Thursday, November 02, 2006

Sneaky Boss

I’ve probably mentioned here that I have had a few bad bosses while trapped in cubicle hell. Well, I don’t have to look far to find more and more examples of bad bosses, some that I’ll admit are worse than mine.

For example, the CEO of Compulinx managed IT services, Terrence D. Chalk, along with his nephew, Damon T. Chalk, were just arrested for stealing the personal data of their staff. They didn’t just dig into the personal lives of their employees…they used the personal data to obtain credit cards and charged $100K against them. They also applied for $1 million in credit applications using their employees’ info. What’s so strange about this is that Terrence was apparently a well-known and respected business leader, a board member of the Westchester County Red Cross and member of Westchester County Business Council's Hall of Fame. Classify this boss as the slimy-sneaky type! As far as I know, my bad bosses didn’t steal anything except my work, my sense of accomplishment, my free time and my enthusiasm for the job.

News source:
VAR Business
via Slashdot

Here’s a different perspective from MabelandHarry: a bad boss is a great motivator and has a lot to teach us. Read on: link

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Bad Bosses

Think you have a bad boss? I know I do. But I also realize that it's all relative. My current boss wasn't always the ogre he is today. When I first joined his group, he just seemed disorganized and too busy to meet with me. I thought this was just a minor issue, but after a year working for him I realized this was a big problem. He'd ask me to do something (in email, of course) and it wouldn't be quite clear what he wanted. So I'd ask for clarification. I'd try to call him and he'd be busy in a meeting. I'd email him a few clarifying questions and he'd take a day or more to get back with me. What's worse, he'd be angry and impatient that I asked questions. Several times, my questions revealed errors in his assumptions, which made him angrier. So he'd look for mistakes in my work to make himself feel better. What a clown!

But as I said, it helps to keep it all in perspective. Here are some great examples of bad bosses who take their titles to the extreme:

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go watch The Devil Wears Prada.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Corporate Greed

There is something inherent in the large corporate environment that nurtures a certain trait in many people. Some see the behavior as competitive, a necessary skill in general for a business to stay on top. Competitiveness drives people to excel and perform, a positive activity that is rewarded. But too much focus on the individual can drive this trait out of control. Some self-serving individuals have found that the easiest way to achieve recognition and success is by taking advantage others. They prey on idealistic co-workers who actually believe that the corporate ideals of teamwork means everyone contributes and everyone benefits. They have no problem with stealing the work of others and putting their names on it, and justify their actions as some twisted example in their own minds of teamwork. I have worked with a few of these insipid individuals in my cubicle-riddled career, and I believe that while these snakes are found in all types of work environments, the large corporate world with its ID numbers and rubber stamp procedures adds a degree of anonymity that allows for a higher density of sleazy workers.

Because so many of them find rewards in their underhanded tactics, they remain and thrive while good and true human beings drop out, either in despair or disgust. So the density of disingenuous denizens increases. Many of these plagues on society move up the food chain into management and become the bad bosses that we encounter again and again in our careers. If their tactics continue to be rewarded, they move up to executive positions and are given limitless power. Some crawl their way up to CEO and CFO, where they can spread their rot throughout the company. There they can remain for a long time, safe in their caves, using people more and paying them less.

We can only hope that karma or justice or something else will eventually knock them loose. It does happen, occasionally. Look at Enron. The slimebags Lay and Skilling bilked employees and shareholders out of billions and ruined many lives so they could buy yachts and expensive parties for themselves. But justice eventually was served. In the case of Lay, it was the ultimate justice—he died before his sentencing was given (my condolences to his family) for his conviction of 10 counts of fraud and conspiracy. For Skilling, his 19 counts of fraud, conspiracy and insider trading landed him a 24-year sentence in a federal prison, which is basically a life term for this 52-year old slime, provided he doesn’t get out of it on appeal. So take heart, you overworked cube-dwellers…Justice sometimes does prevail.

“At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.” --Aristotle

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Working in a cubicle farm has many disadvantages, which I have frequently discussed in past articles. The fact that people are packed in closely together and offices are open but windows are not means there are a lot of us all sharing the same air all day long. Which becomes a big problem when Jerry or Sally comes in to the office with a bad cold or the flu. Achoo!

