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.

Odd Job Application Question of the Day

In my current job search, I’ve filled out quite a few online job applications recently, and the flow is usually rather predictable:

  1. Personal Information and Contact Data
  2. Previous Employment History
  3. Education History
  4. Skills/Certifications/Honors/Etc
  5. References
  6. Upload Resume & Cover Letter
  7. Optional EEOC questions (gender, race, vet status)
  8. Check the box saying you’re being honest and click Submit.
  9. Receive auto-generated confirmation email
  10. Wait for somebody to contact you, knowing your sole point of contact with the company is

Sure, every so often they mix it up.  Maybe they’ll ask something like “What did you like best about your last job?” or “What was your least favorite task?”  Some companies want to know the name of your supervisor in 2005 or the job duties of the entry-level position you took out of college so the student loan folks wouldn’t repossess your Blind Melon CD.  But this morning, I came across one that was brand new.

“Write an original 40-60 word poem about your current or most recent job into the text field below:”

Now, I can see where this would be an excellent and important exercise if I was applying to Hallmark or wanting to work as a creative in a traditionally creative field.  Which is why this question really threw me:  it appeared on an application to be a “Technical Analyst – OEM Services”.  Therefore, I am officially caught off guard.

What do I do now?  I would guess that since graduating from college almost 15 years ago, the number of poems I have written would fit on one hand.  It would likely fit on one finger.  Heck, even my collegiate attempts at poetry were rather sad (and “highlighted” by my poetic tribute to Jim Beam & Coca-Cola).  Let’s face it – the majority of my writing abilities live on the Prose side of the street.
I ponder the blank screen, and consider my options:
a) Make it rhyme.  Poems are supposed to rhyme.
b) Riff on the “Roses are red” template.
c) Free verse
d) A parody of Cat in the Hat (thanks to my 2 year old, I have it pretty much memorized)
e) See if McDonald’s is hiring and lacks a poetry component

This is followed by a wave of secondary questions:  Do I try to be funny?  I wonder if they can tell how long I’m sitting here with this blank screen?  Do I criticize my former employer?  Will this page eventually time out?  Will I not get an interview because my sonnet lacks proper meter?

What did I do?  I’m not afraid to say that I chickened out and went with c) Free verse.  In other words, I typed up a good, P.C. interview response, broke it up into multiple lines, broke some capitalization and punctuation rules, and continued on to the EEOC questionnaire (Male, Caucasian, Not a Veteran).

I would reprint the poem here (I keep a file with my stock answers to common application questions that I can copy & paste for speed and accuracy), but since I intend for this site to be a virtual commercial for my writing abilities, it’s best if that one stays offline.  If you need me to write mushy greeting card poems, I’ll give it the old college try*, but there are some jobs best left to the professionals.

*Wow the Internet is awesome.  I thought for sure I’d have to type that reference out instead of dropping a link to a cartoon from 1995.


Since we’re all hear, let’s take a shot at options A, B, and D above.

Rhyming Poem About My Last Job
My last job, it was a hoot
Fortunately, I didn’t have to wear a suit

It took seven months and a dozen interviews
Before I got the phone call with the news

The office was at 56th & O
Home for lunch, I could go

My bike, to work I would ride
I always wore my helmet, screw my pride

I was mad when they took away my salary
But the OT bought my plasma TV

At some point we ran out of space
So we moved to a new place

Downtown was our new home
There was a guy who played the xylophone

I had an office, I was all atwitter
Until I found out it was by the bathroom

I won’t be critical, it wouldn’t be cool
I did like working with many a school

At last, my time it had to end
I just wish my income didn’t have to suspend

“Roses Are Red” Style Poem About My Last Job
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Private and faith-based K-12 schools,
Catholics, Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

“Cat in the Hat” Parody Poem About My Last Job
Hmm..glad I didn’t go this route, this one is tougher than I thought.  All I’m coming up with is:

Sometimes it seems like
My career is shot.
My wife said, “Do I like this?”
“Oh no, I do not!”

In conclusion, you ever find yourself faced with a request for spontaneous poetry in order to acquire a job, your best bet is to go with a traditional rhyme as what I tossed together above is far better than the free verse B.S. I submitted this morning.

Live and learn.

*EDIT – Sept 2013:  If you arrived on this page via Google search, take a moment and read this.

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