That time I was punished for working too smart and too hard
While we’re talking about my stint in corporate America, I wanted to tell you guys a story about something that happened to me a few years ago that really sums up a lot of what is wrong with businesses today, particularly big business.
I was hired by a large and well known company as a contractor on a particular project. They’d done this project for the first time the year before when it was undertaken by a regular staff member. It took this staff member, let’s call him Wendell, three months to complete said project working on it almost full time so they figured it was better to hire a contractor (me) to do it while Wendell focused on his normal job. I suspect Wendell requested this for reasons you will soon see.
I got there on my first day. Wendell himself outlined the project and showed me what needed to be done. He “apologized” (with a weird kind of vindictive glee) many times that the job was very tedious which I suppose is fair since he suffered through it the year before. He finally gave me a stack of CDs with the data I needed to go through and I got started.
Without going into what the project was exactly, it was indeed tedious but I quickly realized that there were parts of it that I could automate by writing up a simple batch process. (Note: This was mega basic stuff. I’m decent with a computer but I’m not hacker level techie. This was also on a Mac which I hadn’t used since elementary school so there was a learning curve.) It took me an hour or so but I finally got the batch process working to my satisfaction. I figured this was time well spent if it would make the next three months easier. I was hunkering down for an epic multi-month job from everything Wendell had told me.
I was running my batch process and working my way through the disks. The end of the day was fast approaching. Wendell appeared to see how I was getting on. My contract had me starting work at 9 AM but Wendell didn’t come in until 10:30 so I asked if he could give me the next batch of CDs so that I could get started on them before he came in.
“What are you talking about?” Wendell said abruptly, like I’d asked if I could murder the CEO.
“I’m almost done with this stack,” I explained, “so I was just wondering if you could give me another batch so I could get started on them first thing.”
“You’re lying!” He was suddenly angry with me. “You can’t possibly have done this whole stack already!”
“I put them on the shared drive if you want to check that I did them right,” I said, kind of freaked out that I really screwed something up based on his reaction. He stormed off.
I sat there and waited. I decided to finish the last few since I had the originals either way if I ended up needing to redo them. I finished the last few and sort of twiddled my fingers for a while. Then it was quitting time so I finally went to find Wendell.
When he sees me, he snaps, “I’ll meet you at your desk.” My desk is off in this really random corner, not near anyone else so I figure he’s going to yell at me or something. Boy, I think, I must have really screwed something up.
He arrives at my desk and says, with this weird passive aggressive tone like he’s the mean cheerleader from a teen movie, “What did you want?”
So. Confused. “I was just wondering if you had the next batch of CDs…”
“There are no more CDs. This was it. You did the project that took me three months in an afternoon, are you happy?”
“That was it? All the CDs?” I shouldn’t have said this, I realize in retrospect. But was he really telling me that the work I did in a few hours was the epic project I was told would take 3 months? It didn’t make any sense.
“Yes, that was it!” He was really upset. He actually looked like he might cry. “I don’t even understand how it’s possible!”
Hoping to defuse this increasingly strange situation, I started to show him the simple batch process I wrote and, as I’m showing him, it becomes clear that, beyond the batch process, he was doing several unnecessary steps making almost everything in the entire process take twice as long. Most of it was silly, he’d just been making more work for himself. (Note: I did not say any of this to him, it was just something I noticed from what he said.)
You’d think he’d be impressed. After all, I’d just showed him how to make this annual three month project take a few hours saving the company tons of money and time in the future. I’d also just taught him a trick that would be useful with future projects. Instead, he was furious.
I’ll spare you the back and forth but he told me that he had no more work for me but my contract was still for three months. I came in faithfully on time every single day of those three months and did… nothing. At first, I tried to pretend that I was working but I finally gave up. I read books. I played games on the computer. I worked on eBay or my book. I got paid to do absolutely nothing for three months minus one day. I guess it sounds like a good deal but it was insanely boring and very depressing to commute into the city every day for no reason at all.
Many times, I went over to Wendell and offered to help with any other projects laying around and he always refused to let me talk to him by his desk. I started to realize what the problem was. My finishing that project so quickly (that it had taken him so long to do the year before) made him look bad. So, instead of rewarding my hard work and innovation, he was hiding it to protect himself. He always insisted on talking to me at my desk so that his superiors wouldn’t know he was paying me to do nothing at all. He wouldn’t give me other projects to work on because that would mean admitting that I was already done with the original project.
I even went to HR at one point but they were basically like, don’t complain if they want to pay you for doing nothing! So I didn’t.
I think there are a few big lessons to learn from this stupidity:
- Some people let their pride or ego get in the way of something that will benefit the company. If there’s an innovation or new way of doing things that can improve the process in the future, some will ignore or try to hide it just because they didn’t think of it first.
- Hard work and innovation are sometimes hidden by people who are afraid it will make them look bad. I’ve seen this happen so many times to friends. Their manager or boss takes pains to hide their hard work or great new idea because they’re afraid it will make them look bad. Or, worse yet, they take credit for it.
- Sometimes employee jealousy and small personal feuds can hurt the company in a big way. Looking at what happened objectively, Wendell had a contractor at his disposal to use for three months. He could have gotten any amount of extra work done by using me, even forgetting about the fact that I’d already proved myself to be both hard working and smarter than the average bear. Instead, his pride was hurt so he made me sit there and do nothing at the company’s cost for three full months.
If you’re the boss, these are all things to be aware of in your employees that you may not notice. But for those of us that are self-employed, sometimes we do these things to ourselves. We ignore the suggestion from a friend because we didn’t come up with it ourselves. We’re too proud to ask for help or get some extra training that would really help in the long run. We let our pride get in the way of new opportunities and inventive ways of doing things outside of our usual ruts.
Have you ever found yourself up against someone else’s ego? Have you ever unintentionally made someone look bad and faced their wrath for it even though your intentions were good?