For most of the mid-nineties, I worked at a large insurance company in northern New Jersey. Their IT department was nearly a thousand people, and I was exposed to a wide variety of computer tech, and problems both technical and political.
However, what’s interesting to me, decades later, has nothing to do with technology. For many years, but ending before I arrived, this company had been housed across the street from a posh shopping mall. Back in those days malls were hot — there was no web shopping and no social media. They were outgrowing their space so the company moved an hour west, into an an upscale residential area with few amenities for office workers. To encourage retention, and to prevent three hour lunch breaks, the company built as many of these services as possible into their new headquarters: a gym, a hair stylist, a cafeteria, and so on.
And it worked, at least as far as I could see. The gym and cafeteria were always busy, and the other shops did well too. I used to joke that they should put up condos and issue weekend passes for people to leave. No one ever found this funny.
Today it all seems like a weird foreshadowing of the corporate “cultures” now familiar to us through places like Facebook and Google. Those companies do everything they can to keep people working. The roaming masseuses who would rub you down at your desk made a real impression on me, for example. (I know what I did there, and I’m sorry.)
The employees had a remarkably narrow view of the world. The company, and their place in it, mattered, very little else was worthy of attention. Marriages between employees were common, and there was no policy of anyone having to leave because of it. In some cases, marital partners continued in the same department.
All the single women were looking to marry the highest status man from within the company that they could land. I’ll never forget the Saturday afternoon that, as I was leaving the office, I passed a woman sitting in her cubicle. She looked like she’d been crying so I stopped to ask if she was okay and we talked for over an hour. She was not okay, having been dumped by some middle manager she’d been hoping to marry, so she had a lot to say. We discussed, among many other things, the possibility of dating men outside the company, an idea she rejected, though she struggled to say why. It’s not hard to imagine her reasoning. Being married to a high-ranking employee carried implicit job protection and enhanced status within the corporate social life. Neither of these things could be offered by an outsider.
And she wanted to keep working, though I was never clear why. I think she said that she wasn’t “…interested in motherhood”.
Eventually, and long after I’d assured myself that she was okay, I was able to get on with my non-corporate weekend.
On Monday, I stopped by her desk to ask how she was doing. Her only words were “Oh! oh no — we can’t be friends.”
We never spoke again.
More ominously, every election cycle, the company issued a memo explaining its political agenda and “encouraging” the employees to vote in accordance with it. I don’t think that “what’s good for the company, is good for you” was ever stated explicitly but that was definitely the tone. At my level, expendable code monkey, there was no pressure, but I assume that for managers there was. I don’t know how that was exerted, but I’d guess it was all done through superficially friendly conversations with mountains of subtext.
I miss that place the same way I hope to miss COVID someday.
Since leaving that company I have avoided large corporations as much as possible. I don’t mind contracting with them, but I don’t want to be an employee.
Even as a contractor, I’ve had issues with pressure from coworkers at big companies. In one instance, the contractor team was having lunch, and our liason announced that our client, a large telecom in Philadelphia, was very active in politics, making it important that we all align with them. She went around the table demanding each person state their political position and one by one the wimps I was dining with told her what she wanted to hear.
I was next to last. When my turn came I said “There are two things I never discuss at work: religion and politics.” Making a real effort I then gave her my best fuck-you-you-stupid-asshole smile. There were audible sighs around the table. The guy to my right, and the next who would have had to speak said “Yes, I think that’s the best policy.”
Her response floored me. She said “Well, I’m Canadian, so it’s okay for me to ask”. But she knew she was out of line.
Two weeks later, I was off the project.