Marcus, on his stomach at other end of the hallway, face to the floor, trying to peek up my skirt.


"Are you all right, Marcus?" I asked in my sweetest voice.

"Uh. Uh," he tried to laugh it off. "I thought you might have needed some help, there."

I'll bet he did.

When I finally quit SHC, Porky Pig called me up to his office. I'd never allowed myself to wind up alone in there; in the past, I'd always taken a coworker with me, usually male, to Porky's palpable consternation. This time, I had to go alone, for my 'exit interview.'

I made sure to leave the door open, politely refused when asked to sit, and stayed as close to the door as possible. Porky's secretary, who sat in the adjoining room, had been with him from the beginning; I knew for a fact that she was paid a hefty six figures to file, fax, answer phones - and keep her mouth shut. I wanted to make sure that she wound up involved if something went wrong.

"I'm sad to hear you're leaving." Porky came out from behind his desk and walked over to me. He took my right hand in his right hand and slowly stroked my right arm, up and down, with his left hand. "I want you to know, we'll always have a place for you if you decide to come home." I mumbled a quick "Thank you," broke away, and walked out.

Traditional wisdom dictates that you shouldn't burn your bridges; that day, I decided that I'd rather jump off a bridge before walking back across that one.

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Anonymous Gustav said...

offtopic but I am incredibly disappointed that you juxtapose squat with vulgar and continue with that these for the rest of the post.
Interestingly, you do not have a disparaging nickname for Marcus.

8:41 PM  
Blogger Ginger said...

Really? Why is that disappointing?

I didn't say squat IS vulgar, I said he was squat AND vulgar. Although that's picking nits.

Squat just means "short and thickset", which he was. He was vulgar in addition, not because of.

Hope that helps to clarify. By the way, I've had a short, thickset boss that was very cute.

I called Marcus by that name for personal reasons, which I won't go into.

9:17 PM  
Blogger Letty Cruz said...


9:41 PM  
Blogger Ginger said...

Imagine having that feeling, every day, for a year and a half.

11:01 PM  
Anonymous Olivia said...

Ugh, so sorry you had to deal with that. I've had some crap jobs, but I have not had to deal with sexual harrasment at work, so far. Well, except for the one guy who described his divorce proceedings as "being raped in the ass". Not harrasment pointed at me per se, just really disgusting and offensive.

5:22 AM  
Blogger Linnaeus said...

Wow. That really was a creepy situation.

7:23 AM  
Blogger Ginger said...

Yeah, sometimes I read these posts back, and can't believe that was my life!

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Gustav said...

I am really sorry that you had to work in such a place. What is worse is that it seems to be a regular problem for women in the workplace. But dealing with it by stereotyping, really? We can go back and forth over words but implicitly you did, intentionally or not.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Ginger said...

Gustav, I have no idea what you're talking about; I already clarified for you. Lay out the problem for me, por favor, or give it up.

3:14 PM  

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