Introductions all around

Company Culture #3

If temp assignments are included, I’ve worked in perhaps fifty different offices. If only ‘permanent’ jobs count, then it’s a dozen or so. Either way it’s a lot of offices, and in almost all of them, learning what to do and how to do it is sorta haphazard.

At Acme Amalgamated, though, job procedures were all written out, and made sense, with screenshots and instructions. It was the most well-organized office I’d ever seen. And that’s a good thing, because auditing policies was complicated work.

The legal regulations for insurance vary from state to state — so a policy sold in Michigan or Montana looked different and had different forms, requirements, minimums and maximums than a policy sold in Maryland or Mississippi, and it was also different from policies sold in Maine or Massachusetts. The company sold several different types of policies in every state, too — so there were about 150 different sets of rules for auditing policies. Looking at the fine print was abstruse and intricate enough to keep me from napping at work.

Fortunately, my teammates often stopped at my cubicle to make sure I wasn't getting confused, and ‘teammates’ wasn’t the cliché it is in most workplaces. There were six of us doing the work, trading off chores and helping each other when help was needed, and it honestly felt like a team.

If you had a question, you were encouraged to simply shout it out. As a mega-introverted man, I loved that — I didn’t even have to get out of my chair, to tap someone on the shoulder. I could simply say loudly, “Is a separate assignment form required in Georgia?” and get an immediate answer. And since we could all hear each other, a second or third voice would sometimes add nuance, over the cubicle walls.

Something else that made this job different was, I couldn’t find the asshole in our department. Usually, every office has at least one asshole, often more — someone who's determined to be rude or mean, or weasel out of doing their fair share of the work. Later, after a few people left and were replaced, things weren’t so idyllic, but for my first year on the job, I detected no assholes. Or maybe the asshole was me. 

There were characters, though. 

Becca was a young white woman who sang in a band on evenings and weekends, and was paid for it. Not enough to live on, of course, or she wouldn’t have been working in the basement with the rest of us, but her music was what she cared about, and what she talked about. She wore earbuds every moment she was in the building, and often sang along with the music as she worked, which was mildly annoying. I couldn’t complain, though, since I do the same thing if it's Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Libby was an older woman, who’d been with the company for 40 years. She was a Republican, which was uncommon in our liberal town, but she never brought it up in the office. The rest of us all tilted to the left, so it was only fair that when any of us mentioned politics in passing, Libby would offer the conservative perspective. She baked terrific cookies and brought them in every Monday, though, which more than made up for her politics. And that’s her real name, by the way — ain’t it amusing that a woman named Libby hated the libs?

Nanette was the nicest lady you could hope to work with. She always had one amusing story of her weekend (never two), and asked about yours, and she never said a mean word to or about anyone. She was so relentlessly and sincerely nice that I’m an ass for complaining about this, but… she wasn’t very bright. Our auditing work required each and every one of her double-digit IQ points, and when complicated questions came up, Nanette sometimes pretended to know answers that she really didn’t. So of course, she was our team’s lead.

Tim was a quiet young black man who simply came in and did the job, and did it well. He never made waves and rarely made mistakes, and almost never said more than hello and good night. In that sense he was a younger me — I’m almost entirely anti-social, too — but ‘not talking at work’ was our only shared interest. About the only thing Tim ever said that wasn’t work-related was, he sometimes mentioned zoology classes he was taking, in the evenings. He wanted to work with tigers and panthers and other big cats, which sounded like an almost impossible dream, but he did it. After he earned his degree, he left us for an entry-level job in a wildlife preserve.

Zeke was the opposite of chill. He took our work far too seriously, checked every policy more closely than we were required to, and he was always stressed about everything. In meetings, he was the guy who asked esoteric questions about hypothetical problems unlikely to ever come up, always prefaced with, "Yeah, but...". Sounds annoying as hell, right? But no, usually it was just amusing, like working with Barney Fife. And Zeke knew our 150 sets of rules better than anyone else — maybe, just from his encyclopedic knowledge, he should've been our team lead instead of Nanette, but he never complained about it.

Early on, I audited a policy for a customer whose name was Charles Chan. That's worth at least a smile, ain't it? But Zeke saw no humor in it. “It’s not proper to joke about a customer’s name,” he said, so I never showed him the long list of silly customer names I eventually compiled, like Paige Turner and Woody Woodcock.

So far as I know, Zeke had no sense of humor. We sat side by side, and over the next few years I got to know him fairly well, but I can’t remember him telling a joke, ever, or laughing at one. 

Of the six people on our team, Zeke was the kookiest character, even including me. He had it all — screwball and outspoken politics, no patience for stupidity, almost no social life or social skills, and several times he literally tripped over his own feet. He was completely disconnected from his family, and had a complicated backstory that he revealed to no-one at work, except eventually me. Why me? Well, obviously, because Zeke and I had so much in common.

Yeah, I gotta tell you about Zeke, but he was wacky enough he deserves an entry of his own. Next time.

Company Culture

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  1. >I couldn’t find the asshole in our department...maybe the asshole was me.

    You must know the old poker saying - if you look around the table and don't see the sucker, you're the sucker.

  2. >“It’s not proper to joke about a customer’s name,” he said, so I never showed him the long list of silly customer names I eventually compiled, like Paige Turner and Woody Woodcock.

    I appreciate that you share some of these with me via email. Jesus, the burden people put on their kids.

    I did taxes a couple of years ago. I processed dependent children named Kamden (like the city, but different) and Memfiz (also like the city, in this case "Memphis," but different - same parents, these two). I had a family in with their child, they kept calling her "Sierra." Fine, that's a name. But on her SS card, it was spelled "S E R R I A." Not "Sierra," but "Serria." But pronounced "Sierra?"


    1. Can't speak for the other nutty names, but I wonder if the parents of Sierra/Serria (or perhaps the bureaucracy) simply made a spelling mistake.

      That's what happened to me — Mom & Dad told me my middle name was in honor of someone famous, someone we've all heard of, but they misspelled it, so it's a fairly common middle name but spelled strangely.


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