Do You Have Work “Experience”?
All too often in life, what you have learned through work experience may not be quite what a potential employer has in mind when they ask you about it. I am grateful for having so far led a professional life rich with,ahem, 'interesting' experiences to write about. And I am continually amazed by the priceless material that lurks out there, yet to be mined. Some of it can be classified as mundane (lunchbox wars), some of it falls into the common sense category (don't go shopping with a bucket full of fish), and sometimes it is the result of a freak incident (or an incident with a freak).
Regardless, such experiences invariably have the power to horrify or amuse, depending on your perspective. For example, in this computer-dependent age, we all know the dangers of hitting the “reply all” button when answering an email - or of sending off the wrong attachment after too many hours spent slaving over a document that is resisting revision or completion. Yet how many of us can actually avoid recalling some awful memory as we consider this possibility, or can claim with any authority that we might not do the very same thing again tomorrow?
Sometimes the weirdest experiences at work come from unexpected sources, like the humble home-packed lunch. Some offices offer the option of storing your lunch in a fridge until it's time to eat. Of course, this assumes that the social contract which relies on one person not stealing the lunch of another will in fact be respected. That's not always the case. One friend in London mentioned how the Phantom Lunch Menace in his office invariably ate the contents of the most appetising-looking sandwich bag.
No amount of detective work had succeeded in identifying the culprit, so he and another colleague started keeping a close eye on the fridge, thereby cutting down the incidence of sandwich-nabbing. In addition, my friend adopted an ingenious strategy, occasionally “drawing” green mould onto his sandwich bag, and then placing the sandwich carefully in the bag so that it appeared that the bread was slightly mouldy. This, combined with his occasional comments about the frustrations of being a single man who could never get through a loaf of bread fast enough to avoid mould eventually resulted in his lunch remaining largely unmolested.
There are of course many more dramatic stories to be had, often regardless of what your job actually is. A friend of mine worked for two years at Barnes and Noble store in the US. You would think that working in a bookshop meant that she would meet any number of interesting and pleasant people, since at least folks who go to bookstores actually read. But as Leah found out, it isn't always that simple. For example, one woman actually brought a bucket of dead fish into the store while she was looking for cookbooks- presumably ones with fish recipes!
Another visitor, a man, really managed to raise the bar in terms of what constitutes a hard-to-please customer. He wanted to find a simple instruction manual on flying. I mean, seriously, are there any?! You'd think – that flying probably requires a set of qualifications that can't really be covered in a single manual, but as this chap kept emphasising, he was looking for something that “wasn't too complicated”...
Another friend discovered that a summer job as a lifeguard at a swimming pool in Canada involved unexpected hazards. She had been prepared to rescue drowning children, but what came her way was in a different league. Trying to locate the source of an unpleasant smell - and let's face it, if you can actually smell something unpleasant over the amount of chlorine inhabiting the average Canadian swimming environment, it must be something quite unpleasant-she discovered a dead rat trapped in the water filter.
A colleague whom she asked for assistance was less than helpful. He suggested leaving it there until the cleaners were forced to come and deal with it. I will say in admiration that my friend did her duty. She removed the dead rat with a plastic bag, and then, heading for the nearest garbage bin, instead – hurled it over the nearest fence, unable to bear the smell. Thankfully, there was no one walking by just then, otherwise it could have got a lot more complicated - especially if she had been in the decidedly more litigation-prone United States!
For those working in less action-oriented fields, the challenges may be of a less (literally) hands-on variety. A colleague of mine, who is the manager of a large team, finds that she invariably ends up counselling some of her team members. I should add that this is a result of the fact that she is an unusually kind person surrounded by a set of unusually neurotic people. At one point, one of her male subordinates developed quite a serious case of hypochondria, and began stressing about all matters related to his health. Taking the time to do some research, she sat down with him and explained in some detail why he had nothing to worry about. He heard her out, and then perhaps from a sense of relief, relaxed and gave an enormous yawn. Unfortunately, ever since that incident, he begins to yawn whenever she speaks - which is singularly unhelpful when they are having a work-planning meeting! Despite threatening him with dire consequences, so far nothing has worked to put an end to this unfortunate tendency…
But one of the most bizarre work stories I have ever come across relates to someone I know who works in an advertising agency. Since any service industry is supposed to function on the basis that the customer is always right, making sure that clients are happy is part of Keya's mandate. Some time ago, she met with a prospective client, with whom she had managed to squeeze in an unscheduled meeting on a particularly busy day because he had told her it was very urgent.
Once the meeting began, the conversation went as follows – and it ends as you would expect, in a true facepalm moment!
Keya: Okay, can you tell me a little about your company - what your product is, and a little bit about it?
Prospective client: No, I can't disclose that. But the product is exclusive.
Keya: That's great, but I need to know what you want to sell and to whom.
Prospective client: I can't disclose that.
Keya: So what would you like me to do for you, then?
Prospective client: I want you to give me an exclusive marketing plan for my product.
Keya: You mean you want a marketing plan for the product that you won't tell me about?
Prospective client: That is correct.