I landed my first (and so far last) white-collar job in Sydney. I processed documentation for shipments of meat, veggies and dairy products from Australian producers to organisations in the hospitality industries of SE Asia and the Middle East, organised production and logistics and liaised with clients, suppliers, freight forwarders, quarantine authorities e.t.c.
Walking to work, as I blended into the flows of people in corporate outfits below monumental office high rise buildings, I felt like a camouflaged spy from an alien planet. I wore a corporate outfit too (at least in my own opinion), so maybe I looked indistinguishable in the crowd. Maybe everybody feel like spies in such a crowd, while they try to pretend that they are genuinely corporate.
The tiniest documentation mistake was a speedway to disaster due to the strict export regulations (depending on the country and product), product value and perishability, time sensitivity (e.g. airfreight cut offs) and market sensitivity.
The first year was terrifying, but the next one and a half year was easier, because my new boss and I developed our own information base where everything was correct, updated and organised. I developed rules and colour systems for shipment management, rigid documentation procedures with consistent built-in checks. The job was excruciatingly boring and made little use of my expensive education; but I could do the job and was useful.
It was pure office work, I never once visited a supplier or freight forwarder and experienced first hand the realities behind the documents, so I felt somewhat disconnected from what I was doing. However, my boss took photos and was kind to show them to me and explain what was going on when he had been on his reality check visits to freight forwarders, abattoirs and overseas markets.
Overall, I did get a fairly good idea of the tricks and politics of a small trading company operating in a business climate where
- reliability, timeliness and top quality are fundamental to survival
- clients are long term partners, relatively few and very demanding
- suppliers have the upper hand and can behave like princesses if they like
- goods are produced to order; scarce; perishable; sensitive; and subjected to pedantic regulations that varies depending on product and country
- production is slow, inflexible and somewhat unpredictable. Animals and crops take time to grow depend on weather and other unpredictable circumstances and kill/harvest and processing can’t be sped up
- ‘Acts of God’ (floods, draughts, bushfires) some times ruin all plans
- currency fluctuations, red tape and freight risks add extra drama
ERP implementation and Human Resources Management learnings
The company implemented an ERP system during my time and had to review and restructure all information before putting it into the new system, so a range of improvements took place.
I learned heaps about HR management as I watched from the sideline how the management team, consisting of dinosaurs, dealt with the customisation process, decided that the training sessions were executive-level only (so the executives could later pass their insights onto the remaining staff) and failed to involve low level non-dinosaurs who could have helped.
I noticed how the communication with the system supplier gradually went haywire and how the system supplier became the butt of jokes and blame games on a daily basis. Whenever somebody couldn’t get the system to do something they wanted it to do, it was the system supplier’s fault. Of course, lack of training had nothing to do with it.
The workplace culture was informal, matey and subtle with most executives being old school mates. The employee turnover for non-executives was impressive: after two and a half year, I was the last remaining non-executive level staff of the ones who had been there when I started… and that was not because the others had moved up.
Some positions saw 3-4 employees pass through during my time and for some reason (maybe because I wasn’t ‘part of the gang’) some of these pass-through employees were eager to explain to me why they quit and why they thought the workplace sucked. I explained that, believe it or not, the workplace had improved heaps since I started and was in a process of change. That was actually true.
Alpha vs Omega bitch war
But I had the office’s Alpha bitch* on my neck. She hated me. Most of the time she just bitched about me behind my back, but she also occasionally complained to my boss about apparent insults. She told my boss that she was in therapy because of me. She picked up that I was passionate about the ERP implementation and that I wanted crazily to get a chance to help working it out, and used it to tease me. She enjoyed reminding me that my systems security level was very low, and hers was top administrator level. Like:
Can you help me with this? or sorry, I forgot, you probably don’t have security to access it. Never mind.
And no, people didn’t seem to mind her dramas because she was fun-making and assertive in a way that made them feel she was in control and making her mark.
Long-suffering days in the office
The weekly cycle of days went on and on and on and on and on. Every morning, I walked out of the elevator and into a gloomy day that felt like being buried alive. I was the Omega* of the organisation; the lone wolf lingering in the corner. The work was risky, but since I had the hang of it, it was easy. My position was quite safe because my work was hard to learn and boring to do. It was going zombie-like well.
The team work with my direct boss went smoothly (mostly). He valued my know-how and depended on it. He did not mind that I went into information exploration mode and experimented with things as long as I kept strict control of our shipments, so I stuck out the boredom by reading the ERP system manuals and help menus and experimenting with spreadsheets, procedures and systems. I was desperate to progress, but my desire to get more involved appeared to be seen as a nuisance.
Strangely, the easy job was completely draining. I sleep walked through the workdays, struggled to stay awake at my desk, and slept many evenings and Saturdays away. On Sundays, I started to worry about Monday. On Mondays I could not believe that I once again had a zombie-week in front of me.
Why I did not quit earlier, and why I did quit without having a new job in my pocket
I think everybody wondered why I stayed so long. This is why:
- My husband had started a business and we needed one safe income
- I wasn’t confident I could get another job. I felt I hadn’t learned enough in my current job yet to offer a new employer substantial experience.
- I don’t cope well with changes and wasn’t ready to expose myself to the shock and insecurity** of a new job start
- The job ads were scary. The employers were clearly looking for someone else.
- My education points towards a marketing career. Marketing is the heart and soul of any organisation, but jobs with ‘marketing’ in their titles ask for multitasking corporate ladies with great social know-how
- The office was quiet and located in calm surroundings, so my issues with background noise did not bother me much. Jobs suitable for my education are typically located in CBD and likely to be busy and noisy. Also, my colleagues were used to my quirks and non-mingling. A new workplace would expect me to mingle and fit in
- I wanted to exit on a positive note with a sense of achievement, so I wanted to grow within the organisation before leaving
I did apply for jobs regularly anyway. Nothing happened.
One day I just could not live with it anymore. I handed in my resignation although, against all advice, I did not have another job offer in my pocket. That was maybe not smart, but it killed the relentless fatigue and instantly gave me back my quality of life.
*Alpha, Beta and Omega illustrate individuals’ status within a social group by referring to the hierarchy in a wolf pack. ‘Alpha bitch’ refers to an assertive woman with top status within her social group, often a bully. Omega is used to define the lowest ranking individual who anyone can pick on.
The metaphor builds on outdated and incorrect ideas about how a wolf pack works. A wolf pack is in fact a nuclear family, and the alpha pair is the parents of all the other wolves in the pack. However, it can still help in explaining human behaviour and levels of dominance within a human organisation.
**Jobs in Australia begin with a 3 months probation period that can be extended if the employer feels like it.