I suspect that in every group of cavemen there was one who always slept at the mouth of the cave in the summer (unless a marauder was expected) and in the best position by the fire in the winter.
And as mankind became more inventive, the same person probably had a company wheel. Status symbols are nothing new.
In fact I'm confident that if a prehistoric person could be suddenly conjured up on the midst of a 20th century office, he or she would catch on to some of our pecking order signs very quickly. Such as cave size . . . and sharing a cave with the others versus having one's own partitioned cave, walled cave, cave with windows or corner cave.
Not having a secretary versus sharing one versus having your own is a set of distinctions that is equally obvious and almost as ancient. And the reserved parking place in the company parking lot has been a badge of rank for years.
I was impressed the other day, however, to learn of an executive who has two reserved parking places near his company's front door. I took this as a sign of exceptional clout . . . or awesome ineptness at parking. And in spite of the ambiguity, it reminded me of how we keep refining our status symbols and adding to them as well.
Some of the impetus could have come from top-heavy organizations such as banks and advertising agencies which rashly created more VPs than they had corner offices. And the graduated income tax has no doubt played a role in making perks almost as appealing to top-bracket folks as a raise.
Anyway, for one reason and another, the trappings of power have gone far beyond "a Bigelow on the floor" in recent years. Now the students of office sociology (you and I and almost everyone else) have to note all kinds of evidence in assessing the relative bigness of our local biggies.
Who has a wall of built-in cabinets? A bar? Antiques? Valuable original art? A private bathroom? Or that 10-pointer on the cachet scale, a private dining room?
Some of this largesse may not be as extravagant from the stockholders' point of view as it seems. A chauffeured limo may be a cheaper way to keep a valuable leader happy than another batch of stock options.
On the other hand, status symbols are one type of thing that has trickled down. They have proliferated at lower levels of management as well as the top--at no small cost. Greenery from the local rent-a-tree company. Etchings and lithographs. Separate credit cards for business use. Multiple phone lines. Access to the WATS lines. And much more.
Many companies now have detailed purchasing manuals that cover office furnishings according to job level, spelling out who is entitled to which kind of ashtray, stationery, lamp or couch (if any), and so forth.
These manuals are destined, of course, to be incomplete almost as soon as they are issued. One reason is that the quest for new executive frills goes hand in hand with the march of technology.
Some of the recent favorites are the video tape recorder, the computer terminal for the executive who doesn't need it but likes to call up data or compute on his own once in a while, and the phone that can reach various long-distance numbers with one touch of a button. This type of phone is actually a multiple status symbol: a primary one for its user, a secondary one for those whose numbers rate a button.
And where will this grasping for palpable signs of power and privilege end? It won't. Because, on the office scene at least, most of us only believe in equality for ourselves--with those who outrank us.