where does workplace trauma go?

on seeking revenge and redemption in the press

Dear Tech Support,

I’m coming off of a job experience that was some bad shit. The environment was toxic and I was consistently undervalued, disrespected, and frustrated. I’ve been talking to my therapist a bit about my rage and my inability to shake it despite my new gig being pretty good. She encouraged me to consider what justice looks like for me. One of the reasons why I’m so ragey is because everyone thinks I left for my dream job. The reality is I left because I was so traumatized that I nearly lost everything. I’m curious how you handled everything as I explore my own path to confronting and owning my story. I’m not sure if I’ll ultimately go public but she’s encouraging me to talk more to people who did to understand the rewards and risks of doing so.

xoxo -Trauma Queen

How I handled everything….hmm….I appreciate that this question pre-supposes I’ve handled anything, the verb “to handle” carrying—for me, anyway—a sense of having managed a project to completion, as I type this from bed, where I’m fully swaddled in a winter-weight comforter and propped up by a cheap and extremely punishing shiatsu massager. I generally feel more handled than in a position of handling, and insofar as I have “gone public” about my own “bad shit” at work, much of this figures in memory now as random and/or accidental, the cosmic alignment of having a congenitally enormous mouth and some opportunity to run it. I’m clearly still processing: I recently dreamed about running into a former manager that I called out publicly in the dizzying post-Walkout high (I’m referring to Google Creative Lab, if anyone out there knows or cares about the sub-group specificity). The dream wasn’t a nightmare or anything—the manager (“Justin”) and I just stared at each other wordlessly, our pursed lips and narrowed eyes maybe doing a bit of “how dare you….” “how dared you”—but nevertheless I woke up drenched in sweat and remorseful. Was it right for me to say all that? Was it fair (I really did talk some shit.)? I read “Conflict is Not Abuse” recently and wondered: am I guilty of overstating harm? Who has power over whom? I had a really bad time in that job and despise everything they (“they” being the management, “The Lab,” Google in general!) stand for, but I also dislike flattening stories, and the whole picture was quite a bit more nuanced than the way it appeared in New York Magazine. The morning after the dream, I toyed with “liking” a virtue signaling LinkedIn post from one of the other leaders of that department, unsure if the impulse was more peace offering or light trolling. So that’s how replying to this question started, and how it’s going is that I’ve been psychically thrust into a multi-part reliving/re-processing of that traumatic work experience, and while I’m at it reckoning with everything I’ve ever said and done. Will there be a rainbow at the end of this spiral that justifies and makes peace with all my life choices? All right, all right, I’m up, I’m rolling out of bed, shuffling to the door, flipping the sign from ‘Closed’ to ‘Open’….COME ON IN.

The Very Bad Year started with such promise. Getting this job—at Google’s “elite” in-house creative agency, Creative Lab—had been suspiciously easy. For the five years of my career that preceded, I was a rank and file Communications employee who’d gotten some internal notoriety by sending around a quirky weekly company-wide email. People liked them and made memes about them, etc. (I found it all pretty embarrassing now, though; in the sobering light of 2021, they sound like a one-woman psyop—making fun/light/absurd of whatever was going on at Google in a way that managed to flatter executives and contribute to the company’s self-mythologizing). Eventually they attracted the attention of some of the company’s marketing execs—someone forwarded me an exchange where they were parsing my emails and being like “why isn’t she working for us?” Taking a job at Creative Lab meant pulling up stakes and moving to New York. But I was a restless 27-year-old going through a breakup, so this opportunity to start a new chapter felt so effortless and ideal I figured I’d somehow manifested it—it was meant to be.  

Google Creative Lab’s office was a gorgeous, two-story loft on top of Google’s city-block-sized building in New York, with postcard views of the Manhattan skyline. On my first day, I snapped a picture of the words painted on the entrance: “This place is about truth, beauty, freedom, and above all, love.” This should’ve been a red flag, a foreshadowing of the smug, pseudo-religious rhetoric masking sub-optimal working conditions, but alas, I posted it earnestly to Instagram. 

Creative Lab turned shilling for a megacorp into an art form—literally. The place was full of incredibly talented young people—filmmakers, designers, producers, animators, technologists, etc.—and as the executives boasted at every opportunity, the team spent “at least 95% of their time making stuff.” But what exactly were they making? The various mission statements they floated around were a mix of sing-songy corporate gobbledegook (“remind the world what it is they love about Google,” “make Google’s magic more magical”) and faux altruism (“we’re just here to connect everyday people with amazing Google technology they could really benefit from!”). At the time I joined, 2012, they were really feeling themselves for having influenced the early interface design of Google Glass (“when our creative artists collaborated with the amazing mad scientist engineers, we knew we’d hit upon something that was going to change the world.” No further comment beyond “lol”) and the growing power that implied they had to “help invent Google’s future.” But their real niche (and arguable genius) was the “manufacturing consent” commercial; if you’ve ever seen a Super Bowl ad from Google like “Dear Sophie” or “Loretta”, the Lab made it. In 90 seconds or less, they’ll make you cry, remind us of our shared humanity, and assure you that ceding all your personal data to Google is good, actually. 

