Click the link to read Part 1 of the series.
In 1991, I graduated college with majors in business and music, and I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life (still don’t, come to think of it). So I started temping while I looked for that first “real” job.
After about a month, I landed a position with a small company in Minneapolis. This company consisted of three people—the owner, a sales guy, and me. It wasn’t an accounting firm, but we did bookkeeping services and payroll for other companies using a DOS-based (remember those days?) computer program.
On the very first day at this job, I had one of my most embarrassing moments ever. I was wearing the navy blue double-breasted coat dress I had worn at my college graduation because it was the most business-y thing I owned at the time. At one point in the morning, I smoothed the back of my dress before sitting down and noticed an odd sensation as my fingers brushed over my left butt cheek. I craned my neck around to find a gaping hole in the seam. And there was no pinning it because both pieces of fabric had frayed at the edges.
What to do? Naturally, I went to the mall at lunch and bought a new dress. Of course, because my shoes were navy, my selection was somewhat limited. I ended up with a navy blue flower print dress that didn’t look anything like the ripped one. But I worked with two men. They wouldn’t notice, right? Wrong. When I returned to the office my boss said, “Is that the dress you were wearing this morning?” I admitted it wasn’t and told him the story. Ya gotta be able to laugh at yourself.
::end mrtl-style tangent::
Because it was a small company and because I was new to the corporate world and eager to prove my value, I didn’t mind spending a few extra hours here and there to finish up an assignment even though I was salaried and didn’t earn any overtime pay. And besides, I was new in town and didn’t have much of a life anyway. It was something to do!
Before long the owner’s wife, D., quit her other job and became the office manager. I can’t say there are many people that I “click” with right off the bat. But she felt like an old friend right away. Even though she was nearly 20 years older, we got along great. The business expanded, and we began hiring additional employees. Most of them were young women like me, and in fact, three of them had been my college roommates at one time or another.
Of course, having my friends work there was a lot of fun. And the fact that we young and still single made it that much more fun. We often did things together after work or on the weekends. A few of us—including D.—worked out together one summer and I ran my first (and only!) 5K race.
The workload increased, and more than once I (and others) pulled an all-nighter during our busy year-end crunch of producing W2’s and filing payroll tax forms on top of the regular work. But it wasn’t a frequent occurrence, and we were basically just doing what had to be done.
Then I moved into the newly-established pension department. With very little training I began administering 401(k) plans—basically calculating contributions, distributing market gains and losses to the employees, and printing quarterly statements. The business expanded some more, and pretty soon three people were working under me.
My work schedule went from the occasional 50-hour week to a fairly regular 80-hour week. Of course, I was still salaried, so didn’t receive any overtime. I started to keep track of my hours, and there were several weeks where I clocked nearly 100 hours, and even one where I put in 105.
Now, let’s pause for a moment and look at the facts, shall we? Here I was, 23-24 years old, doing a job I didn’t know very well, and trying to supervise three others doing the same job. I didn’t have any background in management, except for the course that was required for my major. Translation: I really sucked at this job. But I was in so far over my head that it took me a long time to realize it. For example:
- At one point during all the crazy hours, D. was very pleased to give me a bonus for the hard work I’d been doing. I eagerly ripped open the envelope to find . . . a check for $100. A measly hundred bucks! I couldn’t believe it—I was PISSED. But I didn’t say anything because a.) I knew the business was struggling to stay in the black, b.) D. was a friend as well as my manager and I knew she was trying to be nice, and c.) I was stupid and naive.
- I wasn’t the only one working long hours—the rest of the pension department was too. One Monday, D. demanded to know why one of our team members hadn’t shown up for work on Saturday (this was a regular Monday-Friday office job). As if he needed an excuse!
- I often left the office after 9:00 PM. And I was SO tired all the time. But I stayed up late every night because I knew if I went to bed before I was ready to absolutely collapse, my mind would race and I’d never be able to sleep.
- More than once, I was brought to tears by something that happened on the job. In fact, it started to become a regular weekly occurrence. I was so tired, angry, and overwhelmed that it didn’t take much to start the waterworks.
Why did I stay? I think there are a lot of reasons.
- I wanted to do a good job, and I guess I was attempting to compensate for my lack of experience by putting in extra time (even though much of that time was spent spinning my wheels).
- I’d never had another “real” job to use as a comparison. I thought everyone who wanted to get ahead worked crazy hours. And because many of my college friends were “on the inside” with me, I didn’t have a reality check from people who had different experiences. All of my friends’ experiences were the same as mine!
- The job was my life, and not just because I didn’t have time for anything else. I had good friends there, and I don’t think I realized that those friendships could continue post-employment. (As it turns out, last month in Minneapolis I had dinner with three of my former co-workers, nearly 11 years after leaving the company.)
- Despite everything, I really did like it there. It’s difficult to explain how that could be the case, but I guess it felt like a little (dysfunctional) family.
The light bulb came on for me when P., the manager of the payroll department, quit. I had been there for nearly three years, and she had been there almost that long. We’d sort of “grown up” together at that company. It was almost like her leaving gave me permission to get out too. And it’s funny—she started a mass exodus. Within just a few months, I think 10-12 people left.
As bad as it was, I’ll always be grateful for the friends I made there and for the experience I gained. Of course I learned the payroll business from the ground up, and that definitely helped me to get the next few jobs after that. But the experience also taught me a very important phrase: “It’s just work.” Work will be there tomorrow and the company will be there tomorrow, even if I’m not. And you know what? That phrase applies to every job I’ve had since then too.
Did you make it this far? Would you believe I still have more to say about this job? Stay tuned for part 3 . . .