Seventy years of corporate life: What we learned

The friends, 1987

I talked recently with a friend, S., about the years when we worked at some of the world's best-known corporations: Did we make a difference? What did we learn from thirty-some years each of us spent in that environment? 

Between us, we racked up over ten thousand meetings and one toxic boss each, countless projects, re-orgs and teams. S. attended a staff retreat that ignited a forbidden romance (you were not permitted to fraternize with colleagues, even if both were single), a love that endures to this day.

A short list:

1. Virtue is not always its own reward, but hard work is.
Neither of us ducked when the scut work was assigned. If that sounds self-congratulatory, it is—and now we look back with satisfaction. Both of us came from Depression-era parents who instilled the value of "a day's work for a day's pay".

We also conceded that, for at least the first twenty-five years, we were spared the insistent buzz of an e-mail just when we'd settled down to sleep.  

2. You want unflagging fairness? Work for yourself.
S. was fired for no reason anyone could specifically uncover, and over the protests of many executives, by an unstable woman who had falsified her own credentials, which S. discovered later.

I was accused of inappropriate conduct because I (single) offered my guestroom for an overnight stay to a visiting (married) male colleague after his credit card was declined at his hotel when he tried to extend his stay. Nothing happened to me, except the classic "note in the file", which I found when I ascended to my (female) boss's job.

These incidents were the exception, for which we feel lucky. The managers we appreciate to this day  were those who challenged us to grow, celebrated our successes, and discussed our shortcomings candidly and privately.

3. Cynicism capsizes effectiveness.

Though we laughed at "Dilbert" cartoonist Scott Adams' strips, we believe the heart comes to work with the brain, and if the heart is cynical, it's unlikely you can get much done. 

Those who chafed at the structure and took shots at the leadership at every opportunity usually left before they were asked to lead. "It's one thing to 'drink the Kool-Aid' ", a VP told me when I was promoted to management, "but now you'll be expected to mix the stuff.'"

3. The larger the corporation, the more potential for bad behaviour
Large organizations try to instill a cohesive culture, but sometimes the noble "Mission and Values" statement was the opposite of actual conduct; as my pal Marshall said of his company, "If you turn around too fast, you'll get stabbed in the back."

At the same time, over forty years we saw marked positive change in equal opportunity employment, wage parity, and the handling of harassment and safety issues.

We both think age discrimination has grown even worse. If you can access the New York Times' archive, a chilling article by Patricia Cohen on current unemployment rates for US women over 50 validates our hunch. Reading the over 1200 comments put faces to those numbers, and made me weep.

4. Size diminishes human contact
We worked for Canadian subsidiaries of multinationals, and by the mid-1990s experienced ever-more-remote management. We noticed that when teams were dispersed across the world, we could no longer chat with an executive to learn her thinking behind a certain decision.

When she occasionally turned up on site, she was booked into back-to-back meetings, so the informal mentoring that built business acumen decreased.

Some meetings brought out crackling collaborative energy, but video conferences, which took over the corporate world one grinding, debate-repressing slide presentation at a time, were not those.

5. The suits with the silk bow blouses were a mistake!
In the '80s, we both wore skirt suits; I, in the financial sector, even bought the silk bow that was supposed to parallel the man's suit. You still see the suits in our financial districts, but the dippy ties are mercifully historic artifacts. (I can't believe I found this photo, that is exactly one of my mine!)

We reminisced about how thirty years brought the relief of business casual, yet even with that freedom, we dreaded events where poolside socializing meant swimsuits.

"Mad Men"'s Joanie Holloway tartly observed, "You want to be taken seriously? Stop dressing like a little girl." We amended that to, "Or like you're going to a bar." But at the same time, we tried to stake out tiny corners of individuality. Mine was the statement earring. S. walked into her boss's office sporting her fresh broomstick perm; he asked if she'd been electrocuted.

By the time we retired, we saw wider acceptance of diversity, not only in attire, but in all aspects of identity. S. said she knew times had changed when her entire office (over 600 persons) closed for the day to attend the memorial service for a colleague who had died from AIDS.

There is, however, far less job security today, ever more contract and part-time work, and continuing erosion of the boundary of personal time. My first corporate boss, who represented the best of 1970s paternalism, would stop by my office if I was there a half-hour past closing, to ask, "What's wrong?" "Go home!", he would say, and mean it.

In forty years, we moved from a corporate Medieval Period (secretaries, no computers, ashtrays at desks) to the Modern, a history with bumps between eras, and differences among the corporations. I'll never forget the day an actuary appeared in my office hauling the first Apple Macintosh (128k, wow!), and practically hurled it at me. "Take it!", he commanded, "The damn thing doesn't do numbers."

The corporation remains a particular world, one that many young adults enter without thinking about whether they're suited to it. Often the attraction is the same reason Willie Sutton supplied when asked why he robbed banks—"That's where the money is".

S. and I became friends in our mid-twenties, when we had social service jobs, and figured, we can count our pennies forever in this sector or move into corporate life (though she had a stint in government, too). Well, we didn't get rich—but we earned some solid satisfaction from our work. We remember many colleagues with respect and gratitude.

But neither of us is certain we would do it again.


LauraH said…
This takes me back over the years. I worked for a number of small retailers and non-profits and for one large financial corporation. Like you, I made more money at the corporation but there was a definite trade off in terms of personal contact and participation in decisions. It was also much easier for slackers and manipulators to 'hide' in the corporation. In my time there I saw the erosion of personal time and lack of job security which has continued to worsen based on discussions with former colleagues.

Age discrimination is everywhere, I would hate to be looking for a job in my fifties What baffles me are the continuing stories in the media about how valuable older workers are to the economy and how employers are turning to them, etc. Is that some sort of fantasy?

