Civilian office workers--How do you do it?

I’m military. It’s all I’ve ever known outside of college. My wife works in the civilian sector. It’s all she’s ever known outside of college.

Frankly, I am amazed at some of the stories she tells about coworkers and bosses. Truly amazed.

I have almost 13 years in the Navy, and I’ve been in flying squadrons and cubicle farms, some great jobs, and some bad. Throughout it all, I never fail to walk away from a job without a sense of deep appreciation for the people I work with. This is a bond formed–especially in a deploying unit–by traveling. You go on the road and you experience all sorts of shit. Some great, some horrible. But along the way, you see how people behave and work. Long days, hard work, tough decisions, bad conditions. You see who can be counted on and who goes on your mental Ignore List. You see good leaders and good followers (and bad). You joke around with each other, you bitch and moan about the long hours and nasty conditions, and you collectively enjoy the oases of happiness when they come along.

But all you civilians–for the most part, it seems like you have none of that. The military is pretty decent about getting rid of those who can’t perform, so my Ignore List has always been pretty short. My wife works with people that are largely incompetent. There when my wife arrived, and will probably be there when my wife leaves. It was that way in her last job, too. I’m sure this is very common in the civilian sector. These people somehow do not get weeded out. Usually, in an office, incompetence has a rippling effect and is not confined to the individual. Other folks have to deal with it, manage it, and correct it, with no extra pay and little to no acknowledgment or appreciation from anyone. Add to that bad leadership (lack of awareness of the incompetence or condoning of it, bad communication, lack of a strategic vision, throwing out solid suggestions for no good reason, etc.), and on top of that an utter lack of any kind of comradeship or sense of unity in the office, and it’s a horrible way to be day after day.

I don’t love the current job I’m in, and I’ve certainly seen some of the above in the military, but I always enjoy the people I work with. It makes it worth the effort and, aside from personal pride, gives me motivation to do a good job so I can keep their respect. In every retirement speech I’ve ever heard, there is always a paean to those worked with over the years. I haven’t seen that attitude in the civilian world. I don’t think I’m expressing anything new here, but man, after hearing over and over from my wife about her office, it really makes me appreciate this aspect of the military.

So, am I out to lunch with any of this, or not? Many of you are ex military, so have a perspective I’d especially like to hear. Either way, feel free to share observations, Dilbert experiences, or whatever.

My sister’s in the Navy and sometimes when she talks about her coworkers they sound like the same kind of people I’ve worked with in the public sector.


The layoffs in high-tech over the last few years have left most of the driftwood behind. An awful lot of good people also got laid off, but usually got back in the game soon. So, high-tech may be an anomaly of sorts. I work with a great bunch of good, competent people and have for years.

My wife works for a government agency: a unionized government agency. Huge, huge difference between her environment and mine.

As a veteran of 30 years of employment in several sectors;

All too often, employment and perks are not based on competence and ability, they’re based on friendships and support. I’ve seen people who screw off and screw up be promoted more times than I care to think about, simply because they either have a personal (non-work) relationship with the boss, are a member of a protected class, or are fulfilling some other non-productive quota (such as “face time”) that the idiot boss thinks is more important than actual work.

I’ve seen Cronyism of the worst sort, from one of my early IT jobs where they hired a new manager who promptly created new positions for all his drinking buddies; to the guy who ran his own consulting firm on the side and ran out all the people who couldn’t or wouldn’t move to his firm; to my last job where the retired cop now Director hired all her old retired cop cronies to fill management positions.

(Talk about speaking out of both sides of your mouth. Hire people you’ve known for 20+ years to fill supervisory positions, sending out the message that no one internally will ever get promoted because they’re not your crony, then tell all the employees how you want to make this a place where people can feel good about working for 15 years. Doing what? The same job they walked in the door doing? Because you just made it clear that none of us will ever get promoted and you’re not interested in developing new leaders.)

