Out of Office

People in various offices have been taking vacations (fondly referred to as PTO – paid-time-off, in case you did not know) for decades, if not centuries.  However, it is only in recent times (this century?) that this phenomenon has attained the status of a ceremony. Let me explain myself before you shoot me down.

People in large organizations (as well as small organizations pretending to be large organizations) have the need to know where their colleagues and coworkers are, on a given day, in order to palm off work or, if feeling kindly, ask for help. Fair enough that globally shared calendars are annotated with who is not available when.

Taking this a step forward, it is also understandable that you let people know about your unavailability when they try to contact you via phone or email. Enter the ubiquitous ‘out of office message’ (let us call it ‘oom’ to make it interesting!). Those who have spent enough time in the corporate world readily know that receiving a oom is equivalent to death by a thousand paper cuts.

If you are lucky, the oom could be a one-liner such as “I will be away from …. to ….; will respond upon return”, delivered at lightning speed in response to your email. But, more often than not, you are likely to get a multi-page essay on the following lines:

“Thank you for your email. I am sorry I am not able to be of assistance (did I ask for help?) as I am away exploring colleges for my son who is entering middle school next year (do I need this detail?). The Internet connection could be spotty at times as I am traveling through mountainous regions (someone, please shoot me!), but I will check my mail periodically…….. I will also check every night ……Thank you for your understanding (did I just pull out a bunch of my remaining hair?)……. Hope to catch up with you soon (no, no, never….)”.

There are variations and extensions to this popular corporate game. In a group email chain (a corporate norm, by the way), with everyone hitting the reply-all button, multiple copies of the delightful oom (perhaps from multiple people on PTO at the same time) are generated in no time. The more diligent veterans of the game do not fail to create an equivalent oom on their phone extension in case someone is still old-fashioned enough to contact them over phone.

The oom concept can also be used to brag about yourself and your domain of control, to emphasize your importance in the organization. Take a look at this elaborate oom:

Thanks for contacting me. I am away on vacation in the Himalayas (I bet you did not know I was a certified mountaineer). I know your call is important and needs urgent attention (even if you think otherwise). Please contact:

Joe at …, for Sales related matters

Amber at …, for Payments

Mary at …, for the Cafeteria menu

Ben at …, for HR related matters

Kate at …, for the upcoming Customer Conference related matters

My executive assistant, (Yes, I have an executive assistant), Liz at …, if you would like to wish me Happy Birthday (I will keep a count of people who did not wish me on my birthday)

(Unsaid disclaimer: I may not be in charge of all the things mentioned above)

The Self-Deprecation Tool

I am not sure if this phenomenon is unique to the corporate world or is equally prevalent in other walks of life too – the delicate art of insulting the other person by insulting yourself.

Before you wrack your brain to figure out the sanity level of yours truly, let me begin with an example – ‘is it me going mad?’. There you go – by asking you this rhetorical question about myself (knowing fully well that I am NOT mad) I have indirectly (no, it is actually very direct!) implied that you are mad!

Hopefully you get the trend now. Let me illustrate with a few corporate scenarios that are worthy of being patented under ‘corporate culture’. You say to a coworker, “I don’t know about you but I am drowning in the new system”. What you actually mean is, “How can you and others readily accept and adapt to the new system that is doubling our workload? You guys should be protesting”.

Then there is the famous dumb question routine. In a meeting to discuss the new customer service procedures, after a long presentation explaining every nuance in the game (most of which has gone way beyond your comprehension), you get up and say, “Pardon me, this is a dumb question but ……..”. While the truth is that it IS a dumb question, you desperately make it appear that you are the smart cookie that is pointing out a flaw. The higher the level of the executive asking the question, the dumber it usually is – with the added advantage that everyone else cannot even laugh out aloud.

A variation of this dumb-question routine is to randomly interrupt a discussion and say, “Excuse me if I am getting ahead of myself but what about …..”. The unsaid stuff here is, “Know you lesser mortals that I am ten steps ahead of you. Many of you may never reach there but in the unlikely event that someone does get there through the logical sequence of traversing the other nine steps, I am not going to wait for someone else to steal my thunder”.

Here are some more I-will-insult-you-by-insulting-me favorites:

“Maybe I am missing something here but when is lunch scheduled?”
(actually, “Can’t you guys see that it is way past lunch time?)

“This is perhaps not the right forum to ask this but I was wondering …….”
(“You idiots, I know about this topic also – I was just joking about the right forum”)

“Perhaps we can compare notes later but your conclusions appear to be very unusual”
(“I have no notes and I have given no thought to this but I am quite certain you are wrong”)

In the dog-eat-dog arena of corporate games, self-deprecation is a vintage sport played by none but the best in class.