Poolside socializing in swimsuits??? the mind boggles.

Duchesse said…
LauraH: Corporate retreats or offsite meetings, product launches, customer events- sometimes held at resorts and in warm weather that meant mandatory poolside social events. We learned how to pop on a cover-up mighty fast! The men never seemed to mind appearing in their board shorts but nearly every woman agonized.
SewingLibrarian said…
I spent my whole career in Academe, but I experienced or noticed some of the same phenomena - but not all. No poolside events at universities! I remember the introduction of the library's first computer, an IBM XT, on which we performed database searches for our patrons. We were paying for search time by the minute, so we always charted out the search before going online. No browsing at that time! The increased use of part-time workers has hit higher education, and I think it's not a good thing, despite my being able to take advantage of it. For the students and teaching faculty, it throws up barriers to collegiality and close cooperation on projects. And it deprives employees of full benefits. I had a few suits, but I wore more separates, never slacks. On the one day I did come on campus in pants, one of my colleagues remarked she had never seen me in slacks. But that was a personal preference, not a dress code rule. I miss working with students and working to improve the library's collections, but I don't miss the fiddling with technology that all the new equipment and software demands.
Duchesse said…
SewingLibrarian: It's important to reflect on the changes over one's working life, no matter what the occupation and sector. I believe it helps us be more conscious citizens and even better family members, especially as mentors or confidants to those younger. It's not that we long for "the good old days", but it helps us to see that societal shifts affect every corner of our lives, and to choose those for which we want to advocate.

As far as the clothes, in the mid-80s, a woman who was a corporate auditor where I worked wore slacks on a day when a snowstorm meant most employees could not even show up. She was told not to leave the floor but that meant, not really out of her office. You were expected to wear a swimsuit at a resort event but not trousers in a foot of snow.
Jean Shaw said…
In 1980 or so, I fell afoul of the "no trousers" rule (unwritten and unspoken... except behind my back, of course). It was 11 degrees F in Chicago and I commuted by the El. It was part and parcel of that place--a complete snake pit run by a group of ruthless women.

I lasted in that job for 9 months.

Duchesse said…
Jean Shaw: "Unwritten rules" are a subtle form (or maybe not so subtle) of coercive power and discrimination. Today, persons entering the workforce can find blogs and web sites that advise them on parsing the culture. But at that time, the best many of us got was a quiet word from someone who didn't operate like that.

Or, the person left, often in confusion and distress. I hope your next move was to a much better environment.
Rafe's Hotel said…
Boy, does this bring back memories. I can remember sitting in meeting rooms filled with so much smoke that it really means nothing to say now, "I never smoked." Maybe I didn't, but my lungs did as a part of doing my job. The clothes could be fun, though -- in their context; some would be pretty hilarious now. The high heels that weren't skyscraping but made your legs look fantastic, the silk dresses, the suits (except for the fullback shoulder pads).

And the office politics -- they were pretty much as you say, and one reason I got out of corporate life. It seemed like such a waste to me, the sometimes blatant discounting of what women had to offer. And yet, in that slower world, it did seem that, overall, there was a great deal more job security in those larger companies than there is today. So much change, it is almost hard to compare the business world of the 70s with the one now.
Mardel said…
Although I mostly worked for small companies, this post brings back memories. I had grown up, almost literally on a college campus, and had decided academia was not for me, and a brief stint with non-profits convinced me that I was better suited to the corporate world. I can honestly say my career had its share of challenges and satisfactions and I am happy with it, although I have no interest in returning to a corporate career now. If I were younger who knows. Young women today are not crawling around installations or climbing telephone poles in skirt suits, which I did once. Some things are better, some quite frankly are not, and thoughtful reflection is important. But I think I thrived on the challenges of corporate life, and if I were young now, I'd probably make similar choices.
Mary said…
In my work life (late 1960s to today), I've moved from using an IBM Selectric (anyone remember using a mimeograph machine?) to a laptop attached to multiple screens simultaneously, all while accessing information from a remote server. So, yes, technologically, we've come a long way, probably don't have to fill out job applications that ask the date of your last menstrual period (true fact). And yet. Age discrimination, wage discrimination, unethical behavior, avoiding human interaction...all continue to thrive in corporate, nonprofit and academe, based on the comments here, and in my own experience.

I've worked in a wide variety of business environments: banks, medical field, legislative offices, and a non-profit. Have a spouse in corporate world. All of these places have their own culture. And a work culture is something younger people looking for work should think about--will they be able to accept the limitations of a workplace culture? Because all organizations have cultural limits--spoken and unspoken. As I come to the end of my career life (later this year), I find it very hard to overcome cynicism which as you mentioned. Yet another marker that tells me it is time to go. Watching talented people flood out of an organization due to poor and arrogant management is disheartening and so unnecessary, and yet it is a scenario endlessly repeated in some places.

The intrusion of work responsibilities/technology into personal time has made too many home lives tortuous. What is the impact on workers, their spouses, their children? I now watch my adult children (male and female) struggle with those very issues. So no one has to show up in a swimsuit (heaven forbid), but now it is tough not to be 'virtually' at work 24/7.
Duchesse said…
Rafe's Hotel: Sometimes, our experience is discounted, because younger workers think certain behaviours are artifacts of another era. But sexism and ageism have proven disturbingly hardy, even if we no longer are expected to indicate date of last period on an application.

Mardel: Probably a good thing you are content, because the stats for corporate hiring of women around your age who wish to re-enter the workplace (at the level they left) after years of absence are not encouraging.

Mary: France passed a law which went into effect the first day of 2017; companies with 50 or more wqrkers will establish hours during which workers have the "right to disconnect" - so should not send or answer e-mails:

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