I Survived One of the Worst Companies in America

I’ve been seeing the same link show up in my email and Facebook timeline over the last week.  The link is from the website, who released their second annual list of America’s Worst Companies to Work For.

The reason so many people are sharing it?  One of my former employers* made the list, and there is no shortage of people in my life (good friends, current co-workers, and Facebook friends) who worked there too.

*I’ve gone back and forth on if I should mention the company by name or not.  On one hand, it’s been eight years since I left, and I don’t feel like I owe them anything.  On the other hand, this company has a pretty sizable footprint where I live, and their turnover is large enough that almost every single business in this town employs somebody who used to work there (something like 14 of the 17 guys in my office worked there at one point).  So I’m going to refrain from naming them at this time.  While I don’t foresee a situation where I go back to work for them, I don’t think I need to get into bridge arson – especially on a site that bears my name.  

If you really want to know who it is, it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out.  There are only nine companies on the Worst list, and I’ll even give you a hint:  this company is not located in any shopping mall.

(And if that doesn’t give it away, I have a hunch that one of my former colleagues will name them in the comments.)

While I knew the company would probably never make a list of best companies to work for, I’ll admit that I was a little surprised to see the whole corporation listed.  To be sure, the Lincoln office had it’s fair share of issues, annoying quirks, and things that frustrated employees, but I always assumed the grass was greener elsewhere within the corporation.

Almost every former employee I’ve met from there has a collection of war stories from their time there – things that shock and stun friends and colleagues.  When people get together to complain about their jobs, a person who worked at this company will almost always win – unless he’s going up against somebody who’s occupation is featured on one of those Dirty Jobs reality shows.

Don’t believe me?  Here are some of the war stories, lore, and head-scratching “I can’t believe they did that” things that were commonplace.  Some of these were set policies, others were “unwritten rules” that were passed down from the lifers and never violated.

  • Men wore a suit and tie.  Every day.*

*Okay…in fairness, they have since gone to business casual, a move that many (including myself) expected to be followed by a plague of frogs.

  • Jackets were expected to be worn between the different buildings, as well as walking to your car for lunch.
  • No walking on the grass.  In one of the parking lots, there is a five foot strip of grass separating the different rows.  It would be so much quicker and easier to take one or two steps over the grass instead of walking all the way around, but it simply was not done*.  Walking on the grass was viewed as the ultimate act of rebellion – and yet, nobody ever did it.

*My buddy Nate worked there during same time frame I did.  He has since started his own lawn care business, which I believe was done partially out of a repressed subliminal need to walk on grass.

  • Other than printer paper, no office supplies were provided.  None.  If you needed a stapler, scissors, or a two-inch piece of scotch tape, your choices were bum it off somebody else or bring it from home.  I can remember a several month stretch where paper clips were such a rare commodity that some folks horded them*.  The only thing we had an abundance of was pens.  The company worked in an industry where free pens are plentiful.  I, and others, became very adept at stealing pens.

*We never got to the point were paper clips were used as currency, like cigarettes in a prison.  But it was close.

  • No food or water at your desk.  The main building housed a couple of hundred employees, but had no refrigerator, no microwave, nothing besides a pop machine in the break room.
  • Expenses were paid by the customers, not the company, but they were still very stingy on how money was spent.  Co-workers of the same gender were expected to share hotel rooms, regardless of age or rank.  The lone exception was if one of the people was a notorious snorer, but only if the other person complained.
  • Expense reports were reviewed with a fine tooth comb.  While no written policy was in place, it was understood that meals were not to exceed $20, and tips should not exceed 15%.  I was once called into the office of my boss’s boss because I had tipped too much, and needed to resubmit my expense report without the “excessive” gratuity.  How generous had I been?  I had blown past the 15% maximum by two pennies.  He did not appreciate it when I told him that the combined cost of the sheet of paper, toner, my time, and his time were well in excess of 2 cents.

Yeah…I’m gonna need you to redo that expense report, and put a cover sheet on it this time.

  • There was no internal posting of job openings or applying for promotions or lateral moves.  Management would quietly select people to interview for open jobs, and the process would be ultra secretive until somebody accepted.
  • Discussing salaries among colleagues was a fire-able offense.  More than one colleague cynically noted that it is much easier to underpay employees if they don’t know what their peers are making.

Pretty crappy huh?  The place was a TPS Cover Sheet away from being Initech from the movie Office Space.


Not where I used to work, but pretty damn close


But here’s the thing:  I’m happy that I worked there.

It’s not because I’m a masochist, love needlessly strict (but yet unwritten) rules, or enjoy being viewed as an expendable cog instead of a valued asset.

I’m glad I worked there for the experience.  Not necessarily the industry skills, but for the professional and life lessons I learned while earning a paycheck from them.  For example:

  • Always negotiate salary.  On my application, I put down a number and they offered it to me.  Being fresh out of college, having only worked retail and lawn care jobs, I jumped at it.  Who knows who much more I could have made (in terms of raises and 401(k) contributions) if I’d negotiated an extra $1500?
  • A baby-faced 24-year-old in a suit will be called “sir” and get respect in most situations.  A baby-faced 24-year-old in jeans and t-shirt does not get that same respect nearly as often.
  • Be very careful what you put into an email, and who it goes to.  Learned that one the hard way.
  • I got to travel.  A lot.  I went on over 125 business trips for them, and got to see big cities and remote backwater towns.  Places that a kid from a small Nebraska town would otherwise never see.  Aside for my excessive tipping, most of it was paid for.
  • Many rules – even the head-scratchers – were made with good intentions.
  • Treat co-workers – even the ones you don’t necessarily like – with respect.  They’re less likely to screw you over that way.
  • When you don’t get much, you appreciate what you have even more.
  • Hard work pays off.  Eventually.
  • Complain all you want, but nobody will listen unless you can provide a solution.
  • Opportunities often arise when you least expect it.

But most of all, I’m glad I worked there for one key, over-arching reason:  I have had a much greater appreciation for the perks, benefits, and corporate cultures offered by my subsequent employers than if I had never worked there.  Instead of having an entitled, I-deserve-this attitude, I am thankful for what I get.

Case in point:  at one of my last jobs (not with the company being discussed here), they brought in pizza before a meeting.  The pizza they ordered was not very good, nor was there very much to go around.  This led to a lot of complaining from the staff, but not from me and another guy who had worked at the “worst” company.  We were thrilled that there was food, we could eat it at our desks, and we didn’t have to pay for it.

In short, if I can survive (and thrive) for seven years at one of the worst companies in America, I can be successful anywhere.

(But being I sure appreciate companies with good culture and better people)

A picture from a meeting at my current employer.  Yeah.

A picture from a meeting at my current employer. Yeah.

Thought of the Day – 8/9/2012

If I ran a company (or at least had input into their benefits), I would insist that the company implement a suite of adoption benefits for all employees.


Before I did that, I would institute a very simple policy:

Your birthday is a paid holiday.  Period.

I’m not saying that you take can use vacation or paid time to take your birthday off.  Your b-day is a separate paid day off.  You say your birthday falls on a Saturday or Sunday this year?  Take the Friday before or the Monday after.  Just let H.R. know which one.  Born on the Fourth of July or another holiday already recognized by the company?  Same thing – take an extra day before or after.

Few days are more special than your birthday, so why waste it sitting in meetings or putting cover sheets on TPS reports?

Thought of the Day – 11/30/11

Any company that uses hold music should be required to play that hold music to their employees and executive staff all day long – complete with the “Your call is very important to us” message that plays every 30 seconds.

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