Just recently, I marked my thirtieth anniversary with the same company. That’s not something many people can claim in these days of job-hopping and employment insecurity. In honor of the occasion, I thought I’d share some tips I’ve learned over the years to ensure anyone’s success in the corporate world.
Always be on the lookout for people approaching you with projects. If they’re carrying a large sheaf of papers and a strain on their face, there’s a chance they may be headed to the restroom but more likely they’re about to dump something on you. Act preemptively. Ask the oncoming coworker the question, “hey — did you hear who died?” This tends to immediately remove the wind from their sails, lest the one who died turns out to be one of your spouses. Then throw out a random celebrity name, either someone who in fact did recently pass or else the first name you can think of.
“Britney Spears” or “Troy Aikman” or “The Queen of England” are three of my favorite show-stoppers. Note that you may want to adapt your selection to the generation of the person approaching you. I wouldn’t suggest using “Harry Truman” on the twenty-something IT guy or “Lady Gaga” on the soon-to-retire human resources director.
I used this technique with considerable success just the other day. Allen was slowly walking in my direction with that look that says “I need help here” so I immediately reacted.
“Did you hear who died?” I asked. “Mitch Miller.”
“Oh, yeah, I remember him. He used to do those TV sing-alongs,” said Allen, who is about my age.
“He was 99 years old. Imagine that,” I said. “Did you ever watch his shows? He’d be conducting a chorus standing behind him while he mugged for the camera. ‘Follow the bouncing ball and sing-along with Mitch,’ he’d say.”
Then I’d simulate the arm motions Mitch did. Allen began laughing and recalled a time he’d watched the show with his aunt and cousins back in Iowa. Next thing you know, we’re reciting the lyrics to “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and before long, Allen had turned and walked away, taking his project with him.
Avoid people working on long-term “off-line” projects. The danger here is not that they’re necessarily going to ask you for help. Rather, because they’re so desperately bored by what they’re doing, they welcome any interruption from their drudgery, even if it’s a conversation with me.
Currently, at my office we have Kelly working by herself in a quiet room away from the larger cubicle farm. I’m not sure what she’s doing — maybe testing a software patch that will allow us to start using the letter “q” in our financial typesetting — but it goes by the generic name of “piloting the next release.” Though this might sound like an exciting trial of a new seat-ejection system for the Air Force’s next generation of stealth fighters, the pallor on her face and hunched posture in front of her computer terminal indicated no such exhilaration.
I step into the room to retrieve something, and Kelly immediately brightens at the opportunity to be interrupted.
“So how’s your son doing?” she’ll ask my back as I rapidly turn to leave.
“Oh, he’s fine,” I shoot back over my shoulder. “They grow up so fast, you know.”
I keep walking out the door as she launches into a narrative about how her son is liking his new job, but it’s a lot of work and he’s not crazy about the hours, and then there are some more muffled sounds I can’t quite make out because by now I’ve left.
A corollary to this is dealing with those who work the night shift. I generally arrive for work at 5 a.m. when many of these people are at the depths of their exhaustion, five hours down but three still to go. It’s as quiet as a tomb, until someone realizes that there’s no better pick-me-up than getting into a spirited discussion with those privileged first-shift people.
I’m barely signed on to my computer when one of these folks walks up to me, demanding to know why we go to the trouble of adding an en-space to the right of all em-dashes that appear in numeric columns of financial tables.
Not exactly the kind of contentious debate you might encounter in a real-world discussion of racial politics or how big an idiot last night’s Bachelorette loser was, but something that’s a very controversial topic in my narrow world.
If I’m not careful, soon there’ll be a mob of people surrounding me, adding their two cents to the subject and deliberately ratcheting up the tenor of the discussion to include hyphens and — God forbid — even piece fractions.
This is about the time I remember that I left my lunch in the car.
Choose your words carefully when calling in late. I always like to say I’m “running” late, as that word has a much more active tone to it. Obviously, if I was really “running” at all, I’d be there by now instead of having just turned off the snooze alarm. But the implied verve in my effort to arrive as soon as possible at least gives the impression that I’m trying harder than I really am.
Send your emails at the end of the day. There are two benefits to this habit: (1) it looks like you’ve spent all day composing them, and (2) it puts the ball in the recipient’s court for a good 16 hours. There’s little or no chance they can respond while you’re still in the office if you time your correspondence carefully. I’ll typically work on several of these throughout the course of the day, then have them all standing by as I shut down the other programs running on my computer. I gather up my briefcase and my thermos, then step about ten feet back from my computer to get a good running start. As I sprint past the terminal, I’ll reach out and mash the “send” command and by now I’ve built enough momentum to get out the door before the “you have mail” message can appear on the recipients’ screens. Occasionally, someone will chase me down in the parking lot, but that’s rare, because I can be a very reckless driver.
Suppress all sneezes. I know it’s bad for your sinuses to do this. What’s even worse, however, is to provoke a “bless you” or “gesunheidt” from a nearby employee that can rapidly escalate into a discussion of whether or not our company should acquire a new tranche of public debt in order to finance that takeover we’ve been considering.
Use catchwords carefully. For example, the term “no-brainer” is good to apply to a fresh idea, but not so good to hang around the neck of the new hire who seems to be catching on a little slowly.
Be careful where you clean your cereal bowl. The dregs of my milk-soaked granola won’t go down the lunchroom sink because it doesn’t have a garbage disposal. Instead, I have to use the men’s room to throw the leftover cereal down a toilet. ALWAYS remember to flush if you have to do this, since you don’t want to put your coworkers through the trauma of having to guess what that milky, grainy material is that you’ve left behind, especially if there’s a dried raspberry remnant in there as well. And listen to make sure there are no other occupants in the room before you exit the stall carrying a bowl and a spoon.
Kill sprees are career killers. The modern office is a frustrating and difficult place to work. Some days it feels like you can do nothing right. Other days, it’s more than a feeling — it’s a fact. Discuss your grievances with your spouse or your clergyman. Seek out your human resources specialists so they can tell you about the wonderful website their department has set up so they no longer have to talk to actual humans. Take a “mental health” day off. But do not, under any circumstances, smuggle large-caliber weaponry in your pants and then open fire on your fellow employees. I cannot stress this enough. An incident such as this is certain to get you poor marks in the “works well with others” portion of your annual performance review, and will almost definitely impact your next scheduled pay raise in a negative way.