Why do people come in to work sick? A recent poll by Kronos, Inc. has found that 98% of people surveyed said they went in to work when they were sick. People said they felt guilty staying at home and they had too much work to afford missing even a day in the office. I’ve often heard very sick folks dragging themselves around the office, sniffling and coughing all day long. It’s really surprising that here at cubetown, where most of us are given a company computer and access to our email and company files from anywhere in the world where we can find an internet connection, people still decide to drag themselves into the office, hacking and sneezing, so they can sit in their little cubicles. They think they’re doing something good for their company, but in truth they’re making everyone less productive, as they spread around their germs and infect others.

Some fun facts:
A single germ can multiply to 8 million germs in one day.
A sneeze can propel germs at 80 miles an hour across a room.
Viruses can live 2 hours or longer on a doorknob or desk.

The long-term effects of colds are still being discovered. A study just published by the Mayo Clinic found that there is a link between colds and memory loss. They found the family of viruses that cause the common cold caused memory loss in mice. That means that in addition to being annoying, those who valiantly come in to work sick may actually be contributing to the long-term breakdown of their company’s workforce. So unless that is your goal, stay home, stay in bed and get well. We’ll all benefit.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Careers and Growth

We change over time. Our jobs change over time. If we are lucky, the two change together and in the same direction: our jobs continue to be satisfying, the pay keeps getting better and we look forward to going to work every day. But too often, our jobs don’t change at the same rate that we do and we find ourselves less and less excited about Monday mornings. I have found this especially true of cubicle workers in large companies, including me. At first, as we’re learning it’s all exciting. We’re challenged to prove ourselves and apply all the skills we acquired in previous work or in college. That paycheck keeps us smiling as we plan ways to spend or save it. That first raise causes us to beam with pride and work even harder to show we deserved it. Eventually the newness wears off and we settle in, and often the job becomes easier and somewhat routine. If we are lucky, we might have a manager that is also a mentor, one who is secure in his/her position and puts effort into helping us grow in our careers. We are given more responsibility and more autonomy and eventually earn a promotion. If the work environment is good and the company is performing well, we may stay in our position for a long time.

Unfortunately, things don’t always work out that well. Reduced profits force large corporations to trim expenses and employees are a big liability, so staff gets cut. Those remaining are left to pick up the additional work and hours become longer and meetings multiply. Employees start to feel the strain.

I have witnessed this happening to my company over the years. Ten years ago, most people you spoke to here were proud of their jobs and work and never considered leaving. Today, the environment is different: everyone is seeing their collegues get layed off and all conversations are around promising jobs at other companies or early retirement.

I have done a lot of soul-searching over the past several months, after dealing with two really bad managers in two years and unending indigestion and loss of sleep. Fortunately the web is a great resource when you’re looking into alternatives to your current job. Not only are there numerous sites for posting your resume, like, and, there are resources for researching most larger companies, from their own corporate web sites and to employee surveys on You can even set up a Google news alert on the companies you’re interested in to stay up to date on their latest news—a handy bit of info as you head into that interview.

I am new to the online job searching game and can’t recommend one site over the other yet, but as I dig deeper into the process I’ll post my favorites here. I’d love to hear your experiences as well. Please post your comments below.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Celebrate Your Good Manager!

October 16 is Boss’ Day

There are a lot of less-than-perfect bosses out there, for various reasons. One of the most common causes is lack of experience. A new boss has something to prove and has to deal with a lot at the same time. Balancing your time and support between your higher up boss and your team is indeed a challenge and can become quite daunting for the new manager. Sadly, some managers never learn this skill and focus all of their efforts on advancing their own position further at the detriment of their team. They want to prove to their bosses that they are valuable and smarter than the individuals on their team, which they are constantly worried about losing their new and higher position to. This insecurity puts a strain on the team and often causes the new manager to constantly degrade the work of his or her own team. These bosses will put all of their efforts into finding something wrong with your work, no matter what. If you create a presentation with perfect wording and data, they will tell you the fonts are too small (or too large, or the wrong color, …). They will also try to control your time as a way of watching your every move. They’ll schedule a meeting with you and then force you to reschedule at the last minute, or they’ll show up 10 minutes late. They’ll send you an assignment on Friday at 4:30PM that takes you at least 2 hours to finish so they can assure you don’t leave early. The most neurotic will send you questions or demands on the weekend to see if you are logging in and working. They may copy their own boss on these emails to show how dedicated they are vs. you. Sadly, some new bosses never learn to become more secure and drop these manipulative tactics and go on finding new ways to control their teams to the point of micromanagement.

