Miserable Little Demotivators

Jun 17, 2002

Karen Smartstuff was really excited about the chance to work at TFA (Those Fantastic Architects). It was her second job out of school, and she was thrilled to land there. Especially after her first full-time stint in a plain vanilla 14-person local firm not known for much beyond being prompt with its invoices! TFA, on the other hand, has all the best projects— the really glamorous stuff, incredible buildings all over the world. She told all her friends that her hard work had paid off and naturally, they were all jealous of the projects that she would undoubtedly be working on. But unfortunately, as the old adage goes, what’s too good to be true probably isn’t. And to put it mildly, things just did not work out at TFA. It turned out to be a lousy place to work. Karen was destined to work less than two years there! Here’s some of what turned her off: The company was cheap. It started with Jody Simplemind, the firm’s human resources director, negotiating Karen down from her starting pay request of 15% more than she was earning at her current employer. But there were other signs of cheapness. The company charged its employees for coffee. It didn’t supply free doughnuts. It only gave three sick days a year and six paid holidays. You had to beg to get a computer with enough RAM to operate without crashing 10 times a day. The phone system came straight out of 1979. TFA management unscrewed every other light bulb to cut down on energy usage. The office environment was a pathetic hodgepodge of mismatched furniture. The Christmas “bonus” was a small canned ham. A basic cheapness permeated the entire firm from top to bottom. The company hated to pay its bills. Not only was the company cheap, management didn’t want to pay when it did buy something either! Karen would never forget the day she was at a meeting with some engineers when an outright fight broke out between the engineering firm’s project manager and a TFA partner related to a bill for services that TFA hadn’t paid. The engineer was furious as he pointed out that he knew the client had paid TFA, but that his firm’s bill was still unpaid. The firm was also incredibly slow to reimburse employees for their work-related expenses. Karen once had to charge a plane ticket to her personal VISA card, and it took her nearly five weeks to get her money back from the firm. And by that point, she had to pay interest on her card to save her credit rating! The company really didn’t give its people exciting projects. Sure, Karen could claim she had worked on jobs in Turkey, Bali, and The Netherlands, but big deal! Her role was so minor that anyone straight out of school with some minimal drafting skills could have done it. She was doing parts of details… not even entire details! The principals and their proteges got every task worth doing. She knew that her own capability was far greater than what her bosses would ever realize because she had no chance to demonstrate it. The company gave out very little authority. If you weren’t a principal at TFA, you were lower than whale you-know-what. Everything had to be run past a principal. There were forms, procedures, and committees galore. And everything beyond minor decisions had to be run by Sherman Fantastic, the firm’s founder. It was as though when you pulled into the company parking lot in the morning, your brain was now worthless and you were an idiot, thought Smartstuff. The bottom line on all of this nonsense is that it’s all bad business, and it turns your people off, big-time! Yet in too many design and environmental consulting firms, this kind of work environment is commonplace. Originally published 6/17/2002.

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