For some reason, this memory came to mind today. It was something that gave me confidence in sticking up for myself, and not taking the easy quiet life.
After university, my first real job was as a reinsurance statistician. Our office was on London Bridge, looking out to The Monument.
I was good at my job – this was a few years before things became computerised. Most of my job consisted of grabbing various files from hanging cabinets, and copying them to bring the figures together on a report, before putting the files back. The reports enabled the directors to assess the relative values of fire insurance in London against earthquake damage in California, for example.
I’d been there for about 4 months, and it was January. I’d seen a lot of my university friends at Christmas, many of who were doing a year abroad in France or Italy. “Come and visit us”, they said, but I had a job now.
It was my lunch hour, and as I was still trying to clear my university overdraft, I ate a sandwich at my desk, rather than going down the pub, like everyone else did. The phone rang, and I looked up. I was the only one in the department. So I took the call.
It was a director, one of the friendly ones, he was on the phone to Japan and needed some figures as soon as possible. Forgetting my sandwich, I dug the files out, produced and checked a summary, then took it in to him. He was still on the phone, so smiled and waved as I gave the paper to him. I then went back to my lunch.
That afternoon, I was called into the Office Manager’s office. He wasn’t happy. Someone had seen me walk into a director’s office without putting my suit jacket on, and that was not something that junior staff like me were allowed to do.
Let me tell you about our office. The company’s main offices were on the 6th floor, but we also had space on the 8th floor – old filing, loos, and the cloakroom. We were not allowed to put our jackets on the back of our chairs, or anywhere in our office. If we were not wearing them, they had to go in the cloakroom.
So when the director needed some urgent figures, I was expected to compile and check the figures, then go up to the 8th floor, put on my jacket, come down to the 6th floor, give the director the figures, then go straight back up to the 8th floor to hang up my jacket again.
I looked at the manager. “You can’t be serious,” I said, “Mr X said he needed the figures urgently.”
“I am serious,” said OM (Office Manager). “You do not go into a directors office without being properly attired. You need to write a letter of apology.”
I knew the director didn’t want an apology. All he ever wanted was his figures as quick as we could manage them. (I later confirmed that he had had nothing to do with this)
So I spoke my mind. I remember my next words as if they were ingrained in my heart.
“With respect, Mr OM, that is being petty.”
“Petty? PETTY?” He became furious. The door to the office was closed, but I know OM could be heard out there. I zoned out, while OM gave me a 10 minute speech on why my generation were such a feckless lot. I reminded myself I was so feckless, I had taken the call in my lunch hour.
And everything became clear. As OM ran out of things to say, I looked at him.
“I’m sorry, but it’s becoming clear I’m not suited to this job.”
“You’re telling me I’m feckless and incompetent, so I’ll just go and write up my resignation.”
I was a good worker, and OM realised he might be digging a hole.
“Oh Chris, don’t take it so seriously. You’ve learned your lesson, let’s sleep on it, and see how things are tomorrow.”
All of a sudden he thought he was my best friend. I had learned my lesson – I lost any respect I’d ever had for the man. I smiled, nodded and left his office. I went back to my desk, and wrote my resignation, which I handed it that afternoon.
Scarier than that was going home and telling mum and dad I had jacked in the job. But mum already knew I wasn’t happy working in the city – having had few of my childhood allergy problems while at Sussex University, they had all come back when I started commuting. My time at the company had left me nearly debt-free, and after I had served my notice, I bought an inter-rail ticket and took off to see my friends in France and Italy, with a back-pack and a guitar.
Then, when I came back, I started working again for the temp agency my mum helped ran, as I had done during the holidays. Working a month or so at a time, and getting money behind me, then going down to Sussex for a week to interview for jobs, then back to Chingford for more temp work, before returning to the coast. Eventually I found a company in the centre of Brighton who had a 3-6 month clerical vacancy, with a chance of an extension. I ended up being there for 16 years, first in stock control, then as the company buyer, and later as the IT Manager.
Which is when I discovered the world of EDI and consultancy!