Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Freedom of Speech

I just flew home from New Orleans, where I spent the last few days at a conference. It was one of the largest health care fraud conferences of the year and many of our clients attend, including mine. My Boss thought it would be good for me to go down there and do some networking. Of course, the Company had a very strong sales presence at the event. There were at least 15 people from various areas of our business.

The first day was pretty low key. I ran into a few people from the Company and I got to meet some of the people who work for my client. Yesterday was the main day of the conference. There were sessions all day and then the Company was sponsoring a special "Taste of Louisiana" reception later that evening.

I walked into one of the afternoon sessions and there were no seats left in the back, so I had to sit near the front of the room. In the row right in front of me were four women who were probably in their mid-20's. Two of them were practically twins, dressed in crisp black suits with black pumps (no nylons) and perfectly spray tanned legs. Each of them had shoulder length curly hair. The only difference was that one was blonde and the other was a brunette.

I watched as they all agreed they needed to get something to drink. The four of them got up and walked in unison to the back of the room and returned a few minutes later with their Diet Cokes. Then they all pulled out their notebooks as the speaker began. I could see that one girl had several pages of notes already.

There was a time when I used to sit and take copious notes at these types of conferences. Then I would get back to my office and transcribe them into an action list that I would share with the rest of my team. Now, here I was sitting at what should be a significant career-defining networking event with relative disinterest in the activities going on around me.

I glanced over at the blank notepad I had been carrying with me for the last day and a half. This was the first time I had felt compelled to write anything down and it wasn't related to the conference at all. I just wanted to capture my impressions of those girls so I could incorporate them into my blog. While the four girls were trying their hardest to fit in, I was doing my best to distance myself from everyone one else at that conference.

For months I have been telling myself that this job is not my life. And that has helped to get me this far without walking out and quitting. But lately, I have been struggling to maintain my composure at work. It used to be enough that I could leave the office and get lost in my "real life" until it was time to go back to work. Now I am starting to resent the idea that I have to go to work at all.

It's not that I don't want to work anywhere. I just can't stand working for this company. After considering all of the reasons I hate this job, I have managed to boil it down to one simple fact. I am anti-establishment and the Company is the definition of establishment.

When I took this job, I already had a pretty healthy level of distrust for corporate America. And the further I became entrenched into the organization the more I realized that things in corporate America were even worse than I had imagined. The underbidding of contracts, the pressure to hit revenue and operating margins and the corporate culture that relies on everyone working nights and weekends just to deliver the performance that the shareholders have been promised.

After the conference ended for the day, we were all expected to make an appearance at the Company's reception that evening. I changed into my dress and headed over to the art gallery across the street from the hotel, which we had reserved for the evening. The entire experience was really awkward. A bunch of relative strangers stuck in a room making mindless conversation while sipping on lukewarm beer and wine.

As I mingled with my co-workers, I felt like everyone was silently judging me. I am not sure if there is any basis for that feeling or if I have such a large anti-establishment chip on my shoulder that I just can't see past it. Regardless, I used this cocktail party as an opportunity to send a message to the establishment: I don't belong here and I want everyone to know it. Just because I am here at this event does not mean that I buy into the Company's warped value system.

Of course, I never said those words directly. But in every interaction, no matter how minor, I found myself interjecting little statements that made my position clear.

After the reception, a few of the guys from work were going out to a piano bar on Bourbon Street. They kept pressuring me to go along with them and I finally gave in. It was only 7:30 and I really didn't feel like eating dinner alone. I ended up going out with another Client Director, who does the same types of things that I do only with different clients, and the Director of Product Development who is responsible for expanding our product offerings to generate new sales. They also invited a younger guy who provides technical support for one of our new products.

The other Client Director kept pressuring me to have a cocktail with them. "I have a strict policy to not drink with co-workers," I explained to him. "As you can see, I am outspoken enough when I am sober so I don't let anyone see me when I am drunk."

I had used this line a few times throughout the night. Somehow he took it as a challenge to see if he could break me down. I just liked to say it because it implied that I had this other 'secret life' in which I do drink and it is something that he would never know about.

After about an hour, some more people from the conference came in and sat at the table behind us. The other Client Director leaned in and pointed over to them. "Hey, that woman is the Medicaid Director for the State of Louisiana. If we can get over to their table and buy them some drinks we can expense the whole night," he advised me.

"You go ahead," I told him. "I don't need the Company to buy my drinks. I can just hang out here and pay for them myself."

He stopped for a moment and started to back pedal. "Hey, I didn't mean to imply that I don't pay for my own drinks," he said. "I never abuse my corporate card."

"Of course," I nodded just to appease him. He did end up going over to that other table for a few minutes, but then he came back. I am not sure what he said to those people from the State but I guess they decided that they wanted to buy their own drinks too.

After a few more songs, the younger guy offered to walk me back to the hotel. He worked for a small company in California that was purchased by the Company about a year ago. As soon as we left the bar, this guy started pouring his heart out to me. "I know those guys are really powerful," he began. "I was just worried about keeping my mouth shut and trying to say the right things. If I don't, they could come after me."

At first I started to laugh, but then I realized he was serious. "I wouldn't worry about it," I reassured him. "They are not that powerful. I am a Client Director too, and there is really nothing we could do to you."

"Sure, that's what you say right now," he said. "I just want to make sure it stays that way. If I make some stupid comment and end up on someone's radar then all of a sudden I could lose my job. I have a wife and two kids to support."

We said our goodbyes and I headed up to my hotel room. As soon as I sat down on the bed, I started having flashbacks to all of the comments I had made throughout the night. Maybe he was right to be paranoid. What if all of my anti-establishment comments had gotten me onto someone's radar? I may hate my job, but I am still a single woman with bills to pay. After a brief panic, I reminded myself that what's done is done. I can't go back and change anything I said, so my only option is to move forward and hope for the best.

One of the things I need to be happy in life is authenticity. To me, that means there is harmony between the things you feel, the things you say and the things you do.

Right now my life is desperately out of balance. I feel like I want to crawl out of my own skin and start over again. Like a caterpillar going into a cocoon and emerging as a butterfly. But for me there is no natural path to metamorphosis. The type of change I want to achieve requires a conscious thought process followed by a series of deliberate actions.

After this week, I realized that shouting from the rooftops how much I hate my job is not going to change anything. It is like being locked in a cage and rattling the bars for dramatic effect. I keep trying to show everyone that I refuse to conform to the Company's standards. But none of them really care about that. The only person who cares is me.

As much as I want to speak up for what I believe in, the Company is not the place to express myself. Right now I need to stay quiet and observe the enemy so I can formulate a plan of attack.


Anonymous said...

Your day will come. I promise.

Anonymous said...

I love reading your website because you can always bring us fresh and cool things, I think that I must at least say a thank you for your hard work.

- Henry