Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Suck It Up

He was a pip-squeak in a suit—a weak-featured, whey-faced redneck type with the bleached look and moral substance of a slice of Wonder bread: soft, tasteless, mostly air. He was my peer in age (actually, I was a little older, by as much as two years perhaps), but he took himself for my superior. Sadly, in the very corporate, conservative pecking order of Chicago-based Ogilvy, Adams & Rinehart, he was. It was January 1994, and I had recently moved back to Chicago, alone, after what seemed like a lifetime away: after my family had made a couple of cross-country moves, after high school and college and a misfire stint at Washington University Law School, and after a first internship in public relations at a boutique marketing agency in St. Louis. I had interviewed for (and been subsequently "blessed" with) this next internship that could, if the fit were right, lead to a permanent position in OA&R. The person in question (let's call him J.) was a junior account executive. He took the word "executive" as license—no, as mandate—to exhibit pomposity and conceit of the most unimaginative sort. He took advantage. I worked all day doing the dullest work the agency had to offer. I learned next to nothing, except lessons in how to survive nasty coworkers. The clients were big, "sexy" accounts like Motorola, Helene Curtis, Quaker Oats (OK, not sexy), NutraSweet (also not sexy, but big money fighting "crackpot" people who professed the chemical sweeter was unhealthy). Close to quitting time, there would inevitably be some Very Important Report on media coverage or some such that had to be done, so I would then work into the night on something I suspect was really J.'s responsibility, at least in part, but that he deemed beneath him. Instead, he made sure to wangle an invitation to join Senior Account Executives for an overpriced dinner to woo prospective clients. He was, basically, a mendacious kiss-ass, a scraggy sycophant, a lackey to the higher-ups. He knew what was good for him. On at least one occasion, I saved his hide by staying late; I did work he then ascribed to himself. (I will not even get into the ordeal it was to get time off to fly to Florida for my grandmother's funeral, or how this reflected badly on my work ethic.) At the slightest hint of dissatisfaction, he put me in my place. He put himself—his dark suit, white shirt, boring tie, and condescending attitude—between me and the door to the windowless closet-like space I worked in. The room felt even smaller, airless, like a coffin. He stood so that he could look down the hallway, spoke as loudly as the empty corridor permitted, and told me to "suck it up." Verbatim. I wish I'd told him to go to hell. I wish I'd told him lots of things. In truth, I was so shocked, so angry that I was utterly speechless, which I'm sure he took as a sign of my submission. I did finish the internship, and decided to follow some sage advice when it came time to update my resume: "Don't look for a job; look for a boss," my parents told me. I've had nothing but good ones since.


  1. i've got to a point where i can tell my boss what conditions of work i'm prepared to put up with (but not the salary...)

  2. Yes, we (I speak particularly as a woman, but this cuts across gender lines plenty of times) are so conditioned to accept disrespect and deplorable conditions of work. Society, over the past several decades, has become so focused on "getting ahead" in status and finance, regardless of the cost to more human virtues, it's no wonder we are all in the mess we're in economically speaking. And a job is so connected to survival—we are often in fear of "what if I lose my job?" . . . because we dare to speak up, or refuse to accept certain treatment or tasks. This is what the pip-squeaks or workplace bullies count on. Now I work freelance, and actually I've gotten a lot better about clearly and respectfully setting my boundaries—what I will and will not do for clients—and asking for fair compensation. I am getting better about not feeling like I need to justify, apologize for, or deeply discount my fees. But it's still hard. When you don't know where the next project is coming from, it's so easy to capitulate, to put up with, and to, well... "suck it up." Good for you, for making strides, too!