Chapter 1 — Office Politics

I suppose it all started when John from Accounting was trying to quit coffee. It didn’t take long for the Safer Workplaces Policy to take effect. We already couldn’t eat peanuts, actual nuts, oranges, lemons, shellfish, eggs, and dairy milk (almond was still okay, but not soy). Next thing you know, HR took away the free coffee machines and all hell broke loose. In a matter of months, anarchy reigned supreme. Corporate communications were some of the fiercest warriors. There was no negotiating with them and not for lack of trying — we just couldn’t understand anything they’d say.

At times it felt like a video game. Everyone was after hostages, negotiation pieces. Chubby balding men in positions of power were now pawns. They couldn’t outrun the rest of us so they would barricade themselves in their offices. The rest of us had to settle for makeshift forts out of overturned cubicles. We were forming alliances daily and breaking them just as quickly. There was one constant though: the executive admins. You picked one and you never turned your back on her so long as you felt your life was worth living.

Office politics with prison weapons left little room for error or sympathy. If you wanted out of this hellhole, you had to cast aside everything you thought you knew about right and wrong.

Monique may have been the mastermind but none of us were innocent bystanders. We all had a stake in the game. We wouldn’t let uptight nerds who couldn’t handle their coffee hold the upper hand in the office. It would mean ultimate failure. One day they’re taking away your coffee machines, the next they’re turning off non-business-related internet sites. Was it not enough that we came in every day and put in hours of effort to produce mostly useless bits of information that drove no decisions and made no significant changes to any operations of the business? Did they have to insult us so vehemently?

No, none of us were willing to sit down quietly and so we began our sabotage sessions. Covert operations designed to instill some fear. Not enough to warrant an internal investigation, just enough to let the nerds and prudes know we weren’t going down with a fight.

Monique had organized us, led the charge and the daily meetings, but it was Sohail that came up with our first great plan of attack. I would never have pegged him for cunning strategy — he was just a quiet kid that came in on time every day, sat down quietly, did work that people threw at him with a smile, and left just as quietly as he entered. So when he suggested we gaslight Eric, executive vice-president of Human Resources, the whole table fell silent.

Most of us knew exactly what he meant but it was Simple Sue that broke the silence first. She didn’t know what a gaslight was, and suggested that the kitchen stove was actually electric. It was a brilliant plan in its simplicity. Tiny changes that would eventually drive Eric insane. Changing the phone from the right side of his keyboard to the left. Readjusting his chair in all three dimensions every night. Changing his desktop wallpaper. Flipping his weird calendar with the slight religious undertones back or forward a month every few days. Small time stuff, but with a long tail impact.

If I had to pin it on anyone it would have been Monique. Curly black hair, her pumps just this side of slightly ridiculous, but with eyes that cut so sharp no one dared give them a second glance. You never crossed her for fear of your own ultimate demise, at least, you didn’t then. There were no such hard and fast rules these days.

She had her own history with accounting, but the reasons behind it were all rumours. No one dared ask her directly, but word around the coffee machine (oh those were simpler times) was that they either cut her authorized claims & expenses by half as soon as she took on her new role, or that she was sleeping around with John’s wife, Lisa from Strategy. Who knows — the two could have been related.

I’ve seen it before — not the office lesbian romances, but the cost cutting that comes when a woman takes on a man’s job. It was a brilliant ploy by HR and Accounting, the two most hated divisions in the office, to increase their own annual bonuses. HR would meet their quotas of increasing diversity while Accounting would reduce expenses every time a woman took on a new role. Every promotion was met with a salary increase, of course, but they only met halfway between their current pay and the pay the outgoing man was making. The collusion was obvious, but who dared say anything to HR & Accounting? We all had our own authorized expenses to look after.

Yes, Eric did go insane, but what we hadn’t planned for was an insane executive vice-president of Human Resources. We planned for an insane Eric — just some nerd babbling to himself. It’s obvious now, but none of us had planned for the end game. How insane is insane enough? How mad do we want our EVP of HR to be?

In an internal email, he referred to his response as the Scorched Earth Policy. It was a 47-page document, with tracked changes enabled, hundreds upon hundreds of schizophrenic changes in red, green, blue, purple — Word must have run out of colours by the time he was done with it. The real frightening thing was that all the changes were by him alone. He was emailing this document to himself for approval, and then would reply to himself with changes, back and forth for weeks at a time until he was satisfied or simply mentally incapacitated by dizzying colours and lines from the sides of the pages.