Unfortunately, I have had my share of these types of bosses. They have helped make cubicle hell what it is today. But, luckily I have had a few good ones, too. I don’t call them bosses--since they aren’t really bossy—I call them mangers, since they manage to keep their team happy and are successful and secure in their own positions. They take the time to ask how your family’s doing and encourage you to take a break from time to time. Good managers direct their team on activities but don’t take complete control. They know that a happy and effective team will only add to their position as a good leader and so they give their team opportunities to grow and to take credit for their own work, realizing that their own viewpoint is not always the best. These managers are true role models and I recommend you seek them out in a company and stick with them if you can. Show them you appreciate their help and remind yourself how lucky you are to have found one of these unique individuals. Remember them on Boss’ (‘good managers’) Day, which is October 16, and give them your gratitude year ‘round. They are few and far between and will help make you successful and happy in your career.

Some Interesting Links:

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Motivational Poster

Has the glow of the weekend worn off already? Here's a motivational poster for your cubicle to help get you through the day.

Friday, September 01, 2006

More Office Pranks

It's the Friday before a long weekend, the last we will see for awhile. It's hard to concentrate on work while thoughts of weekend plans keep invading our heads. Some folks are taking a few extra days off, so it's quieter than usual.

In light of the impending holiday, I thought I'd share some more ideas I have seen for decorating the cubicles of people who are away on vacation.

Peeps-filled office

Alfalfa sprouts keyboard

Variation on foil-covered office, with foil, flyers and lots of little cups of water.(video)

Balloon-filled office and a guy with no sense of humor (video, some bad language)

Then, for the drive home after a long day at work (video):

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Office Pranks and Geeky Pastimes

Office Pranks and Geeky Pastimes

Office Smurf recommends these videos to help you escape the boring cubicle life for awhile. Enjoy.

Office Pranks Get Out of Hand

Do you have this problem, too? Farting in the Cubicle.

Be Careful. Office Pranks Can be Dangerous.

Bubble Wrap is a Good Harmless (albeit annoying) Stress Reliever. Throwing Heavy Things, Maybe Not So.

Real Science: The Extreme Diet Coke and Mentos Experiment

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


What do you do to forget that you're just another office smurf in a tiny cubicle doing the bidding of a giant corporation? How do you pass the time between the GYATs ("Get Your Act Together" meetings) and task force meetings and conference calls and team building events? Well, you could go through all of your email messages and read those you skipped and respond to those you had forgotten about and file away the important ones…. OR you could engage in a distraction that takes your mind to a better, happier place for a little while.

My favorite distractions

Thank goodness and halleluiah for the internet. Back when I entered my first cubicle, the internet was young and troublesome. We had computers and Windows and we had the bulletin board system, or BBS, and newsgroups. It was text-based communication and ASCII art was the hottest thing. The Web was brand new and people were trying to figure out how to spell HTML. But fortunately today, we have the best source of office distraction that's available to just about everyone. And with Google as our guide, we can still look like we're doing real work while we navigate the vastness of the electronic frontier and find the answers to life's greatest questions: What's the meaning of the word "feckless"? Where can I get the cheapest gas in my neighborhood? How do I make a dirty mojito? What the heck is a kinkajou? Plus you can catch up on the latest movie reviews, check and check again your stock values, and look at pictures of other people's pets. Dual monitor support is a must for your computer, you can effectively display work-type stuff on one screen--the one people first see when they drop in on you in your cubicle without warning--while safely browsing on the other screen. Also, it's a good idea to have something like Powerpoint running in the background that you can alt-tab to in case you don't want someone to catch you looking at cute Mr. Mittens' Flickr photostream.

