Temporary Insanity

The World of Temporary Employment

by Heidi Pollock

In issues 1-9 Heidi Pollock explored the world of the temporary worker. Her writing concentrates on the life a temp lives despite the work, not on union building and corporate subversion.

From h2so4 8:

Yesterday I did nothing. Which is trickier than you'd think.

Doing nothing is actually rather complex. To begin with, it breaks down into dozens of smaller tasks which are often confused with doing something. For instance, yesterday I typed up a letter for one of my employers. It looked like I was doing something. Sure, my fingers were moving—an almost certain indication of "something," if not life—but my brain was motionless. To type rapidly you have to put your brain on hold. You have to suspend your attention to the task. Reading the words as your fingers translate them into the insubstantial world of digital bytes is a certain recipe for disaster. Typing is zen. Not that I mean to imply that zen is nothing. I mean, through my own experience I've come to believe that the sound of one hand typing must count for something.

Another thing you need to be wary of is that the presence of a final product can easily deceive you into thinking that nothing is fact something when of course it really can't be. That letter I typed? Had to replace the word "client" with the words "business partner." Seemingly something, you might think. But then the letter gets the once-over from another person and suddenly I'm replacing the term "business partner" with "client." You see? All that work for nothing.

The letter, of course, turns out to be merely the cover note for a package with a large array of attachments which, for the sake of our story, we'll imagine somebody is really going to read. In any case 37 copies of the package need to be assembled and so I'm off to the copy machine. As everybody knows copy machines can never be left alone while copying or else they're liable to act up. Although in reality they're just acting out. Copy machines are not meant to generate anything. Nothing original that is. Copy machines are meant to reproduce, to make copies.

Obviously. It should be clear, then, that the only method whereby a copy machine can truly bust out and produce something instead of nothing is by error. Which is why if you want a copy job done right you have to stand over the device, touching it reassuringly so that it knows you appreciate its efforts, sterile though they may be. 

Waiting for the copy machine to produce nothing seems like something but is in truth nothing much at all because waiting is one of the purest forms of nothing. Waiting for the elevator, waiting for messenger services, waiting on hold, waiting for the computer to load a program—if you're waiting for something then by definition you are engaged in nothing. Lastly, in between doing nothing you might find the time to do something. Personally, I like to sit still and think my own thoughts. But it just so happens that this is one of those activities which officially qualifies as "doing nothing." And if they catch you doing nothing you don't get paid.

You can't get something for nothing, you know. I realize that seems like a clich , but the corollary is one of the fundamental temping truths: for nothing you get something. So never despair—it is not for nothing that you labor.

[©1998, Heidi Pollock]

From h2so4 3:

It is obvious that, as a temp, you need to get along with whomever you're working for, but the true art lies in getting along with the people you're working with; namely, the Real Secretaries. Woe to those who alienate their full-time counterparts. If you've never been in a true office environment, you can have absolutely no idea how much power a secretary wields. Do you have to type a letter? Do you know where the template is? No, of course you don't; no major corporation worth its salt has ever had a computer network that is remotely intuitive or comprehensible. And for all you MacBabies out there—you ain't seen nuthin' 'til you've slugged it through a dosshell (yeah, slur it a little). Do you really think that your boss knows where to locate the standardized, complete-with-company-logo, computerized letterhead? Puh-leez, that's why he has a secretary. The only people who actually know wherein the templates lurk are your fellow secretaries. Need a pen? A disk? A simple cup of "coffee"? Wanna find the supply room? Alienate your co-workers, and you'll be lost in the labyrinth of modular office design (all together now, "Fuck you, Frank!") for your entire lunch hour.

Small offices and laid back cities are cake; what we're concerned about here is getting along in New York City, The Amex Tower, Ernst and Young, Goldman Sachs, Wall Street, Sixth Avenue—how to be liked by both the whiz-kid yuppy-boys and the lifers from Staten Island. The gulf that divides these two groups of workers is vast indeed, and your job as a temp necessitates an ability to bridge this gap.

It is as easy to alienate your fellow secretaries as it is to walk into the office. In case you haven't been watching enough television lately, let me remind you, appearance is everything. If you wear something too nice, coordinated or seemingly expensive, the secretaries will think that you think you're better than they are. On the flip side, if you dress down too much they'll assume you don't understand the corporate environment and are therefore hopelessly incompetent. Please don't be bothered by the absurdity of these assumptions, just take my word for it. For this reason, never wear a suit, a bright color, a short skirt, or pants on the first day. Suits imply that you're financially well-off, which is alienating, for some reason. Bright colors and short skirts are too sexual—which is again a threat to the established order of the office. Pants are too casual and somehow indicate a disdain for corporate america. Pants also, of course, might make you seem like a lesbian, which is another no-no. Basically, any stupid dress you find at Loehman's or ClothesTime will be perfect. Ideally, the dress should be mostly polyester, preferably navy, and have some really pointless detailing. If you hate what you're wearing, then you're wearing the right thing, and at least no one will hate you.