The head of Creative Lab, Andy Berndt, was an ad industry titan shrouded in tech industry myth—he’d apparently come up with Apple’s “Think Different” campaign. He had a gregarious, charming, self-deprecating schtick, but his management style could best be summed up as “fear and anxiety.” His opinion on the work and the people who created it was literally the only one that mattered. Unlike my old team in Mountain View where there were some checks and balances and processes that prevented the power (im)balance between management and employees from becoming totally out of whack, the Lab operated however Andy wanted. He apparently did the performance review process with a whiteboard and a stack of post-its with people’s names on it, unilaterally deciding who went above and below the line. You were only as good as your last creative review, so the office was never completely empty; even at midnight and over the weekends, you’d find guys in front of their massive computer monitors, glassy-eyed and on the wrong end of a pile of Red Bulls, swirling a stylus around a Wacom tablet. People never really commiserated or complained, though, because they were all freelancers whose contracts could be cut or extended at will, randomly, sometimes with no notice (of course if you were a “total rock star,” a “perfect culture fit,” maybe you’d get converted to a full-time position and get health insurance and vacation days).   

I joined as a copywriter, and I would say I just wasn’t very good at it, but I never really had a chance. Justin, one of the executive creative directors and my manager, was constantly stressed or on deadline or in the middle of something. When I first arrived, he instructed me to just watch everything Creative Lab had ever made and they’d find something for me to work on eventually. That was the last I heard of him for at least a month; my Gchat archive from that time (shoutout to Yvonne Delbanco and Lisa Bubbers for being such generous space-holders for my career-induced panic disorder from 2012-13!) is just me spiraling about Justin always canceling our 1:1s or recounting choice anecdotes like him saying to me “Oh, I forgot you existed” when we ran into each other in the snack kitchen. A freelancer, a buddy of Justin’s from Wieden+Kennedy, joined around the same time and was immediately busy. I honestly have no idea if he was a good writer or not, but it didn’t really matter because he was so Southern charming and kept a guitar at his desk with which he often broke into spontaneous mid-afternoon song. Justin also loved Emily, a copywriter who was absolutely incredible at the job. However much they were paying her, it wasn’t enough. She was always working on the most important Lab projects and her writing output was lightning-fast and invariably perfect. Whenever Justin would throw me a bone and give me some small copywriting assignment, I’d toil over a script or creative treatment, anxiously trying to get it right, then wait on tenterhooks for his feedback. From there it played out like this: Justin would enter the doc, exit, then some days would pass and I’d see the team assembled in Justin’s office or the glass-walled conference room for a creative review and realize that Emily had been tagged in to take my place. This place was about truth, beauty, freedom, and above all, love!

Eventually I found some creative flow—mostly by shopping myself to the non-Justin creative directors—but it clearly was too late or not enough. A year after I joined I had a performance review where Justin told me it was time to “wrap things up.” This was a Lab after all, and the experiment that was Me had failed. Just in case I hadn’t fully gotten the message, in the next day’s staff meeting, he glanced briefly over at me before launching into a long rant about how the whole team needed to step up and help onboard a new writer who was starting the next week. “We all know how painful and awkward it is to watch people who've uprooted their lives to join the Lab,” he said, only to flail around and "fall through the cracks" and "linger around forever." He concluded by saying, “if I could just clone Emily, my life would be a lot fucking easier.” 

(I realize I’m a football field away from the question but I promise I’m jogging back to the general vicinity now…). That final humiliation was crushing—I can still conjure up the sense-memory of tensing up my entire body, physically barring the tears from coming out before I could get out of the conference room—but I’m oddly grateful for it now. Feeling shattered by the place I’d given so much of myself to was, while not an experience I’d recommend, a profound and instructive life event: it shook the company shill out of me, so to speak. I was free from believing corporate bullshit, especially the narrow ways they assess people’s value and Google’s specific brand of cloying techno-optimism, because after that, who could?

What I believe now is that Google is looting the world and consolidating power in advance of the increasing chaos and instability facing humanity. And that necessarily involves treating a lot of people like they don’t matter. Consciously or unconsciously, a lot of the choices that I’ve made since the Lab—be it the Walkout or just habitual shit-talking in the press, or even this cathartic little jog you’ve inspired me to take—is about reminding people (and myself) that they do.

I’m kind of running out of time and space here so I’m going to sign off and hope for the best that this covered off risks/rewards of going public, confronting/owning one’s story, what justice for traumatized tech workers looks like. The therapeutic journey is good, but so is holding onto a little bit of the rage. As Alice Walker says in the perfect book, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, “a little bit of hate, keenly directed, is a useful thing.”

Yours in truth, beauty, freedom and of course, above all—who could forget?—love,

Claire

***

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