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A Comedy of Terrors
'The Office' May Be A Farce, but Fans Relate to Its Workplace Horrors

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

Boss enters room: "Hey, everybody! I think we need a morale boost around here. Don't you? Come on! Come on over. Pull up a chair!"

[Office workers look at one another. Eyes roll. They awkwardly slide into place around a conference table.]

Boss to group: "I know I'm the boss, but that's not saying the rest of you don't bring something to the table, don't have some skills. Today I will tell you what you mean to this office."

[Uncomfortable glances between co-workers.]

Boss starts pointing at people, stopping at one fellow: "You've got a legal background. And you are our IT go-to guy."

Boss turns to Heather Boyce, an employee in human resources: "You bring nothing. . . . " Boss prepares to move on to next person.

Workers gasp. Some interject: "Wait just a minute. . . . " Boyce jumps in: "What are you talking about?!"

Boss stumbles. "Uh, well, I just mean you came straight here from college."

[ Silence. Boyce came to the office two years ago. ]

Boss: "But you've got enthusiasm! Yes, you bring enthusiasm."

After the impromptu anti-morale booster, Boyce retreats to desk to add scenario to the list of bad-boss tactics she and co-workers secretly keep.

* * *

No, this is not a script from the NBC comedy "The Office." It really happened to Boyce, who worked for this boss in Richmond several years ago. She has since moved on, thank goodness, but now religiously watches the show that started as a British comedy. The U.S. version of the show -- with comic god Steve Carell ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin") as boss of the Scranton, Pa., paper company Dunder Mifflin -- has just wrapped its second season. The show is a docudrama-style comedy that follows workers at the small office as they live out their dull days under the screwed-up management practices of Michael Scott, Carell's character.

"Now when I'm watching Steve Carell, I'm like, 'Ohmigod, that's my life,' " Boyce said recently.

"The Office": a sitcom that might as well be a reality show.

The uncomfortable silences. The constant awkward moments. Practical jokes, the office kiss-up, the bored office manager, the secret crush and the thermostat wars. Sound familiar?

* * *

HEATHER'S WORLD, TAKE TWO :

Scene: A local Mexican restaurant.

Boyce joins a group of employees and the boss at lunch to welcome a new co-worker.

Lunch is almost finished and it's time to pay the bill.

Boyce takes a few tortilla chips.

Boss watches. He reaches over and moves the basket of chips away from her.

Workers freeze in place, incredulous -- afraid to hear what is about to happen, but too entranced by his next move to look away.

Boss, in sing-songy voice, to Boyce, who's soon to be married: "You want to fit into that wedding dress, don't you?"

Boyce, a size 4, stares at boss, slack-jawed.

* * *

Some people can sit back, watch "The Office" and think how great it is they don't have to work for that boss anymore. Others find comfort in that writers can channel their own office and turn it into something humorous. But for some people, the show plays way too close to home and represents all that is wrong in the work world.

"I know it's like a caricature of what's going on. But I got myself really frustrated because the situation's not too dissimilar. . . . The impact of their behavior is felt all over America. While the scenarios may be different, it was too close to home for me. I stopped watching," said Heather Bradley, a workplace consultant who deals with dysfunctional workplaces. "As someone who has the profession of changing the way people work, I can't watch the show."

But this is television . It's supposed to be fiction. It can't really happen in the real workplace, right?

"This parody is really just like a blown-out version of what we deal with all the time," said Howard Guttman, author of "When Goliaths Clash: Managing Executive Conflict to Build a More Dynamic Organization." Perhaps Dunder Mifflin could hire him: He is also a consultant who helps fix dysfunctional executive teams. And his work is never-ending. He could write an entire season of "The Office" from a week's worth of meetings.

The characters in the show might as well have been taken from our own co-worker rolls. And they probably were. Many offices employ at least one Dwight, the nerdy, wannabe boss who isn't exactly smart. He is a yes-man who will trip over himself while trying to get the boss's attention. In the meantime, of course, he annoys his co-workers. Then there's Pam, the receptionist stuck in a job she fell into. She's would rather be doing something -- anything -- else. But there's no hint of that ambition. You can almost see her thinking "I can't believe I work with these idiots" during most of the workday. There's also Jim, the guy who is similar to Pam -- and has a crush on her. He's smarter than his job requires him to be. People drive him nuts, but he deals with it by playing practical jokes. He particularly likes to taunt Dwight. There was that excellent phase he went through when he kept putting Dwight's office supplies in Jell-O.

