The Story Of Two 12s

“Crap, did you hear that?” buzzed the assembly floor that morning.

Dim, flickering, blue fluorescent lights buzzed overhead in the massive space where we spent so many hours. Much like Vegas, you couldn’t tell if it was day or night because there were no windows. The drabness of the place was mirrored in our facial expressions. You could tell we all felt blah. Noises of machinery and people yelling out status of key jobs filled the air as we mindlessly went about our work.

We heard there was a new general manager, and so there was also lots of fear buzzing about what they might do. Many stories were passing around about how this GM invested in all sorts of nefarious things and was a tyrant, not to be messed with.

Most of us have never conversed with this person. He also hadn’t talked to us on “the floor” before either. So, we were apt to believe whatever story we heard about him.

Soon, we were lined up to talk to the shop foreman and the new GM one by one. Many of us expected a layoff. Our loud and busy workplace became dead quiet.

It was so quiet that the speaker in the ceiling, which we thought was broken, was playing Muzak. It’s the first time many of us have heard this. It attempted to squeak out the old tune “Danke Schoen” in a way both pathetic and sad.

Nobody said anything as they came out after their meeting with the new leaders, continuing the mystery. However, most went back to work, which seemed like a good sign. Nobody left with a pink folder, but the blank looks on their faces were still frightening.

My turn in line came. “Chris, have a seat”. I’m not sure that I was breathing as I collapsed in the plastic chair. “Chris, I need you to work two twelves this weekend. We have a lot of work and need to catch up.”

Now, as a backstory, we didn’t have any more work to catch up on. I worked in pre-press as a scanner operator. Back in the 80s and 90s, things like Photoshop and digital editing didn’t exist. For images to appear in a magazine, they had to be scanned in, retouched, and then type was hand laid out on each page.

Our work was done after the magazine finished their production and before press time. Press time is expensive, and a magazine’s productions were often late getting to us. We were caught in the middle, so everything was always urgent. The shop ran 24/7/365 with two or three shifts.

I worked the swing/night shift. Because it was quieter then, as normal people were sleeping, we had high productivity. It wasn’t unusual for me to do 90-120 scans in a shift, compared to maybe 20 on the day shift.

Okay, back to our story. I, perhaps luckily, had an out. I had a family visiting from out of town and had requested time off that weekend (we normally worked 6 days a week).

I offered the GM, “Could I work extra hours this week or do two twelves next weekend?” He paused. I was supposed to say yes or no to this shift request. He gave me a long hard look. I panicked again and imagined him firing me. I’d never been fired before.

“Chris, I didn’t know that. I appreciate your offer. We’ll get back to you. Go back to work.”

I finished my 10-hour shift, and several others, not knowing my fate. I contemplated telling my family that, while they flew four hours to see me, I might not be available. On the Friday shift before this weekend, my boss said, “You’re off the hook.” That’s all he said. I had learned at this company not to ask questions and said, “Thank you. What’s on the docket for tonight?”

Now, we could all critique this change in leadership and the transition. We can absolutely question if there was no extra work to do, why the “two twelves” mantra? Or, why the BS?

In that culture, long hours were a bit of pride. Not productivity, but long hours. If you worked 12s, no matter how little work you did, you were a hero.

It wasn’t about how much work you did or how many you helped; it was just how many hours showed up on the punch card. And yes, the company paid for overtime.

Why did I put up with this?

I had dropped out of college and didn’t have a great skillset. This job paid about double the minimum wage, mostly due to the normal 30 hours of weekly overtime. I felt lucky to have this job and it was more about survival than thriving.

Thankfully, my career has progressed considerably since this time. But, for a few years, many things like the “two 12s” occurred for seemingly no reason. Some people there worked 40 years in those conditions and considered themselves lucky to have their jobs. Most had a weary look in their eyes, rarely smiled, and were considerably overweight. Other than our work, we didn’t talk about much else. Other than the annual company picnic, we didn’t hang out outside of work either.

Like many of you who can reflect on difficult jobs you have had, I can remember how I felt - frightened, stuck, and angry. I kept the anger bottled up inside because it would probably only result in my being fired. Even early in my career, I knew there was a better way to run a productive organization, a different way to create high performing teams, and another approach to leadership other than domination.

While this is not as severe as most of us experience in the workplace, some notion of command-control and dominance is still common. There’s an assembly floor attitude that permeates even the most innovative and creative companies. And, often they are surprised that this sort of management style doesn’t produce lasting results.

For those working in it, they have to determine how to boost their resilience in the short term, and also how to navigate a better place for them. Bonus points here for not repeating the same mistakes in that work - which is really easy to do. Then, we are somehow surpised that it keeps happening, unaware of our part in recreating the same.

This is why I wrote Boost Your Bullsh*t Resilience At Work - to serve all of you that need to get through hard times without exploding or imploding. And, at the same time, to help you find a way to create a better work environment - whether that is your current employer, side hustle, or new employer.

There’s a lot more to this than “just get over it” or “just leave”.

If those worked, you’d be in career bliss already. So, when you are ready, know the book, workbook, and programs are there for you. You don’t need to live in the two 12s world anymore!

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