Friday, September 19, 2008

Workplace decorum... what's the fuss?

My father worked in the same office in Kolkata's cluttered Bentinct Street for 28 years before retiring with pension. From the office peon to his subordinates he was called 'Bhowmik-da' by everyone.

He was invited to every 'chhat' puja and celebrations at his Bihari driver's house.

And his colleagues, by his own admission, were no more than graduates from Calcutta University, who would dig into boudi's (my mother) cooking with great concentration when they came over to our house.

It must have been confusing for him when the office hired a new CEO with a bunch of abbreviations after his name with an advanced degree specially in office management.

The peon and driver of course could not come to office dressed in faded half sleeved shirts and semi-clean trousers. Out comes swanky uniforms complete with caps.

The smoking area was revamped with potted palms and an ugly brass frog with coins in its mouth, squatting on what looked like a pile of human remains.

The 'ladies' were given an e-mail IDs where they could complain anonymously of any harassment from their mail co-workers.
("What a dratted nuisance, now I have to learn how to operate emails to lodge a complaint?" The 40-year-old typist who brought her stitching to office was heard grumbling)

I don't know if the productivity had gone up (the CEO's yearly appraisal was apparently based on that objective), but the peon and driver were tolerant in their criticism of the affairs.

("I wouldn't mind these god-forsaken $%^&#$@ uniforms so much if they weren't starched")
Swearing in office was another taboo. "Shala, what's wrong with a well-rounded healthy swear word?" Bewildered Chatterji babu asked around.

Now coming to my office, I would say it is a pretty formal place. But as is true everywhere, half its population comprises Bengalis - a breed infamous for taking possession and giving a homely touch to even a railway station waiting room, if they happen to stop by for an hour.

I had my reservations initially about the place because I came from an Indian news agency where decorum meant waiting to see if you are around before casually stealing your "bread pakora" (not speaking metaphorically) during tea time.

The boss (Editor in my case) called me Ria, Rupam and Rohini for the first one month of joining and looked genuinely surprised when I politely pointed out that my real name is Rituparna. He apologised and called me "Oye ladki!" from next month on whenever he had any instructions to give me.

So my current workplace looked very daunting and proper, where people did not greet each other with friendly expletives. Until my deep dark secret came out one day. I'm a compulsive foodie (don't judge me). I have to munch on something whole day. Yeah, yeah, I'm getting help and am much better now. But people here looked on me with great wonder as I demolished peanuts, chips, lunch, breakfast, tea, coffee, dinner, biscuits, crackers, chocolate, sprouts, and chewing gum.

It was probably too much. So the good natured ribbing started. Whenever there's no food present on my desk (between meals) they would ask solicitously about my health.

I was so wrong in thinking that these people were cold-hearted monsters.
The formality dispensed with, they threw office decorum to the wind and started calling me fond teasing names like "pagli" (mad) and "bhootni" (female ghost).
Both of which I'm sure calls for a case of harassment.

I added to the general lack of formality I confess, with my horrible slips of tongue.

Like the time I was complaining to a senior colleague how I'm always forgotten somehow when he asks people to share his dinner. What I wanted to say was "It's like I'm always in the fringes."
What came out was "I'm always a fringe benefit." To much laughter and teasing.

So what I'm trying to say in this long rambling post is, its good to have rules in offices to keep people disciplined. But lets not overdo it. Look into your heart and honestly tell me how satisfying it is to say "shala bunchot" when you want to let off steam. Or in my case continuing the great tradition of my old place and stealing boiled eggs from a colleague's plate when he is looking the other way.


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