Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Work is not Rabbit"

This post's title is a quote from the eminently readable David Warren's Labour Day column.  It's a quote from an old Czech friend of his, followed by, "It will not run away."

The meaning is that one's job, or more precisely, work in general, will always be there, and one should not sacrifice one's soul to it.  Rather than endorsing irresponsibility, he encourages priorities, by saying, "Lose a job, and you may find another. Do not lose a child."

Reading it reminded me of the job I held for 3 months before my wedding.  I was the receptionist at an electronics repair shop.  I took in customers' VCRs & stereos, arranged dates for service calls on large TVs, and did a lot of general office work, including filing.  I enjoyed the work and my colleagues were great.  The boss, however, was a weasel, as I learned after about a month on the job.

Every now and then he would give me a stack of completed repair invoices for filing.  The moment I realized his weasel-ness was when I noticed that one of the invoice copies I was filing was one I had already filed, and the total cost at the bottom of it was higher than the original had been.  I pulled the original out to confirm what my memory had told me, and as I looked through the whole stack of copies he had asked me to file, I realized that every single one of them - dozens - had had the price changed.

I looked deeper into it.  All of these were for work done within the manufacturer's warranty.  If the solution to the customer's poor VCR playback was a simple cleaning of the internal components, that's what the original invoice would say.  The customer would come and pick it up, sign the invoice, and be on his merry way.  I would file that copy.  The pattern I saw emerging was that my boss, a few days after the customer picked up the unit, would open up the invoice software, add a few fictional replacement parts and more labour, reprint the invoice, forge the customer's signature, and use that invoice to bill the manufacturer.

The manufacturers were none the wiser, with the exception of RCA, who had obviously been burned by this in the past and required all of their warranty shops to keep the faulty components they replaced.  Every few months RCA would send somebody in to collect them, so my boss couldn't pull the scam off on them.  But Panasonic, Phillips, Sony - they had been nailed for years this way, I realized once I started looking back through the older files.

My moral compass was, thankfully, well formed by that point in my life, and I confronted my boss on it.  "This is fraud and it's wrong," I told him.  "You've got to stop this."

He balked at that idea.  "Warranty work pays peanuts compared to non-warranty work.  It's not worthwhile to do warranty repairs at the rates we get.  Everybody in the repair business does this, and the manufacturers know and don't care.  They practically expect it."  Classic justification.

I stuck to my guns.  "If you don't stop doing this, I'll have to resign," I said.  It was an ultimatum, and I meant it.  I'm sure he didn't take me seriously; he kept saying things like how young and naive I was; that once I grew up a little and had more life experience I'd see things in more shades of grey that I was capable of right then.  This was eleven years ago, and I'm proud to say that my sense of right and wrong has not changed.

Ultimately, he refused to stop doing it, and I resigned.  It was a month before my wedding, and it wasn't easy to put a search for a new job on my to-do list right then.  But my spiritual advisor at the time, the venerable Fr. Bob Bedard, counselled that I had indeed done the right thing.  What kind of husband would I be, he asked, if I caved at the pressures of the corrupt world around me?

It all worked out - I got another job after the honeymoon without any difficulty.  Looking back, I'm very glad that I made the decisions I did back then, with the exception of one, which was a wee bit churlish.  I had written the poem below to capture my feelings as I went through this struggle.  On my last day, I programmed my computer to pop-up the poem about three months later.  I never found out if it worked or what the reaction was.

The Fool

To have a conscience in this day of lies
To be a light when darkness is preferred
To dare to stand, when "Sit!" the planet cries,
O pity me, for I must be a fool.

Uneducated, fresh, young, and naive,
I beg your sympathy for my poor fate.
I know my non-conformance makes you grieve.
O pity me, for I must be a fool.

You hearken to me; pray you, listen close!
For neither this, your system, nor yourself
Will be the judge of earth and all its host.
So reckon as you will.  I am no fool.

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