I Didn’t Speak Up: a Lived Story

Why Courage is Crucial in an Unhealthy Corporate Culture

It is 7:00am on a cloudy Tuesday morning in Iowa. The sun is hidden behind the clouds, but the heat of the day can already be felt. I’m reaching into my bag to hopefully grab my fob key that I can’t remember if I packed or not. I shut the car door and wipe the sleep from my eyes, enjoying the last few breaths of fresh air before I spend the next 8 to 12 hours of my life in a cubicle or conference room. I’m dreading the day even more with every step.

I’m working as a UX design consultant for a technology consulting firm in the city. But because my company’s incentive is to get me out of the office even if a placement is not a good fit, I am now working at a large agricultural company doing a lot of non-relevant work mixed with a little bit of design. It wouldn’t be so frustrating if I wasn’t sending constant emails and attending over 5 hours of meetings on any given day. 
As a new consultant on the project, seasoned veterans, rugged and defeated from the incompetence and communication nightmares that preceded me, whisper under their breath sincere apologies and how bad they feel for me. On my first day on the job, the entire project was condensed to me as simply being both a “flaming turd” and “burning, sinking ship” before it even left the port. 

The project was doomed to fail anyways. No seriously. The problem is that executives and salespeople from my firm made absurd and patently false promises to this company about how long this project would take, the amount of resources (a fuzzy-special word used for people in corporate land) it would require, and the complexity of the technologies that were to be used.

So here I am, late to a 7:00am meeting in a tiny conference room. It was determined by product owners, directors, and executives in private meetings that in order to pick up the pace and make up lost ground, all employees and consultants needed to be micromanaged. This of course was never actually spoken to us, but it was extremely clear in practice what was happening. 

The next thing I know, it is 1:30pm. I haven’t eaten lunch yet. I’ve spent over 5 hours in meetings today. At least I get to walk to a new conference room every hour. It is generally the same conversation in every meeting. Project managers and product owners want to know why we’re behind and what the hold-ups are. These are usually met with long silences, one word replies, and many pairs of eyes looking at the ground. 
The hierarchy is palpable here. Everyone knows their spot in the order and purports him or herself accordingly. New to the pack, I am expected to sit, listen and keep my opinions to myself. But if only I would’ve spoken up today…

 I could’ve shed light on how much time we’re wasting blindly wire-framing application webpages before meeting with users to truly understand how they even use their current system - or how we’re not told until the next day that key users of our application from out of state were in the building.
But I didn’t. Shit. Maybe tomorrow…

I eat lunch. It’s a PB&J sandwich and a yogurt cup. It’s not the worst lunch, definitely the product of a rushed morning. No thought was put into it - or most lunches for that matter. I’m stressed out, sleeping poorly, and eating less. More than 50% of my day, 5 days a week, is spent either commuting to, sitting at, or commuting from this office.

Its 6:00pm. Between the meetings, conference calls, and “urgent” emails to respond to, I’ve maybe gotten an hour or so of uninterrupted time to do any actual work - and it is presumed that I have 8 hours of uninterrupted time each day to attend to it. But I’m not alone in this. We all suffer together. Silently, but we do vent and complain to each other from time to time. 

There is also a lot of peer pressure and peer shaming here. Misery loves company. If you want or need to miss a meeting, you’ll be lectured about how everyone else is required to attend and will be there. If you happen to leave early, you’ll be asked where you’re going and if you got all your work done. If you don’t come to work one day, you’ll be reminded the next day how others picked up the slack while you were gone.

It is now 6:45pm. I’ve spent almost exactly 12 hours at this office today. I am only paid for 8, but I am expected to work “until the job is done”. It’s part of the whole pressure thing. It is my birthday, but it really doesn’t feel like it. April 17th, a Tuesday this year. It is time to tell my direct supervisor, sitting behind me, that I am leaving for the night. 

No my work is not done. It never will be given the circumstances - and here comes the guilting. I counter with the subtle fact that it is my birthday. The response is a “Oh, happy birthday”. I know she’s not happy and most likely jealous of my leaving before her, but I’m still leaving. As a new member of the project and lowly in the project hierarchy, my actions probably carry the least weight of anyone here. 

I think I am the least responsible for the horrific outcomes of this project. Therefore, project politics and shaming don’t sway me as much as they do others. I walk out the door and down the stairs to the parking lot. The drive home is shorter than usual, probably because its 7:00pm now. At least I missed the 5:00pm rush, I sadly joke to myself. 

I start to tear up. Only three more days until the weekend. Only three more days of this shit. Maybe if I had the courage to speak up to these people… Maybe if we had some support… Maybe if I cared about this project even a little bit… But by this point my apathy and contempt for this client company, my firm, and the lack of morale, initiative, and responsibility taken by this team assure me that what is left of this ship will continue to burn and sink. 

I’m physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted by the time I get home. It’s passed 7:30pm when I start making dinner. I sit at the dinner table to eat. I’m still upset. I’ve already started looking for new jobs. I’d rather cut my losses and start over somewhere else than try to “change from within”, I think to myself. I’m bitter about angry.

“Three more days” I repeat aloud as I finish my meal. “Three more days”.

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