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Tips from a Bitter Temp


How to survive in a bureaucracy

When I tell people I work at an insurance company, I feel I need to explain myself. Sure, I work in insurance, but I'm "in insurance" about as much as a Giants Stadium security guard is "in professional football." See, I'm a temp. An outsider. My industry? Survival.

I perform and write comedy, which in my case is not lucrative. So I temp and do my funny business on the side. Since moving to New York I've strung together about a dozen long-term temp gigs at big-time, fancy-pants companies. Now, a year after settling in, I still don't know a thing about insurance. But I know a whole lot about surviving in a bureaucracy. Here are five tips from a bitter temp:

1. RELISH THE COMFORT OF CORPORATE LARGESSE.

Two jobs ago I shared a conference table in a windowless room with 12 other people five days a week. My last gig was a step up: an office in the Empire State Building, a jewel of an historic building with climate control from another century. Imagine my delight when I arrived at my current job to find not only my own air-conditioned cubicle, desk, phone, computer, and Aeron (MLHR) chair, but a nearby pantry stocked with free coffee, milk, and cereal—including my guilty pleasure, Corn Pops (K).

2. LEARN THE JARGON, BUT USE IT CAREFULLY.

Each time I'm assigned to a new company, it's like moving to a new country. I've got to learn the local language. In my current office, the underwriters talk about "sublimits," "percentage deductibles," and "quota-share excess renewals." It's Greek to me. There's also an account service notification form, otherwise known as an ASNF. Say that one aloud and see if you don't laugh as hard as I did.

3. FOLLOW THE MANUAL, KEEP YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR.

Bureaucracies are big on protocol. There's a right way to do everything—like recording your voice mail message. My company manual suggests this: "Hello. This is Anne Altman. I am unavailable . Please leave a message and I'll return your call as soon as possible. Thanks and have a nice day." Here's what I'd really like to say: "Hi. This is Anne Altman and I'm screening your call. I will most likely reply to your voice mail with an e-mail so I don't have to speak with you. Buzz off."

4. DRINK THE KOOL-AID, JUST DON'T CHUG IT.

Bureaucracies are little subcultures that sometimes seem more like cults. Take sales meetings. They bear a cult's telltale signs: leader (an over-caffeinated VP of sales), mantra (Accelerate in 2008!), big production number ("The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades"), and ritualistic insignia (logo-emblazoned totes). I sit in the back where nobody can catch me scrawling "KILL ME PLEASE" on my handout.

5. DON'T GET TOO COMFORTABLE.

Settle in. Master the language. Sip the Kool-Aid. But remember: You could be out on a moment's notice. I was once denied a dollar-an-hour raise. At first I was insulted. But the next week two execs were canned with no notice, led down the hall like criminals, and spirited out with a "We'll mail you the contents of your desk." Young guys right out of college were speechless. Me? I poured myself a bowl of Corn Pops and sat back down in my Aeron chair.

I've adapted so well to my new environment that my boss wants to offer me a job, make me legit: an underwriter. "So, Anne," he said. "Do you like insurance?" After some stalling I said: "Look, I don't understand this stuff, but I love the cereal here. I love the chairs. I really, really like a few of the people, and I'd like to stay. How can we make that happen? Could I have a demotion? Order staplers and stuff? That I know how to do."

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