Thursday, December 08, 2005

Corporate Culture Is Toxic and Scary

One of my fears is that sometime down the road, all my sources of freelance work will dry up and I’ll be forced to get off my 40-plus, 50-plus, or 60-plus ass and go out and look for employment and that the only job my aged ass will be able to land is one where I have to scour out the giant rendering vats at a slaughterhouse in North Dakota. Graveyard shift.

I’ve been focusing on this fear a little more than usual, because I happen to be reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. Like her book Nickel and Dimed, she decides to go undercover to see what’s really going on in the job market, only this time she’s trying to land a white-collar job. She decides that as a freelance journalist she can remake herself as a public relations person (“journalism’s evil twin”) and get her feet on the rungs of the corporate ladder that way. So she makes up a resume and then signs herself up with a couple of career counselors. They spout corporate buzzwords and est-like mumbo-jumbo at her and make her take meaningless and horribly ungrammatical multiple-choice personality tests, from which one of the career-counselor jaboneys concludes that she probably has weak writing skills (NB: Ehrenreich is a contributor to Harper’s and The Nation and has been a columnist for the New York Times). One tries to explain the corporate philosophy to her using Wizard of Oz dolls. They all charge her hundreds of dollars and are eager to sign her up for more sessions. What a bunch of predatory charlatans!

She also attends this extraordinarily depressing executive "boot camp" thing populated by middled-aged victims of corporate downsizing. The guy running the session hammers them relentlessly with the idea that they have no one to blame but themselves for getting downsized. Gosh! That’s harsh. No wonder several of them break down in tears. They’re also told that they need to turn finding a job into a job in and of itself. No sleeping in. No slouching around in sweatpants while you troll the Internet looking for jobs. No! You must be dressed as if you were at an office job. Right down to the control-top pantyhose! As Ehrenreich points out, not setting the alarm clock and not having to don the awful corporate monkey suit are probably among the few pleasures/freedoms downsized workers might harmlessly enjoy. In the end she makes no valuable contacts from the boot camp or from any of the several "networking events" she attends, she just wastes hours of her time trapped in a suburban Atlanta Shoneys (my idea of Hell) with nothing to eat but breaded chicken strips.

Probably the thing that struck the most terror into my heart was the Ehrenreich’s account of her visit to an image consultant. As a self-employed person, she has very little in the way of a professional wardrobe (I can relate to that!). And even when she does have to turn up for a publishers meeting, there’s more leeway than there is in the real corporate world. She tells one anecdote about going to some sort of schmoozy bookish shindig, where she me the writer Grace Paley. Paley was dressed in a flowery, loose-fitting pink dress. Ehrenreich complimented her on the dress and Paley told her it was a nightgown. I found that hilarious and it really resonated with me, because I’ve always worked in places where no one would think twice if someone showed up dressed like that. In other words, business suits are a mysterious and foreign garment to me. I had a few once. I wore them to interviews and then never again. Here’s a chilling little tidbit about the corporate uniform from the book:

Robert Jackall’s book impressed on me that corporate dress serves a far more important function than mere body covering. “Proper management of one’s external appearances,” he writes, “simply signals to one’s superiors that one is prepared to undertake other kinds of self-adaptation.” By dressing correctly, right down to the accessories, you let it be known that you are willing to conform in other ways too—that you can follow orders, for example, and blend in with the prevailing “culture.”

I find that horrifying and dehumanizing. It’s toxic. I am not willing to “undertake other kinds of self-adaptation.” What the hell does that mean anyway, Jackall? (What an apt name!)

Back to Ehrenreich and her image. She was told that she can never ever again wear black or gray because they “drag her down.” Of course, her entire wardrobe happens to be gray and black. Also all her makeup was wrong. According to the image consultant, there were hidden gray tones in all her makeup—even her pink lipstick—and there was a colony of foul microbes multiplying on her pressed powder! She’d better buy a slew of the consultant's special line of gray-free makeup. Is this consultant guy full of horseshit or what?

I confess to being horribly fascinated by this book, but I wonder if Ehrenreich is painting an entirely accurate picture of what a person trying to re-enter the job market has to do (if she is, I'm screwed). I’m sure that if Ehrenreich were really looking for a job in corporate America and not simply gathering research for what is essentially a piece of stunt journalism, she would have discontinued her consultation with all these bogus career-counseling parasites after the first session. She clearly views them (rightly) with much disdain, although I will say that her descriptions of the sessions with the counselors are highly entertaining.

Anyway, the book is churning up all sorts of insecurities and freak-outs that I am normally able to suppress. I don’t know what I could do to snazz up my resume to make it look even remotely enticing to any white-collar employer. For one thing, I think most of them will assume self-employed = unemployed. They’ll think that I just lolled around year after year dibble-dabbling while my husband brought home the bacon. That is not the case AT ALL, but I can’t really prove it, short of showing them my tax returns. I’ve only had two grown-up jobs in my life, both of which were not exactly corporate (i.e., I could have worn a nightgown to work). Plus, there’s lots of stuff I can’t do, like give a PowerPoint presentation, draw up a project budget, or make sparkling and intelligent conversation with people I don’t know. I have only a measly BA degree from a Big Ten school. I am the squarest of all square pegs and the longer I remain self-employed in Portland, Oregon (where, by the way, there are no jobs), the squarer I become.

Everyone please keep your fingers crossed that the work I do doesn’t all get outsourced to India, because if it does then I will be moving to Bismarck, North Dakota, where it is currently –6 °F (–21 °C ).


Post a Comment

<< Home