Back in the day, when computers were slow and the Web was just learning to crawl, we could barely play back a 320x240 video on our Pentium-based computers, much less capture video on them. Today, in the world of digital photography and cell phones with 1.3Mpixel cameras, everyone's a producer of their own Real World stories. YouTube has quickly become a favorite distraction, where you can peek into the lives of strangers, watch clips of TV shows you may have missed and see videos of Mr. Mittens. The nice thing about YouTube is the fact that the videos are limited to just a few minutes, so you can get your fix and then get back to real work for a bit.

I have acquired through the years a number of distracting toys that litter my cubicle desk and bookshelf. Sometimes they give me something to do while I'm rebooting a computer, but mostly they're for my uninvited "guests". A few years back when I was a 3rd-year intern, I was working on a coding project which I had inherited from a previous intern. She had left me with a nasty bunch of code with no comments and I was weeding through the mess trying to figure out what was going on. In the cube next to me was a guy (I'll call him Andy) who was brand new intern and had ADD or something. Andy was bubbly and bouncy are bored very quickly. His workload wasn't very big, so he was always popping in my cube to say "hey" and start up some chatty conversation. Well, this got to be pretty annoying since it took a lot of concentration to figure out the program I was working on, so I'd often try to find a way to get him out of my cube quickly so I could get back to work. Somewhat by accident, I found a solution: I had a PEZ character in my office, which ended up one day positioned right by my cube entrance and the spare chair. Like a baby after a brightly-colored toy, Andy was immediately drawn to it the next time he dropped in my office and distracted himself by eating the candies, one by one. Then, amazingly, he left! I dug through my drawers and collections at home and brought in a few more toys which, like bait, he'd go for every time he entered my cube and he'd forget all about chatting, which left me some peace and quiet for awhile.

Other toys I find useful distractions are the Legos, Magnetix, and a marble maze which I obtained at a trade show.

There are also a lot of cool office toys available on, and if you're a sadist, you might want to try "The Cubes" cubicle playsets.

All of these distractions, along with a few cups of black coffee help keep me alert in my cubicle throughout the day and provide a brief bit stress relief from those many external and uncontrollable distractions of the work environment (noisy neighbors, phone calls from the boss, etc.) that regularly plague the life of the cubicle dweller.

Interesting Links Most Popular Searches

Google Trends




Thursday, August 17, 2006

Sounding off on Cubicle Survival Tips

Dealing with noise in the cubicle

There are many things I hate about spending 40+ hours a week in cubicle, and probably the biggest issue I'm currently facing is noise. Now, I like to multitask and usually have a TV or radio going in the background when I'm working at home. But that noise level is controllable and it usually helps me focus. In the office, it’s a different story. Quite often it happens right when I'm trying to read some detailed article or I'm in a hurry to put together an email or presentation: Someone starts talking in a very loud voice and throws my concentration off.

I'm currently sitting in what is probably one of the noisiest offices I have worked in since moving to the cubicle world. I have a corner cube, which has its own issues, and it's located along a busy passage way that people use to get to another side of the building. I also happen to be unlucky enough to be positioned right next to two executive conference rooms, where meetings are often held with the door open. Also, when people in those meetings get a call on their cell, they step just outside the door, right next to my cube, to make their calls. Since these are executive conference rooms, I'm less inclined to pop my head up and ask people to be quiet. Also, in the next cubicle over is a printer station, and while the printer itself adds to the background noise, it is not a huge distraction. The main problem is the people who drop in to use the printer station as a phone booth.

Aside from the bad location, I also have very loud neighbors. The guy right next to me uses a wireless headset and he likes to talk while he paces his cube. The result is that his voice projects over the top of the cube and has a varying and unpredictable volume level, as he turns away and back toward me as he paces. Next to him and adjacent to my office is a "bear". Well, it's really a person, but he has a loud, sharp growling voice and always speaks much louder than is needed for normal phone and office conversations. When he starts talking, I have a tendency to jump out of my seat a bit. Then, just on the other side of the pacing guy is another wireless headset guy who seems uncomfortable with his headset and feels he has to shout when using it in order to be heard. I have learned to mostly deal with these noises as they come up, but in certain conditions when they all join together in concert, it becomes unbearable and I have to grab my stuff in search of an empty conference room or cafeteria table. When this is not an option, there are few things that can sometimes help:

Headphones. Get a good pair of noise-canceling ones. I bought a cheap pair that have broken to pieces over the past couple of years and are currently held together with cellophane tape, so I really should dump these and invest in a good pair.

