Focus on office success, not personal status

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Fair Exchange

When my co-worker told me that Phil had built a barricade preventing anyone from entering his department I was surprised. When the facilities manager called and told me that Phil was perched on an upended desk like a large bird and was shouting at them to leave his department I thought he was joking.

Phil was a pot-bellied middle-aged man with a master’s degree in library science. He was a rational and thoughtful man; why would he throw a very public fit over an office move?

Clearly Phil didn’t handle change well, but the bigger problem was that he saw the office move as a loss of status. Several new employees meant another round of office shuffle and squeeze and the ongoing moves had some employees grumbling. But Phil’s reaction was extreme. He was not willing to lose his prime office location and — as he saw it — his status.

I was not sympathetic.

This past week I overheard a couple of people talking about an office move their new boss had just announced and they weren’t happy. While not planning a barricade, they were in agreement they were not going to cooperate with or support their new manager any more than necessary. He had upended their applecart.

Nothing they mentioned seemed worth fussing about to me. They were focused on status.

I wanted to tell them to focus on what mattered: Would the new boss be good for the business? Would he support them and help them succeed? Did he make sure they had the resources they needed to do their jobs? Was the workplace dry and comfortable? Did they have access to a clean bathroom, good drinking water and a pleasant place to eat lunch?

If you are being asked to move from one comfortable office to another, don’t expect sympathy from me.

Employees at all levels, from the factory floor to the executive suite, use all kinds of things to demonstrate status or rank. Most people like to have a visible sign of success or superiority over others; it’s human nature. But I wish there were less focus on status and more on the basics: a clean, safe and comfortable work environment.

An employee fuming over the location of his office or the size of a floor mat seems as silly to me now as it did years ago. But employees who fuss and fume over access to safe, clean facilities – I will support that effort every chance I get. There shouldn’t be a need for regulations to provide employees with “safe and sensible” facilities. It’s just common sense.

Which of these employees will work the hardest: The guy who says “My boss takes good care of us, he makes sure we have a safe, clean place to work,” or the one who says, “The boss doesn’t give a hoot about us, we don’t even have a decent ... ?”

When I was 17 I worked in a Pennsylvania shoe factory inking soles. There was no clean or secure place for a purse or my lunch. A cold air vent over my head kept me shivering and I stood right next to a sole cutting machine that pounded like a jack hammer all day. And there was just one toilet in the factory for the several dozen female employees. The handful of managers in the factory had their own restroom.

During college I worked in an office that was directly beneath the cafeteria’s dishwashing room. When the garbage disposal became clogged the water and pulverized garbage would flow into the large fluorescent light fixture above my head. If not caught in time the water and food sludge would break the plastic fixture and pour down over me and my desk.

Many years later I was working in a large office building with a vent that blasted me with cold air, windows that let the rain pour in and soak the carpet, and no good place to store my lunch. There were three toilets for an office of at least 80 women, and we lacked drinking water. The executives had private bathrooms and a nicely equipped kitchen. A college degree and long, hard days of work and I was still waiting in a line for a toilet.

When employees like Phil complain to me about a symbolic loss of status I ask them this: Is your work space dry and reasonably warm? Can you walk to the bathroom in less than a minute? Do you have access to drinking water and a secure place for your purse and a place to eat lunch? Does your boss show that he cares about your comfort and safety?

If you are answering yes, then you have nothing to complain about.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her consulting firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at wwcomplady@gmail.com or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.

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