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June 30, 2008

Filed under: random»personal

Misery & Company

Everyone has an employer-from-hell story, but I think mine ranks pretty highly. Right out of college, I took a job with an AV contractor in Chantilly, VA. At the time I had just started getting into sound as a hobby with my band. I figured this was a cool opportunity to learn more about audio tech.

The company, Custom Fit, was run by a guy named Steve. I didn't know it at the time, but this was apparently Steve's third company or so. He had a habit of starting new ventures, which he would then run into the ground, ruining the credit of whoever he'd conned into providing funding. Originally Custom Fit had been a beige-box computer builder for people who couldn't spell "dell.com" (hence the inexplicable domain standardparts.com), but Steve soon figured out that there was more money in bilking local government organizations for publicly-bidded contracts. So that's what we did.

Working at the World Bank could be ethically ambiguous at times, but for me it never compared with dealing with Custom Fit's clients: building managers for town meeting halls and government facilities laboring under the mistaken assumption that they were going to get a pristine new sound system or video projection setup. As far as I could tell, Steve had no interest in doing that. Instead, a significant portion of his business simply combed government sites for contracts, then figured out the bare minimum that he could possibly bid in order to undercut the competition, while using cheap parts and substandard design to ensure profitability. Of course, I was the one who had to break the bad news to the client when things inevitably started to go wrong. I should have stood up for myself sooner, but I have to admit: I was totally unprepared for the possibility that my boss was a borderline con man.

Oh, the stories I could tell: the accountant that I once inadvertently caught browsing porn (I whistled when I walked around his part of the office after that). The time I tried to order supplies for a job only to be turned down because we hadn't paid our bills on previous orders. Having to constantly go back for more training on the company's home-grown inventory database because Steve (perhaps believing that humiliation builds character) refused to teach anything in sessions longer than five minutes ("Come back when you think you've got that under control," he'd say after showing me how to work a single menu option).

In retrospect, it should have been a warning sign when one of the interview questions concerned XLR cabling, and Steve said that my answer was "wrong, but a good try." I looked it up later. Everything I had said was basically correct.

I learned a lot about how (not) to manage people at Custom Fit. And I learned it well. After two weeks, I gave my two weeks notice (at which point my employment experience actually improved significantly). My parents probably freaked out in private, but they were very supportive of me, and I soon found a new job at the Bank. I got lucky: about a month later, the IRS raided the company and Steve was forced to close shop.

Here's the funny part, and the reason I'm writing about it today: the experience at Custom Fit was so traumatic for employees that many of them have kept in touch to this day. It was a bonding experience, like being taking hostage by terrorists or having Comcast as your cable company (ba-zing!). There was a mailing list for Custom Fit refugees. People hosted reunion picnics. Today I got an invitation to the "Survivors of Custom Fit Inc." group on Facebook.

Let this be a lesson to employers large and small: thanks to the Internet, you will be remembered by an organized group of people, possibly with axes to grind. When Steve tried to relaunch the Custom Fit webpage, word went around quickly, and someone (not me) quickly wrote a script to send his page-counter skyrocketing, just to mess with his head. Don't be like Steve. Treat your people well. Misery may love company in general, but it doesn't have to love yours.

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