As a communications and marketing consultant, I worked with over forty companies in eight years. They ranged from multi-nationals like IBM and Intel to startups and single-person operations, and from the reputable (if bureaucratic) to the fly-by-night. Three times, I was stiffed – - fortunately, for small amounts. Often, I was frustrated by lack of challenge or mismanagement that I was sure I could put right if I were in charge (and once or twice, I might have been right). But only once have I quit a job after three days of work, and that position remains, indisputably, the worst job I have ever taken.
Even my first job as a busboy, which I quit after the manager accused me of spilling water on a customer when I had been in the kitchen all shift can’t compare. As for the summer between university semesters that I spent drilling holes in wooden rods, I may never have learned what either holes or rods were for, but that was only for three months, and enduring acute boredom isn’t too bad when you earn union wages.
I took my all-time worst job in the weeks after I left Stormix Technologies, where I had my first experience as management (and awful I was, but that’s another story). I had quit in the sudden realization that the company could fold any time (and six months later it did), and repented my rashness at leisure. When a woman I knew from a consulting agency I sometimes worked through told me that she was now doing human resources at a company, I jumped at the opportunity to start at her new company. Never mind that it was a return to technical-writing after playing at management; it was a job.
The company was involved in online gaming, my acquaintance told me, leading me to believe that it was developing a world for role playing. Never mind that gaming seemed frivolous after working with free software; I told myself to be realistic and take the opportunity that was offered.
The first morning, I learned that my acquaintance had misrepresented the company to me. It was not involved role playing, but in developing casino games. In fact, the company had been the recent victim of a police raid for its activities, and had just changed its name. Otherwise, I would have recognized the name, because, in those days, I kept close track on all the high-tech companies in my area. I was dismayed, but I knew enough about the police to know that a raid didn’t necessarily mean any wrongdoing, so I fought down my misgivings.
The second day, I noticed a door that opened into a room larger than any I had seen in the office. It had well over a dozen desks — not workstations. If all those desks were occupied, it represented over a third of the company, yet no one was there.
“That used to be for our lawyers,” the guy at the next workstation told me when I asked about the room. “But they all moved to the Caymans after the raid.”
My dismay deepened. A company with almost as many lawyers as coders could only be a patent shark or one with serious legal difficulties, especially since they were all in the Caymans now. In fact, the company’s head office had relocated to the Caymans, where online gambling is legal in a way that it isn’t in the United States and Canada.
My resolve to be realistic slipped another notch or two.
I went home and spent a fitful night trying to bat my conscience down. Did I want to be part of such a company? I resolved to wait a week before making a decision. But, from the way I dragged myself from the SkyTrain and lingered in the nearest Starbucks on the third day, I knew that I was half-out the door already.
The final blow descended when my manager gave me a tour of the rest of the office.. It was on several levels of an old building in Gastown, and I had only seen one level of it so far.
The tour ended in the kitchen. “If you see the light on next door,” the manager said, pointing to a small red-tinged bulb above the door frame, “Keep quiet. They’re filming.”
“It’s what used to be our adult movie division. They’re a separate company now, but we still share the kitchen space.”
As he spoke, I noticed some long bathrobes draped over the chairs around the table.
Back at my desk. I tried to focus on my work, but I couldn’t. I was never much for gambling or adult movies (which, more often than not, are actually adolescent), but I’m not a prude, either. I’d always taken a more or less feminist of pornography as exploitation, but did I have a right to judge people who were shooting -rated movies of their own free will? In the past, I had met all sorts of people that wouldn’t exactly fit in to the average suburb, so why was I so depressed by the situation I found myself in?
I thought of a photo that had circulated in the local newspapers when the company had been raided, showing the company’s employees standing around on the sidewalk. I could be one of them, I realized.
Stopping all pretense of work, I decided that part of the problem was that, while I might tolerate the company’s business past and present, I didn’t want to be active in it. But an even larger source of my discomfort was the conviction that I had been duped. If the company misrepresented itself to attract employees, what else might it do in the name of business? I thought I had enough evidence to make a reliable guess.
Anyway, the only thing worse than being manipulated would be an attempt to deny the fact. My situation was too depressing for words.
At 11:30, I marched into the manager’s office and told him that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and had been too optimistic to think that I could work regular hours. He was sympathetic, and even told me to come back if I got better, but there was not much chance of that.
A month later, I received a check for the days I had worked. I referred to the cheque as “my avails of vice,” and briefly considered not cashing it. By then, I had started at my highest-paid and most interesting job to date, and I didn’t need the money. But, in the end, I told myself that I had earned it, and rationalized that I deserved some compensation for what I had been through.
I still don’t know whether that line of thought was a copout. But I was glad to be out of that job before it made a gap in my resume that I would have to explain. And, in the end, I benefited from my decision to quit, because it raised me in the estimation of my in-laws. Yet, brief as the experience was, I’ll never forget the mixture of anger and chagrin with which I descended into the seamy side of high-tech.
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