Now, after you make it to your desk without garnering undue resentment, the next step is to work out how to interact on a social level. While the following rarely works in health-ridden California, it is the ultimate boon in New York: Find the Smoking Room. Rule of the Index Finger: All secretaries smoke. Consequently, there is usually a designated, unventilated room set aside for smoking. It is always completely hidden, usually behind some unmarked door covered in the same fabric as the office walls. But ask, and you shall find. I don't care if you hate smoking, you have to find the smoking room, even if you only go there to drink coffee (drinking tea is a minor aberration, but ultimately not too damaging so long as it's not herbal). Hanging in the smoking room is the Number One way of getting the secretaries to accept you. The smoking room is where the Workers hang out; no Boss-person will ever enter the Smoking Room (and yes, there are deep and disturbing implications here, but, hey, I'm not a political writer). It's where you mingle and let your hair down. It's where you establish that you are part of the Us and not the Them. It's where you work your way into the substructure of the office environment. The Smoking Room is where the gossip goes down. Keep in mind that the gossip also goes up; almost everything you say to your fellow secretaries will eventually reach the ears of your boss(es) because, as they say, information wants to be free. So, unfortunately, the Smoking Room is where you find yourself facing the dreaded situation of Disclosure. In the Smoking Room you are required to share the facts of your life.

The facts of your life are as follows:

1. You have a boyfriend. Alternately, you just left this total and complete asshole, and "Aren't all men scum!" In the white collar world, you are not a person unless you are involved in a relationship. You have to be involved, because how else will you ever achieve the holy grail of marriage? (Don't question this assumption. It will keep you up late at night with a stomach ache.) It's not only that being attached will make you seem less of an alien from outerspace, it will also prevent them from trying to set you up with their friends and relatives (I kid you not).

The other equally, if not more important, result of Having A Boyfriend—is that the incredibly arrogant men who invariably work in these environments, will eventually find out that you are involved, and stop flirting with you. "Hey, baby, are you happy to see me or is this just a huge wallet in my pocket?" You, a subservient creature, are supposed to be flattered by the attention of men so, how shall we say, well endowed. They believe, these sadly deluded creatures, that they are your savior. They are your ticket to a house in Connecticut and a life of organizing sock drawers instead of file drawers. Keep in mind that by fielding advances you are not only turning down these men, but you are shunning the very dream that many of the real secretaries secretly harbor. Being attached is the only truly acceptable way to avoid insulting both groups of people.

Lastly, as alluded to above, while you need to be attached to get away from the boss-men and appease the inner hopes and lives of the secretaries, you need to be straight so you won't alienate everybody. (OK, so this is ugly advice and I'm fostering destructive, naive stereotypes. Fine, I can accept that—I never claimed to be ethical.)

The next two reasons have to do with why you can't accept or don't need a full-time job:

2. You are moving to a different city, soon. If you're a good temp you'll find that your temporary employers always want to hire you (at least if you're temping in for a vacant position--as opposed to temping for someone on vacation, which is a whole other can of worms). Turning down a full-time job without a perfect reason will imply that A) you don't like your boss and/or B) you don't like secretarial work. Reason A is obviously an insult to your boss and Reason B is an insult to your fellow secretaries. Relocating is the perfect reason. Of course, you can't be too precise about when you plan on relocating; I mean, you might actually like the gig and you don't want to scare them into finding someone else. The reason that moving is the perfect excuse is that it avoids issues of like and dislike. It's not that you don't want to fill the position, it's that you are unable to do so.

3. You already have health care. You are happy with your plan. Your policy is great! If you don't have health care, then no one will understand why you don't want a permanent job.

The most important and the trickiest fact about your life is the following:

4. You are just a temp. Above all, never, ever be more than just a temp. You are NOT in school, you are NOT a writer, a poet, an artist, or, well, anything else. You might think that the best way to avoid being offered permanent employment, and the best way to defend your illogical decision to be a temp, is to imply that you are actually interested in a different career or lifestyle. This is a big, huge, disastrous mistake. Should you actually have any other aspirations, please, you must keep them to yourself. When you're just a temp it indicates to the other secretaries that you're just like them, only without a permanent job. That way they feel kind of sorry for you, they take you under their wings and they are nice to you. Wanting to do something outside of corporate america is a threat to everyone's existence. It is the fastest road to alienation. It will make your life miserable. If you are in school your boss(es) will at best be patronizing, and at worst they'll be nervous that you might be more intelligent than they are. If you claim to be an artist, everyone will be nervous; any and all slips of real personality will be interpreted as subversive and suspect. No one will trust you. No one will talk to you. No one will tell you where the supply room is.

