It took me two full years after graduation to land my first real (read: polyester-optional) job. It took me two years and about 19 seconds to realize I had a lot to learn about real jobs. Here’s an example:
My Boss: Anthony, meet David. David’s an excellent designer who’s been with the marketing department for over two years.
Me: (wearing my please-love-me-I’m-a-new-employee smile): Very nice to meet you, David!
My Boss: (three seconds later, in the elevator): David takes too long to finish his designs so we will be “letting him go” next Friday.
Me: (if I had had the guts): How the hell can you tell David he’s excellent and then fire him for being too slow, you lying, two-faced, jerk-in-a-suit?
Me: (gutless but not jobless): Shouldn’t someone inform David that he needs to increase his efficiency if he wants to keep his design position?
My Boss: (apparently discovering three noses on my face): That’s not how it works.
I spent most of that year piecing together “how it works” through this process of cowering like a sheltered schoolboy in front of an officemate condescendingly chiding: “That’s not how it works.” I’ll spare you the cute-guppy-in-piranha-infested-waters imagery, but I have to admit that discovering such oft-calculating corporate practices was quite a rude awakening for me.
Granted, some of those corporate practices could kiss my little sheltered-schoolboy ass. I refused to “borrow” our competition’s design proposal so my boss could have a better shot at acquiring the account. I refused to warn a female, under orders from above, to curb her competitiveness lest she be branded a “feminist.” I refused to “fudge” the numbers of my subscriber report to match erroneous projections made by my boss.
What’s baffling is that I not only lived to tell the tale, I somehow prospered because of those refusals. For example, when Boss Fudge-ee changed those subscriber-report numbers anyway, I insisted that he take full responsibility for the report and remove my name from it. He argued. I insisted. He threatened. I insisted. He finally said “Okay”.
I thought for sure that “Okay” would be followed with “You’re fired” and then a ballpoint pen in my eye. I was ready for both. But instead, my boss instantly transformed into my biggest genuflecting fan, and I was left piecing together bizarre corporate lesson 44B: Sometimes employers/dictators respect you more when you stand up to them. I hadn’t done it in a combative way. I was diplomatic but steadfast. I made it clear that my ethics were more important to me than my job. That is, I successfully bluffed that my ethics were more important to me than my job.
Not all corporate practices are so melodramatic and sinister. I mocked – but chose to weather – the suit-and-tie getup and all of its status-binding accoutrements. I exchanged unwarranted pleasantries with extremely important and abrasive superiors. I adjusted my internal clock to include semi-consciousness from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
I’ve since learned – the hard way – that some corporate practices have actually been bequeathed for the well being of employees. For example, you should never date coworkers – not even independent, stunningly attractive women in the sales department named Jen – unless you’re 680 percent positive that you’ll marry and live happily ever after, for eternity and then some. Never take lunch break at your desk, because important passersby will inevitably and silently note that you’re slacking on Company Time. Finally, and this isn’t always obvious during a three-martini lunch with fun clients: Never try to expense tequila shots. Not even one little ol’ round.