But mostly, it comes back to the nightmare boss. He's the anti-P.C. guy. He is self-centered and thinks he is much more important than he is. Sexual harassment has no meaning to him. Think of the worst-case scenario when it comes to diversity training, and you've got Michael Scott. It is his personality that most resonates with real workers, who have more than their share of Michael-like boss stories.

* * *

ENTER VIENNA GOVERNMENT CONTRACTING FIRM:

T an boss stands in middle of office. He has just returned from Hawaiian vacation with wife and has called employees into conference room. Employees, interrupted from work, gather around table and sit, looking cautiously from boss to slide projector warming up overhead.

Boss starts show: pictures from his two-week trip. Surprised employees look to him as he begins to talk about his flight, what he ate on his flight, his hotel, the bathrobe in his room. The beach. What he and his wife ate for dinner. . . .

Two hours later, boss still drones on.

Workers have heads in hands.

Pictures of boss and wife in bathing suits light up office wall.

Employees look at one another.

Clock ticks on.

* * *

Yes, in many ways, our lives at work are stranger than fiction. This lovely tidbit was brought to us by a now-ex-employee who worked in the Web development/programming group of a government contracting firm. Every time this boss returned from a vacation, slide shows "replaced our weekly staff meetings, and were mandatory," she said. She left that office about a year ago and spoke on condition of anonymity because she is still a government contractor. You never know: Even when a boss is a bad one, you might need him when another contract comes up.

"You start to think the whole world is a little crazy, and you're the weird one," she said recently, as she returned home from work. "Now that I'm in a better situation, I realize how crazy that was."

Clay Parcells is a regional manager with Right Management Consultants, a company that helps workers transition into new careers after they have been fired, downsized or let go. The company also counsels corporations on leadership development and talent management, among other things.

Parcells, like others in his industry, has a hard time watching "The Office." "I would hope . . . 'The Office' is not an example of what's going on in corporate America," he said. "Even though it's funny, I cringe when I see the show. I told my wife, 'I can't believe this program's going to make it.' "

Well, it has. The show has been picked up for a full third season of 22 episodes, which will begin in January. The show has that misery-loves-company feel. Who doesn't want to laugh about something that is similar, but maybe just a little bit worse?

* * *

GOVERNMENT CONTRACTING FIRM , TAKE TWO :

It's 2:30 p.m . Friday. Big Boss has again already left office and sends his workers e-mail, asking them to work during weekend. Again.

E-mail reads: "I have volunteered you to help set up the new computer system in our new office. Although you will not get overtime pay, it will be remembered in your review."

The "Office Dwight" hits "reply all" to e-mail: "I am very happy to come in over the weekend."

Scene change to weekend: Boss is, of course, not there.

Office Dwight to his very disgruntled co-workers: "It's so nice outside. We are so lucky to be here enjoying this beautiful view," he says as he looks out window onto parking lot.

* * *

Yes. Really. That same boss also loved to announce that he would throw a big office picnic. They assumed he was buying since he initiated it. A morale booster, right? Without fail, on the Friday before the picnic, he asked the workers what they planned to bring. He volunteered to bring some soda.

* * *

ENTER MARSHA RATTERMAN. SCENE: FIRST JOB IN A LIBRARY IN OHIO:

Belittled unendingly by her boss, Ratterman was scared to come to work. It made her physically sick. Her boss reminded her of Margaret Hamilton in "The Wizard of Oz."

Ready to finally move on, Ratterman writes resignation letter. Fearing boss, she looks both ways, drops it on boss's chair and exits office.

Boss comes in, notices letter, marches out to Ratterman: "You're a smart aleck, and we don't need your kind in the p ublic l ibrary . Good riddance to you!"

Ratterman picks up her things, leaves library, and suddenly realizes that she has taken control of her life and it can now be better.

* * *

"I went on to better things and places," Ratterman said. "It's not perfect here, but no one is as bad as the Steve Carell character . . . or Dwight," who once told the women in the office that having a bathroom is a privilege.

On Thursdays, Ratterman always goes home to watch "her" show. It reminds her of where she has been and might shed some light on things that could be changed at her own workplace in Cincinnati. "I'll bet a lot of people think the show is completely over the top, and they have no idea how close to reality it is, unfortunately."

Ratterman has even created her own perfect ending to the show, should it ever go off the air:

"The final episode should show the employees being awarded some huge judgment following their lawsuit for workplace harassment, and the boss rolled up in a rug and thrown out in the parking lot."

My educated guess is many people envision that same thing as their very own happy ending.

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