Music. Find a good online radio station that plays a steady stream of music with little talking (you don't need more conversations to compete with the ones you're already trying to drown out.) Yes, I know about the recent studies that say people don't learn well when multitasking--assuming that listening to the radio is multitasking--but did those studies compare learning and retention rates from people in very noisy offices? MP3 are good too, but unless you have a huge collection you'll soon get tired of the repetition. Or try a white noise generator, like the software app in the link below.

Earplugs. Ah, this is how I survived my first year of college in a triple dorm room. While they may give you a somewhat antisocial look to people who pop in your cube unannounced, they definitely muffle the noise. Use them in combination with noise-canceling headphones for a few blissful moments of near silence.

Fan. If you can, get a fan. Or a desktop air cleaner. There are multiple benefits with this one. Not only do you get a cool breeze when the stagnant cubicle air is stirred around a bit, but it's great for white noise, which can help cover up some of the odd noises your neighbor makes. You can also use it to clear the air around your space of those annoying food odors that waft your way into your cube when your neighbor decides to have fish and broccoli for lunch at his desk.

Leave. If all else fails, get up from your desk and find a nice quiet spot. Even the restroom is good for a few quiet moments to clear your head, provided you visit in between meeting breaks (avoid 10 min before and after the top of the hour). The cafeteria is also good if you go more than an hour before or after lunch.

I have tried all of these tools during my life as a cubicle dweller, sometimes by themselves and sometimes in combinations and they usually help me get through the day. Of course, always remember what it feels like to be on the receiving end and treat your neighbors like you'd wish they would treat you by keeping down the noise level. If you have other good suggestions, please share them.

Some interesting links:

Cornell News: Noisy office effects

Ear Plug Store

Koss Quiet Zone Noise Cancellng Stereophones
(I'm thinking about ordering these to replace my old broken Panasonic set.)

Vectormedia Software's Sound Masker
I'm testing out the demo version now and I'm pretty impressed so far.)

Vermont Public Radio, Classical Music online

Radio Alice, music from the 80's, 90's and now

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A cubicle is more (or less) than just an office.

A cubicle is more than just an office. It was born out of the corporate world as a means of squeezing a lot of workers into a limited amount of space. Unfortunately, where it saves in the expense of constructing permanent offices, it loses in lost productivity of employees due to the constant distractions from neighbors--the loud, one-sided phone conversations, the invasive smells of lunch being eaten at the desk, the passersby who drag or bounce a hand along the outside wall shaking your inner d├ęcor, and the noisy, impromptu meetings on just the other side of your cube.

The cubicle was invented in 1968 by a home furnishings director by the name of Robert Propst, who designed cubicles to increase office productivity over that seen in the bullpen-type office of the day. I think it has had the opposite effect in fact: people who are in enclosed cubicles forget that there are others working nearby and don't control the volume of their voice; rather they play radios use speaker phones, and sing, hum or make other irritating noises, blissfully ignorant of the disruptions and angry looks from neighbors they are generating.

Not only do you have no privacy in a cubicle, you can't avoid eavesdropping on your neighbors. Once I had a cubicle next to a man who was having marital troubles. He would call up his wife during the day and ask her what he was doing wrong. He even asked her if there was something he could do to improve his performance in bed!

The cubicle is a symbol of impermanence. It is modular and easy to take apart and set up when needed. The cubicle-dweller is also impermanent. You may see someone in the same spot for weeks or months and then one day they're gone and you're left wondering. Was it an office move, maybe a promotion? Did they get fed up and just quit? Or were they compressed or worse? Will this happen to you, too someday? When did we trade our goals and hopes and dreams for a cubicle?