It was like nothing you could have imagined. Every single expense had to be authorized through Eric and the submission process involved at least five different documents and two witness signatures. He ordered an immediate reduction in seating by 20% and tore down the walls of the cubicles. There was to be no more assigned seating — instead we had to book all seats in advance. 1 in 5 of us ended up working on the floor or in the kitchen. Closets were suddenly prized possessions. Not only were all internet sites restricted, cellphone signal blockers were installed on every floor so that none of us could even settle sidebets through Google on our phones. Both fridges were condemned. Toilet paper reduced to 1 ply. Automatic hand towel dispensers now had a 30-second delayed release. 5 out of 6 elevators perpetually shut down as a ‘cost-saving’ measure. No more Casual Fridays. Microsoft Office replaced with some open-source knock-off. Our outsourced help desk in India was outsourced to some small Pacific island.

It was madness. No one was spared — save for HR & Accounting. We started booking meetings to discuss our next plan of attack, but paranoia spread quickly. The Scorched Earth Policy was having devastating psychological effects.

You weren’t sure who you could trust. You weren’t sure who might be a rat — although I had some ideas. Hazy Hank — nothing about him sat right with me. He was a conniving little twerp that sat a little too close to Senior Management without the least hint of a legitimate reason. That slimy slithering snake was probably hoping that some of that Senior Management Sauce might spill off them and on to him just by sheer proximity.

He had the personality of a pop-up ad. Annoy the hell out of everyone hoping someone would click on him — and inevitably some moron always did. He somehow managed to get promoted and move through departments with relative ease, despite never doing any actual work. He was the king of delegation, of false praise and feigned compromise. A hundred years earlier he’d be selling snake oil to the sick and dying, today he was selling false promises of profits. Anyone who worked closely with him knew him for what he was — a charlatan. A fraud. He’d step over his own mother if it meant another acronym next to his signature: PMP. LSS. CBAP. The more acronyms someone stuck after their name the worse they tended to be and Hazy Hank was the worst of them all.

So why was he here? Why was he in our meetings, contributing nothing yet taking notes? It was all too suspicious and no one seemed to be paying any mind, but I had my eye on him. I made sure to sit next to him at every meeting, watching as he would take down what we said under the guise of meeting minutes.

When Eric the Impaler, as he was now known, demanded all meeting rooms have their doors removed I knew Hazy Hank had something to do with it. He was sleeping with the enemy. He would happily work on the floor, wiping his ass with 1-ply toilet paper, if it meant a chance to cross the floor and join the other side.

At our next meeting I proposed we ban all note taking and destroy all existing meeting minutes. I told the group I think we might have a rat, my eyes fixed on Hazy Hank. He, of course, couldn’t look me back. Staring at his notepad, muttering to himself underneath his breath. I didn’t name him outright, I just left it in the air. I wanted to see if he would change his behaviour, and much like I suspected, he did.

He stopped showing up to our meetings. He started working from home more and more, but I knew he was around. I could smell him in the air. He was on Floor Nine. I don’t know how he went undetected. Maybe he took the back stairs, came in super early, and left only when he knew the coast was clear. He lived only a few minutes from the office — having bought his current condo a few months before we moved here. Our old location was halfway across town and back then his condo just happened to be next door too. I sometimes wondered if he could see our offices from his bedroom with a pair of binoculars and one of those ultra-sensitive microphones that could hear through windows. It was a far-fetched idea, but with the way things have gone, anything was possible. Maybe Scorched Earth was affecting me too.

Camps were forming, and if I weren’t so caught up in surviving I may have enjoyed observing it from a pure sociological perspective. Alliances were nothing new in the office, but now they had a new purpose and meaning. It wasn’t about getting work done, it was about survival. We teamed up with the Strategists. Mostly women with MBAs, but a few men too. They were big thinkers, fierce with scary tactics. Monique was the self-appointed Alpha, and we all knew it, though there was no official hierarchy in the group. While the Strategists planned, we executed. We weren’t exactly small timers — most of us had been here seven or eight years at least, but we knew our place. We were young, agile, and ready to sacrifice. We were hungry.

Not everyone was so eager to join the Strategists. Operations merged with Research and Analytics to form the Union of Operational Research Analytics. Not the most creative bunch, but they were still well-respected. Then there was Corporate Communications. Marketing were loners. No one knew what they did, but they did look awfully busy. Some of us wanted to invite them to our camp, but the Strategists wouldn’t have any of that. They couldn’t contribute, and though we felt for them, there was no place for empathy here. We had a war to win.

We all had a common enemy, but we still found it increasingly hard to work together. We started battling over resources, forming alliances just as quickly as we’d break them. We broke off into sub-committees and planned our next move, then headed home in the evenings and came back and did it all again. We were a little caught up in the fun, but it was still relatively safe. None of us could have predicted Day 0.

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