Talking Pictures

Nightmare Jobs

By David Templeton

Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he connects with business consultants M. K. Key and Terrence Deal to discuss the horrors of corporate culture as portrayed in the hard-to-find indie film Clockwatchers.

For two weeks, M. K. Key and Terry Deal have been hunting for Clockwatchers.

As they’ve hopscotched across the United States, promoting their groundbreaking new book Corporate Celebration: Play, Purpose and Profit at Work, the unceasingly resourceful authors have eagerly examined the movie listings in every town they’ve visited, in hopes of finding the film that everyone seemed to be talking about at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival.

Alas, the low-budget surprise–a dark comedy about temporary office workers (Lisa Kudrow, Parker Posey, Toni Collette) slaving away in an accurately oppressive, monolithic corporation from Hell– s, despite its critical success, being released very slowly, one theater at a time, allowing for word of mouth to spread.

“Everywhere we go, it’s either just been here, or it’s just about to be released,” laments Dr. Key, calling from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, between planes on her way home to Tennessee. There she runs Key Associates, LLC, a consultation firm specializing in corporate psychology. A clinical psychologist herself, Key has long been interested in the nature of American corporate culture and its effect on the modern workforce. Promising that she’ll still see the movie, swearing that I won’t ruin the experience if I talk about it, Key asks me to describe Clockwatchers.

I comply. As it turns out, I will end up telling the same story to Dr. Deal, also by phone, also in Tennessee, where he teaches organizational theory at Vanderbilt University. Deal is the author of 17 books on the subject of workplace empowerment. The latest, his first with Key, is a hands-on guide, offering specific celebrations and “rituals” to invigorate company morale and inspire workers and managers to work together toward mutually beneficial goals.

The company in Clockwatchers could have used this book.

“A young woman takes a temporary job at a giant credit company,” I explain. “On day one she’s kept waiting in the reception area two hours, then blamed for not speaking up. She ends up bonding with the other temp workers, but their friendship begins to unravel under the increasingly awful working environment. Finally, when things begin to disappear from people’s desks, armed guards are brought in to search everyone’s desk drawers and purses, cameras are positioned above their work spaces, the partitions that gave the temps their own personal space–decorated with meaningful personal items–are stripped away.

“In response to all of these measures,” I sum up, “they basically all go crazy.”

Key and Deal wish they could say that this scenario was far-fetched.

“The bit about the worker’s personal spaces makes me think,” Key says. “I used to watch monkeys for a living. Basic comparative psychology. Animals scent their territories. What workers do to decorate their workspaces is very much like scenting things.

“So when management takes those personal spaces away, it’s as if they are trying to leave their own mark. ‘This is my territory, not yours.’ Taking over somebody’s space, telling them what they can and cannot do to dress it up, is a symbolic way of proclaiming your ownership of people.”

In a late scene, one of the temps–numb with boredom and despair–tears her thumb open while removing hundreds of staples (they were vertical, a direct violation of the company’s horizontal-staple rule), but doesn’t notice she’s bleeding all over the papers.

“People do go numb,” Key agrees, “because they cannot tolerate being so dehumanized. We put a thick wrapper around ourselves, to protect our human core. The unfortunate thing is that sometimes it’s too late; we check our hearts and souls at the door and just give in to the numbness.

“That,” she adds, “is the process Terry and I are trying to reverse.”

“Look at the Saturn Motor Co.,” Dr. Deal says, drawing on the book’s description of companies that have bucked that old “dominate-and-conquer” approach to management. “Saturn is an example of a place where people are hired to think,” he says, “not just go through the motions. The company in Clockwatchers doesn’t appear too receptive to its workers’ ideas.

“The bottom line is, you can’t do a good job if you work in an environment where you are being squelched.”

“So what would you suggest to a company like this,” I ask him, “one that has become so caught up in policing its employees that everyone feels like a prisoner?”

The first thing he would do, Deal says, is tell them about Continental Airlines.

“They were the worst airline in the world,” he laughs. “Rated last in the industry. And then Gordon Bethune took over the company–and he turned it around.”

One of the first things Bethune did, Deal relates, was to round up all of Continental’s old Employee Rule Books, and to have a rousing bonfire in the company parking lot.

“That sure sent a signal to the employees,” he chuckles. “That was just the beginning. The employees that once hated working there now feel empowered. Last Year Continental was voted the airline of the year.”

“What about the stealing issue?” I ask. “In the movie they tried to scare the workers into behaving.”

“And that’s exactly why the thefts increased,” he suggests. “When the surveillance cameras went up, the problem got worse. If it were my company, the first thing I’d do is ask, ‘What am I doing wrong? What’s going on in the workplace that is causing someone to want to get even?’

“This is exactly the thing that more and more companies are now learning,” he confidently states. “If there are morale problems at a bosses’ workplace, it’s not the workers’ fault. It’s the bosses’ fault. Only the bosses can turn it around.”

Web extra to the September 3-9, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.