While Facts 1-3 are easy to pull off, because they require little or no explanation, Fact 4 is going to engender a good deal of "Why" questions, so you need to be prepared. Personally, my favorite rationale behind being Just A Temp is that I require "a lot of vacations." The reason this explanation works is because it adheres to the Partial Understanding Rule. In other words, it follows the Middle Path which is the underlying guideline for your identity as a temp.

You must ultimately be an accessible personality for both your boss(es) and your fellow secretaries, and yet, you need to remain somewhat Outside it all. While Facts 1-3 provide the components of the identity you need to bridge the gap between Secretary and Boss, Fact 4 is critical and crucial because it defines the part of your identity which has to bridge the gap between being inside and outside of traditional american society. Being a temporary worker means two things, as the term indicates: you work and you are temporary. To work, you have to be the kind of person everyone wants to keep in the office. To be temporary, you need to be able to move on, again without alienating your office companions while you are there. You need to find not only the middle ground between Secretary and Boss; you also need to have a reason for existing in the middle ground between Employment and Unemployment.

Being wholly Other will not only alienate both the secretaries and the bosses, it will unite them against you. The only way out of this situation is to remember what the two groups of workers have in common: The American Dream. So, in this light, "needing lots of time off" is the perfect reason for being a temp because it means that you take lots of vacations. Vacations are an undeniable part of the american dream. Keep in mind that these vacations need to be in places they can comprehend (i.e., Miami not Burma). You can work this even further by claiming that you're going to Miami so that you can stay in an aqua blue motel. They will understand Miami; they will not understand the motel.

Although you are already slightly incomprehensible by virtue of the fact that you don't have steady work, you still need to back up the fact that your very nature inclines you to walk the middle ground (Temping) between complacent normalcy (full-time Employment) and radical insanity (Unemployment). So, in trying to portray an image of an outsider, remember the dangers of alienation and don't work too hard at being weird. In my personal experience, acceptable ways of being weird include: Having many boyfriends. Staying out until 4:00 a.m. once or twice a week. Not having an apartment (but not living with your lover either). Changing into black clothing before you leave the office (someone will eventually find out about this). It highlights the fact that you have an Unusual Life—but, like everyone, you do what you must to make money. The secretaries will respect this. The men will—should they still be flirting with you—finally realize that dating you would be more of a walk on the wild side than they can probably handle. All your life choices and decisions will appear seemingly rational while being guided by strange aesthetics. You want to go to Las Vegas, not because you like gambling but because you like neon.

Think of it as a slot machine game. Mix and match acceptable notions. You wear black (which is Not acceptable) because it is easy to care for (which Is acceptable). You are driving across the country (Not acceptable) to see your family (Acceptable). You are dating multiple men (Not acceptable) because they all like you (Acceptable—although they better all be broke or playboys, otherwise you'll seem like an arrogant bitch and alienate your co-workers). You do not want a "real" job (Not acceptable) because you like the time-off (Acceptable).

Euclid assumed that reality was three-dimensional; with equal flippancy, I assume that as a temp, you want to keep on temping. In order to keep temping you must keep your agency happy. In order to keep your agency happy, you must garner positive reviews. In order to garner positive reviews, you must be liked. In order to be liked you must adhere to the Four Facts and walk the middle ground.

Being liked is more important than being efficient. Anyone who tells you otherwise has never temped. Let me reiterate what "being liked" really means: your co-workers do not have to know you, they simply have to like you. In this vein, your co-workers do not have to like You, they have to like Who You Are As A Temp. Being liked is not the same as being likable. (If this posturing is a problem for all you integrity luvin' intellectuals out there, please see either Descartes or Hobbes, preferably both.) In other words, your intelligence is to your efficiency as your personality is to your likability—utterly unrelated. I don't care who you think you are, or how important your perceived identity is to you, if you want to be a good temp, you must abide by these laws.

It's important not to get all worked up about integrity. Whether or not the concept of a coherent and integrated personality was ever remotely valid, it certainly isn't relevant today—and it is definitely superfluous to temping. In any case, acknowledging or fabricating personal paradoxes is a demanding task in and of itself, and possibly the best reason to temp. 

[©1994, Heidi Pollock]