Cubicles are impersonal. Uniform and dull, they hide our individuality behind their soft gray walls and identical furniture. Fortunately some cubicle dwellers improve their surroundings by hanging pictures, bringing in plants and adding color and humor to an otherwise bland space. Some even share their creations with others (see examples here: Flickr, "Cubicle" tag search ).

Occasionally the creativity reaches a peak, often in the form of a practical joke on a co-worker who has been away on vacation. Some great examples include the plastic wrap/wadded paper fill, the foil wrap, and the post-it or newspaper wallpaper. I have personally participated in some of these. Many of these moments are now immortalized by some on Flickr and other web sites:

Foil Wrap

Originally posted by Servers Under the Sun.

Post-It Wallpaper

Post-it Cubicle - view 1 Originally uploaded by Isaac B2.

Newspaper Wallpaper

Cubicle Panorama Originally uploaded by Kyle and Kelly Adams.

Other fun examples which are met with some disapproval from site managers and cleaning staff include the silly string & confetti explosion or the beach scene, complete with a sand covered tarp, BBQ grill (not lit), palm trees and kiddie wading pool filled with water.

These brief and rare bursts of creativity remind us that there are individuals lurking in the rows and rows of gray, with lives outside the office, with minds separate from the one mind, with hopes and dreams and humor and humanity.

Interesting Links:
Cubicles, The Great Mistake, Fortune Magazine, 3/22/06

Wikipedia, "Cubicle"

Flickr, "Cubicle" tag search

Cubicle Etiquette, Bremer Communications

Monday, August 07, 2006


Mondays in cubicle hell puts us back in touch with the part of our lives that most of us find less than satisfying. No one stops in the hallway to chat about last Friday when they updated two spreadsheets with new numbers and deleted 2 dozen emails from their inbox...they talk about what they did on their weekend. The smile eases from our faces as we ease into the parking space and march up to the office. Like dogs, we all wear IDs around our necks with pictures of ourselves smiling on them (in case we forgot what smiling looks like). We run our IDs through a scanner which opens a county fair-like turnstile to let us into the building. But unlike a carnival, there are no rides or fun, just an elevator that silently brings us up to one of several carbon-copy floors filled with rows upon row of gray-walled cubicles, far too many to count. And soon there will be more.

It's what happens to offices when you need to fit more people in the same space. Our company has schedule compressions several times in the past few years, usually because we have hired more people than we have space for. Cubicles, which at normal size are about 6 feet x 8 feet and have a little room for you to back your chair out from your desk and stretch your legs, get compressed to something more like 6 feet x 4 feet. If you are claustrophic or just like a little fresh air from time to time, these compressed cubicles will cause you some discomfort. Imagine setting up your office in a refrigerator box's kind of like that. The air circulation is limited and there is only about 1 foot of space to back your chair up. Storage is limited to one 2-drawer file cabinet and one overhead shelf, which is why most people who have been moved to compressed cubicles have boxes filled with bits of their former offices stacked up outside in the cubicle hallways. Of course, noise levels, which are already too distracting to get much work done, increase, since you're packing more people into the same space. For those folks who spend all day on the phone presenting to customers this isn't a big deal, but for those of us who have to sit next to those who spend all day on the phone while trying to read news articles or analysts' reports, it is. I have headphones and an online radio station on all the time and have even added earplugs to try to further reduce the distraction, but I still find it very hard to concentrate when my cube-neighbor paces his office with his wireless headset, talking at the top of his lungs to be hear from his poor quality wireless headset.

So compression is something we frequently have to deal with. It's usually one of the side effects of growth, which can be somewhat compensated by the fact that our stock price is going up. The only problem is, this time our stock price isn't going up. And we're not hiring more people; we've already layed-off 1000+ and expect to lay off more. So why do we continue to compress??

I have asked several people this question and no one seems to know the answer. The most likely response is that we've already paid the contractors to do the work back at the beginning of the year so we have to go ahead with it. Ridiculous! Let's get out of our slump by putting our remaining staff into a much less productivity-enducing environment. Let's damage the already crushed morale by forcing people to give up more of their tiny space in this big, big company. I have another idea--maybe its a way to get more people to leave! Then we don't have to pay them compensation after the layoff! Brilliant!