Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Red Flags at Work

It is perhaps an understatement to say that I have always approached employment with a certain amount of fluidity. The fact of the matter is, I have never really worried about it. Within that context, I’ve had two primary “careers.” The first was in the restaurant world of New York City, and the second has been in the nonprofit sector, beginning in New York, at the Ford Foundation. The nonprofit work has lasted quite long – it’s now been 23 years. Ironically, had I not been sent to Ford as a temp, I may never have discovered the sector.

Regardless of my good fortune in that assignment, I’ve always contended: you don’t necessarily need to know what you want to do for a living; just be really clear about what you don’t want to do. And be prepared to run like hell when things don’t work out.

I’ve run like hell on many occasions. And regarding a few of them, I distinctly remember the red flag that pushed me into a new job…

One of my two dozen waitressing gigs was at a Hungarian restaurant on Manhattan’s upper west side. It was more lucrative than anything I could have imagined then, but that income came at a price. The work was nonstop, Mondays through Saturdays. I amassed a weekly average of $350 (in the early 80’s, mind you!), and I didn’t reach that total because I was serving high-end entrees to parties of well-dressed theatre-patrons; rather, I was running my ass off, collecting $2.00 tips here and $3.00 tips there. Do the math.

There were three of us “on the floor” at that restaurant: the two Hungarian waiters and me (me: the native-born; born, for that matter, in Connecticut and to a pair of WASPs). The kitchen was run by guys from the Dominican Republic, and the owner and owneress were Hungarian. As you can imagine, I learned several Spanish and Hungarian phrases while working there. And as you also might imagine (particularly if you are familiar with restaurants as a workplace), most of what I learned contained words that children should not hear.

One morning, about eight or so months into my Hungarian stint, I woke up with one phrase in my head: bazd meg. This, my friends, means “fuck it.” In a language I do not speak.

Red flag: if you wake up in the morning thinking “fuck it,” you are in a bad psychic place. If you wake up thinking “fuck it” in a language you do not speak, consider a job change. Seriously.

…Years later, after I had moved to L.A., I accepted a mid-management position at an area nonprofit. Having done some consulting with them, I thought it’d be a good fit. It wasn’t. I was becoming increasingly unhappy with the administrative details of my responsibilities, and the bureaucracies of the organization disturbed me particularly. I think I had to fill out about three forms to request a legal pad, and six weeks later, I remained without one.

At the same time, this organization’s mission statement included the following phrase: “the elimination of racism.” I became bitter as I watched what was going on around me. All I could think was this: if it takes six weeks to get a legal pad, then good luck with racism!

One day, as I was driving to work, I took a quick glance at my speedometer. I was going eight miles per hour.

Red flag: if you are holding up traffic while driving to your job, it is not the right job for you. Make a u-turn and find another gig. It beats being rear-ended.

About a half-dozen years after that slow drive to resignation, I was once again settling into a new staff job. This time, I had gone through an arduous interview/writing sample process as I vied to become a certain nonprofit organization’s first-ever development director. I landed the job and a nicely competitive salary.

But the challenges became apparent early on. The executive director, who was a lovely person and passionate professional, had some issues with delegation. Issues? Okay, I’m being kind.

As an example: one day, she said to me, “Send an email to the program officer at XYZ. In the subject line, write ‘introducing myself,’ and then tell her who you are and let her know…”

And on it went. I was being told how to write an email. I was being dictated the entire contents of that email!

A week or so later, the executive director was away on business, leaving me to put together the type of funder report I had been responsible for five years earlier, when I was the next-to-the-lowest paid person in a development staff of six. Which is to say, it was an assignment I could have done with my eyes closed.

I put all the documents together and then set out to write the cover letter.

I began by typing, “Dear.”

Just then, the cartoon paper clip appeared on my screen.

“Looks like you’re writing a letter!” its balloon said. “Can I help?”

I practically leapt from my chair and stared down the paper clip. Then, using my outside voice, I screamed, “I KNOW HOW TO WRITE A FUCKING LETTER!”

Red flag: if you are audibly yelling at Microsoft icons, you are wasting your time. And if that yelling has been incited by the micro-managing behaviors of powers-that-be, your time is being wasted. Move on.

And that was the last staff job I ever held.

Go figure.


Linda Medrano said...

Great post, Katie. I walked into a job interview in an architectural office several years ago. I knew immediately it was not my "style" of a place, but I needed a job. All I can compare it to is that pair of shoes that you try on and they are okay,but they hurt. Oh, I'll break them in, you tell yourself. With shoes and this particular job, there was no breaking in period. If they don't work for you, get out of them and there.

