Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Calling All Horrible Bosses (and Ye Masses of Horribly Bossed)

My old boss used to make me puke. Literally. The last two times he came to my site for a visit, I became suddenly and violently ill, alarming my Congolese colleagues and prompting me to head to the hospital for a slew of tests. I was so shocked to discover that boss-inspired anxiety could make me sick that I blogged about it, as some of you may recall.

Probably I'd been extremely lucky, but I'd never had a boss that had made me puke before. Far from it, in fact. Many of my previous supervisors had gone out of their way to be, well... awesome. When I started working at a hiker information desk in New Hampshire, my boss sent a coworker and me on a paid fact-finding hike so that we'd be better prepared to answer visitors' questions, and he frequently dropped by our late night shifts with a few pints of Ben and Jerry's. Towards the end of my season as a native plant restoration volunteer in the North Cascades, my boss there demonstrated his remarkable generosity by scoring me a free flight down the Skagit Valley in his friend's ultralight glider.

There were a few exceptions, like the pastry room supervisor who, when I showed him my purple and balloon-sized hand following a near-tragic incident with an industrial dough mixer, said only, "Did you get any blood in the dough?" and an overly intense youth corps manager we nicknamed "Bipolar Billy" for his ability to transform from sensitive steward of personal growth to unapologetic drill sergeant in the blink of an eye. But always, in those cases, I had the comfort of knowing that the job was only temporary, and that in a month or so, I'd never have to deal with their antics again.

But now that I've (ostensibly) moved beyond the world of seasonal employment, horrible bosses are no longer entertaining characters to blog about a couple months down the road. Get stuck with one, and you might be stuck for a very long time. They're also everywhere, or so it seems. The more I talk to friends about their work situations, the more stories I collect - of week after week of 12-hour workdays with no overtime compensation, only the implication that "if you don't prove yourself, I'll find someone who wants the job more," of managers who hired you to develop and implement technical programs  but treat you like a secretary, of grown men "puking their guts out" every morning before work because they so dread coming into the office each day.

What's even more discouraging is the fatalism with which many people seem to accept how badly they're treated. I understood this attitude in Congo, where humanitarian jobs are precious and life-changing for locals, but it's harder to stomach here. Jobs are hard to come by here, too, but the idealistic American in me wants to believe that when something ain't right, we should go about trying to fix it. Even if it means taking the potentially awkward and frightening step of confronting your boss.

I'm becoming more and more interested in this topic the more I talk to people about it. And so I'd like to invite you, or someone you know, to get in touch if you have a horrible boss story of your own.  What it is that makes people, often very nice people in any other circumstance, turn into bullying ogres when they're granted supervisory powers? What's the effect on the ones being supervised, and how do they try to cope? And what have you tried to make a bad work situation better?

If you're interested, shoot me a quick message and we can set up a time to chat. I promise not to divulge any private information, and I plan to share the interesting bits in future blog entries. Contact me here. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

War Zones Have Never Sounded Better

Sometimes, between the shuffle from internship to part-time job to rock climbing gym to hardware store to happy hour to African restaurant to Craig's List run to shower to grocery store to running trail to bike shop to library for Season Three of The Wire, it occurs to me that I'm supposed to be looking for a job.

Somewhere along the way, the job search lost a lot of its appeal. Maybe it was five weeks ago, when I received the following email shortly after having interviewed for a position for which I'd thought I was pretty obviously overqualified: 

xxx and I sat down to review the xxx Manager candidates this afternoon. There were a large number of applicants, and we regret that your experience was not great enough to move your candidacy forward.

Really? I thought. Really? Experience "not great enough?" The market is so bad that we overeducated masses are scrambling for positions that don't even require an undergraduate degree, let alone an advanced one? 

I was pretty perplexed after receiving this response, and so wrote back, asking about what I could have done better. The reply:

Both your application and interview were impressive.  You are among a select few that we pulled out of a competitive pool to speak with over the phone and, though you hesitated in answering a couple of the more difficult questions I asked, your responses were intelligent and thoughtful.  The simple fact is that some other applicants came to us with a lot of experience working specifically with xxx in the region.  That being said, I think the primary thing that could have made you a stronger candidate is if you were more familiar with and knowledgeable about our area’s unique xxx and the Seattle xxx world.  That will just take some time.  I can sympathize with any frustration you might be feeling about the fact that most employers want to hire new people with a lot of experience – so how, then, do you go about acquiring that experience?  Just keep applying for jobs that interest you, remain confident in your abilities and, in the meantime, continue to explore your community.  You’ll land on another great thing soon.

At moments like these, I sign onto Skype. Often, from the cyber wires of East Africa, comes a welcome greeting (hello emily long time?). After the niceties, Joseph, or Emmanuel, or Peter, asks me how the job search is going, and I joke that if nothing better comes up soon, I'll be heading back to South Sudan, or Congo, where the job market is more reliable. A mistake, of course. Sarcasm and dark humor don't come across very well on Skype. Especially not with language barriers. And so they'll say, in their typical, flowery, East African way:

Really? What a joy it would to have you among us once again! 


Africa will be a place for every things you may want. 

Or even

How are you? For us, things are fine. It's been a long time since we've had news from you. What's going on? It's as if you've forgotten us. Our hearts are with you. Take care of yourself.

Or the most wrenching of all:

Hello Emily its a Flesher to have some words from you...remember the said saying: Only Mountain don,t meet but Human being does. Other wise we shall meet again. Have a nice time.

And I will start thinking to myself that maybe going back to South Sudan or Congo isn't such a bad idea after all, that the job market there is more reliable, that at least over there I know what I'm doing and people seem to like me and life is consistently interesting and I'll get more stamps in my passport and many more stories to write about, and I'll tell myself that giving up exercise and relationships and anonymity and mountains and the opportunity to attend friends' weddings and having a physical home base of my own isn't really that big a deal after all. 

And then I'll remember that it is kind of a big deal. And then I'll decide that the best option is probably to forget about jobs altogether, and get back to The Wire.

The job search can resume after Season Four.