Archive for August, 2010

How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America – Magazine – The Atlantic.


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One of my friends landed a decent paying secretarial job in NYC right before the economy crashed over two years ago.  Shockingly, she still has that job even as she watched many of her co-secy-workers who had years of seniority laid off one by one.  (It is sadly obvious what was happening there.)

Prior to this job, she spent a good six months interviewing for secretarial jobs in the legal and corporate arena.  Like myself, she has been doing secretarial work off and on for a good 20 years. And, during every interview she was asked the battery of usual shit-ass questions reserved for “women-only”, women who work in the “pink collar” ghetto in servitude/mommy positions, i.e. secretary.

HR Automaton:

“You are in the middle of typing a document for your boss, who has a deadline in a few hours and your computer breaks down.  What would you do?”  (Adult female applicant: I’d do what anyone would have to do – I’d call the IT department.)

“How are you at working with difficult people?”  (How is anybody at working with difficult people?  Who wants to work with difficult people?)

“A client comes into the office and is very angry and demanding.  What would you do?  (Am I interviewing for a day-care job?  Will I be working with temper-tantrum-throwing toddlers?)

“You’re in a middle of a crisis and somebody comes up and has something for you to do.  What do you say to them?”  (I say I am busy and in the middle of a crisis.)

“What are your career goals?”  (To be a lap-dog, clearly.)

“How do you feel about getting your attorney coffee?”  (I’m sorry, I thought this was an office setting.  Am I interviewing for a waitressing job?)

First of all, would anyone ever dream of asking a man these questions?   Can you imagine, asking a man in his mid-40’s at a job interview how he would feel about getting “his attorney” coffee?

Second, gender aside, what functional adult person would ask another functional adult person questions like these?  Where in the fuck does any human being, in any kind of civilized culture get off asking such questions?

I say “civilized” culture because really this line of questioning is indicative of the fact that the American workplace is barbaric in that an entire class of people are utilized as something akin to slaves.

Here’s one way I know this:  There have been four times during my various jobs over the past 20 years where I have said to an executive throwing a rageaholic tantrum or a supervisor hissing at me, in respectful, calm, and yet very serious eye-contact way, “It’s not okay to talk to me like that.”  And the reaction – the expression on the person’s face when this phrase was delivered was like I was holding semi-automatic hand-gun to their skull and saying, “I’m gonna blow your brains out motherfucker.”

I mean really, having some interpersonal communication between employees, though serious as it may be, is not like watching the twin towers fall before your very eyes.

WHY were they so shocked beyond proportion?!?

The disturbing answer to that question is the “boss” is having a response in the realm of, “How dare you talk to me that way?”  “You can’t talk to me that way.”  “You’re not allowed to talk to me that way, etc.”

Dare?  Can’t?  Allowed?

This is because they see you as a subservient, lesser-than.   You are not an equal human being.  In fact, you are not human at all, you are really in the role of a slave.  Right?  Slavery wouldn’t work out if a master saw their slave a human. There is no way they would ask — or command — of a human being what they would of a slave, someone not-human.

There is a whole class/caste of support staff (secretaries, receptionists, custodians, mail room and copy room workers, etc.) who must be kept in their place in order for businesses (including non-profits), to operate.  And, this cast of caste players are kept in their place via dramatic inequities. Some of the most obvious being paid low wages, and being run ragged with work while an executive takes a long lunch break to play racquetball or work out at the gym.…

Less than subtle inequities:  For example, most law firms (and other businesses) now have a system in place mandating the support staff “clock in/out” on their computers when they arrive at work, go to lunch, or leave for the day.  But, the attorneys do not have to account for their time.  (They are of course held accountable for their “billable hours”, but in a much different way.  Whereas the slaves – oops, secretaries — have to account in a much more elementary, prison-block way.)

There have been several times when I was working as a secretary when a supervisor noted I should be in a different (higher) position because I was such a responsible person.  Why wouldn’t you want every person working in “low-level” jobs to be on-the-ball and responsible?

It’s really ass-backwards not to have 100% “on-the-ball” folks in all positions.  But if that were the case, executives would feel too uncomfortable around their “equals” who they have waived-off to make copies.

It’s really hard to step above your class position because the caste system as we know it wouldn’t work if there weren’t masses of people to fill the subservient positions.

Back to my secretarial friend.  Ann (not her real name) is also a writer.   She’s had several works of fiction, journal reports and other writing published.  Most recently, her biggest publication yet, a definitive book about a politician was released. She received hard copies a few weeks ago and brought one into work–to mixed reactions.  Appropriately, her boss she supports directly was thrilled and he offered her warm congratulations.  Several other secretaries where also thrilled.   However, other sister secretaries, said under their breath, with concern, “I’d be careful if I were you, you don’t want them to think your have another career.  You could loose your job!”

WHAT? I’d be careful, you don’t want anyone to know you’re going to make a break for it. Prisoners and slaves make breaks for it.

(And like my friend Ann, I can’t tell you how many times co-workers have whispered at me, conspiratorially, under their breath signaling me play it cool so the upper-echelon wouldn’t catch on that I had a passion, interest or career goal different from submitting expense reports.)

Over the last few months, prior to her book coming out, Ann told me she was planning to approach HR to propose working part-time or even job sharing. This is because indeed her writing career is taking a major step forward.  A few days ago, Ann had a meeting with her HR rep, a woman.  Ann introduced her (agenda) by showing her book to the HR rep – who promptly glanced at it, said curtly, “That’s nice,” and shoved it quickly to the side of her desk.  Ann continued to share her request as HR became visibly huffy, and upset, and blurted out, “You didn’t tell us this in your interview!  You didn’t tell us being a secretary was not your career!”  WTF?  Ann’s resume clearly stated, along with her secretarial experience, all of her writing and publication experience.  And, again WTF – she is an excellent secretary and is also an excellent writer.  Why can’t those two things co-exist?

Here’s the real deal that almost nobody’s talking about: A secretary is considered — consciously or unconsciously — part of the “serving class.” And, to acknowledge that they do things “reserved” for the non-serving class would be to acknowledge they are an equal. So, if executives were to acknowledge that fact, they would be plagued — consciously or unconsciously — that they have a staff of servants.

The fact that low-level, servant-class workers can be taken advantage of — and are in a position to be fired due to their “irresponsible” tardiness, or any other simple “offense” — is comparable to wearing angle cuffs on the chain gang.  Hiring adult, responsible support workers would seem to be the solution to poor productivity and poor morale. But, because the C-suite folks (and their henchwomen, HR folks) would ultimately feel too uncomfortable with expectations of their “equals”, they must keep some portion of their staff in chains.

But none of us have to stand for it. Just say no! Tell those bosses who terrorize you with threats and rageaholic tantrums it’s not okay to behave that way; tell your HR matrons who punish you for minor “infractions” that you have a life and it’s not all about the workplace; let everyone everywhere know it’s not okay to maintain and enforce a class/caste system on the job — or anywhere else!


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