Sorry Ed, but coffeemakers are a fire hazard

I’m reading a hilarious new book entitled, "Company" by Max Barry that details the highly dysfunctional inner workings of a fictitious company called Zephyr Holdings. In the text, employees try to do their jobs while dealing with the restrictions of a ludicrous internal culture, whose policies and procedures would be laughable if they didn’t ring so true.

The book got me thinking about some of the highly dysfunctional cultures in which I’ve labored over the years. For example, at one large consulting organization where I served as director of corporate communications, fear was the watchword of the day. Our CEO was a former offensive lineman with the Chicago Bears who literally looked like he was ready to smashmouth anyone who pissed him off. He was also perhaps the least literate CEO I’ve ever known. I remember one session in which we were discussing a general mailing to clients. I used the phrase "en masse" to describe the strategy. He stopped the conversation and asked, "Who’s Mass"? I told him I was using the French expression. This set off a violent temper tantrum laced by expletives in which he warned me to use the f-ing English language whenever I was in his presence.

I’d describe the culture at another former job as "romper room on steroids." The prevailing rule was that there were no rules, and the inmates really did run this particular asylum. Typical of the culture was the "dogs welcomed in the office" rule. Sounds cool, right? Wrong. We had dogs defecating in the hallways, rummaging through wastebaskets and mounting prospects’ legs.

The most dysfunctional culture I’ve ever experienced, however, had to be at the large agency where my partner, Ed and I worked for 15 hellacious months. Its cold, uncaring environment could have given the Kremlin a run for its money. And, the autocratic CEO and CFO ruled like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, respectively. As for me, I was the crown prince, appointed as heir apparent, but given no real authority. The three of us were feted like royalty. We had our own private secretaries, our own conference room and our own coffee service each morning. The "have nots" (i.e. the employees) had to take an elevator to a different floor and buy their coffee at the cafeteria.

Ed didn’t like this scenario. So, one day, he and the others in the public relations group decided to buy a coffeemaker. I was cool with that and gave it my blessing. Well, all hell broke loose. The Politburo cracked down on Ed and his fellow transgressors for bucking the system. When Ed asked why the PR team couldn’t have a coffeemaker, the CFO said, "Sorry Ed, but coffeemakers are a fire hazard."

You just can’t make this stuff up. And, while I’d like to believe "that was then and this is now," there are still legions of poor managers out there. Just yesterday, an executive of a large agency told me about the CEO he worked for who not only screamed and shouted daily, but also had people surreptitiously writing evaluation reports on one another. He likened it to working for a super secret government agency where no one knew who was friend or foe.

When management wises up and realizes how counter-productive and toxic these environments are, only then will they be able to attract and retain talented employees.

2 thoughts on “Sorry Ed, but coffeemakers are a fire hazard

  1. Steve,
    I can remember that incident as if it was yesterday. The sickening corollary to that event is that the CFO first tried to extract the coffee maker by “suggesting” to the secretaries in our department that it was beneath them to make coffee.

  2. Excellent post today- quite interesting. Having worked at Peppercom, and being part of really unique culture, I can only imagine what it must be like to work for the antithesis.
    My wife just left her job at a company that seems like it fits the bill of today’s post. All of the management was somehow related, they couldn’t give a care in the world about their employees, raises were 3% across the board for all employees no matter how good or bad you did, the temperature in the office this winter was kept in the low 60’s b/c the CEO “wanted to keep costs down” and the list keeps going.
    So one would think that employees wouldn’t stay there long and productivity would not be optimal. But the exact opposite is true. Many employees have been there for 10-15 years, they all work hard, and most saw no reason to leave. That makes me wonder about toxic work environments and the real effect it has on employees. I think a very interesting survey would be to compare various work environments and look at employee longevity, productivity and satisfaction and see how these companies stack up. I think the answers might be surprising.