Boom Boom Larew said...

I ran from my school director job when I realized I was miserable every day and just wanted to run back to the classroom. To do so, I had to abandon the private school I'd been in for 15 years and start all over at the bottom of the teaching pile. I now teach pre-school at half the salary I was making before, but it's been well worth it. Living paycheck to paycheck is a lot easier when you're enjoying what you do and believe in it!

Martha Gates-Mawson said...

Great blog. My red flag was consistently misplacing my car keys so I couldn't get to work on time. And I am NEVER late! Peril to those who don't recognise those warning signals. I'm starting the "looking for work" process now - always aware of those red flags.

Patricia said...

I want money...I know the red flags...and I am watching the we are not hiring right now post cards pile up in the garbage can....I do not want to go to work....I do not want to stock shelves or clean houses or fund raise my own salary and the biggest red flag for me has been working in the church....( all those women snipping at me and criticizing me constantly - no more, no more)

Every great job I have ever done has just fallen into my this grant evaluation position I just completed...I did most of the work in my own comfortable chair and then got together to discuss what we found for great discussion with my team members and the whole group of 20 - I was high and I got paid....I am trying to remain fluid and healthy because health ins. premiums are driving us to the poor the speed of sound.

Great post...thanks for writing on my I got here faster...:)

Sioux Roslawski said...

Here are two more red flags...

If you meet with coworkers in the parking lot at the end of the day, after a staff meeting (to vent), and your informal meeting last longer than the official one, it's time to move on.

If you have spilled at least one bloody mary on a customer (one who is in a business suit), it's time to find another job.

Your post was funny. It brought back memories from many horrible jobs.

Paul C said...

LOL! One of my university summer jobs was delivering fertilizer to just in time farmers. When you start dreaming about chucking fertilizer bags off the truck, you know it's time for a change.

Anonymous said...

Loved this post - it made me think about the last Red Flag I had. When we started our company ten years ago, every day was exciting. I was the web designer. I looked forward to Monday mornings, felt frustrated on Friday evenings with no work to look forward to in the morning.I worked long hours and enjoyed every minute. My First Red Flag came the day I found myself dreading every client meeting involving a website. I changed my role and all was well. My next Red Flag came the day I woke up on a Monday morning and didn't look forward to the day ahead. I didn't rush to get to the office. I made every excuse imaginable to delay my arrival.
I made the right decision. I became a non-exec director and no longer go into the office though am available when needed. Now I again look forward to Monday mornings because the house will be mine and I can write again. I will be looking out for Red Flags now Katie! Thank you :-)

cj Schlottman said...

Katie, I enjoyed this so much! Having worked as a nurse my entire life, though in different capacities, I know the angst of finding one's self in the wrong place. But none of my experiences have been as dramatic as yours and those of the other commenters, whose thoughts I enjoyed reading as well.

Your writing skills continue to amaze me. (And I LOVED "The Somebody Who!"

Thanks for another great post..........cj

Lila said...

So funny! The biggest problem I had with any job was that I remained oblivious to the politics until they hit me smack in the face! Ugh!

OJ Gonzalez-Cazares said...

fantastic write!! I totally agree with you - if it is not enjoyable anymore, it is not worth it. A LA CHINGADA!!! -since you were using the same term in Hungarian, I took a poetic license to write it in colloquial spanish, for future usage -;)

#1Nana said...

Great post...if I had read this earlier, i would have retired sooner! As I grow into retirement I find myself much less tolerant of bullshit. I've gotten used to not having to put up with it just to get a paycheck. That's the beauty of retirement...the pension checks keep coming with no strings attached. Once again you've given me food for thought.

sara said...

Great post! It's been a while since I held a "real job." But I have to say, I will be a completely different employee when I do get a job! I don't let too many people push me around anymore. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to go back and work with some of those people, now! Thanks for visiting my blog, your comments and the follow! Following you back!

Crystal Massuda said...

Really enjoyed this post. I'd like to believe the job without all the red flags is out there somewhere! If not, we have to make our own way, I guess! :-)

Deb Shucka said...

I can't tell you how much I love your stories and your spirit. If I'd had coffee in my mouth when I came to the eight miles an hour, it would be all over my screen right now. As someone in the process of searching for my next career it's helpful to read your experiences - mostly your willingness to leave if something wasn't working for you.