Unfortunately, I’ve also been left with a very sour taste in my mouth for “former military” people. Give them an ounce of power and they act like tin pot dictators, believing they have literal control of your life because they’re “superior” to you. Believing they can change policies on a whim and make you break rules simply because they’re ordering you to do so and they’re your boss. Treating the people beneath them like scum, because they’re in charge.

And in threads on this board, I’ve seen plenty of former military people talk about how it was like that for them in the military. So if you didn’t experience it, good for you. You worked with good people. Some of us were not so lucky.

Finally, my observation is this: Make waves, get fired. Be quietly incompetent, and no one will bother with you. For my part, I’m the former, not the latter.

I have been working in a local government office for 16 years. I still am baffled by the abundance of co-workers who are either incompetent or are slackers, or both. And they work here for years and years. They don’t care if they do a good job or a bad job, or if the bad job they do has a negative effect on their co-workers or the public. And the rest of us have to deal with it.

I have co-workers who work maybe 3 hours per day out of a scheduled 8. The rest of the time they are surfing the net, or are on the phone with personal calls, or are talking to each other, or have simply vanished for a while.

I have seen co-workers come to work stoned, drunk, or hungover.

I have seen incompetent co-workers promoted because of affirmative action programs, because the boss has a crush on them, and for reasons I can’t fathom.

I have bosses who, instead of making decisions based on pertinent information, base them on their egos.

I could go on and on…

I get that many military guys make bad bosses. We have our share of dickheads just like everyone else–it’s just that, IME, the really bad ones get shuffled out either as a matter of routine or cause. Plus, I have a good atmosphere to help me get through that sort of thing. And when I look back on these past 13 years and how consistent that good atmosphere has been (due to the whole people thing), I wonder if there’s more to it than just ‘luck.’

And good for you for being the former. I still can’t believe that can get you fired, but being incompetent may not.

I’ve worked as a contractor at a military facility that had contractors, civil service and military employees. My general observation was that the military and contractor types were generally pretty competent and hard working. Civil service types, with a few notable exceptions, generally started to phone it in after a while, especially as they got close to retirement. Apparently it’s really hard to get rid of government workers once they get a bit of seniority.

I’ll have to step in and provide a counterexample. I was working for a very large large pay-TV business, which at one time brought in a former Navy captain as CIO. For those of you who don’t know military ranks, “captain” in the Navy, as a commissioned rank, is pretty high up, like a colonel in the other branches.

While I didn’t work with this person directly, what contact I did have and all that I heard about him indicated he was easygoing and effective as a leader. He certainly didn’t strut about chewing subordinates out for mistakes, or anything like that.

Yep. All that red tape can be really daunting. Although bad behavior, like lying on one’s application or stealing, can make all that red tape disappear. I’ve head of some who take it upon themselves to go through applications and look for inconsistencies. If they find any, they try to get that employee fired whether or not the employee is actually a problem.

My preferred work style in the offices I work in is quietly competent - I try not to let on that I can do too much, because that just gets you more duties for the same pay, but my own work ethic doesn’t allow too much incompetence (it only allows for low-key goofing off if I’m being taken advantage of too much). As for the camaraderie, it’s been there in most offices I’ve worked in, but it’s been mostly with the worker bees, not the worker bees and the bosses. The bosses are usually quite out of touch with what is actually going on in the trenches; for example, making decisions from on high that may or may not actually make sense, or throwing the workers bones that are supposed to improve morale when the workers just resent them (team-building, anyone?).

What employers try to hide, but experienced workers know, is that we will be fired as soon as the bottom line tells them to get rid of us - employers try to foster a sense of loyalty with workers with everything but job security, and it is completely false and hollow. In other words, the modern corporate world is very much an “us against them” playing field.

ETA: I forgot the resentment from co-workers if I show too much competence. That’s always fun, too.

That’s almost depressing beyond words. So my question is, How do you do it every single blessed day? Is the camraderie enough to offset the rest? Is the work itself rewarding enough, or the money? And you’re right–a key piece missing from that comraderie is the lack of connection between the management and the workers.

It is very depressing - there are any number of things that companies could do to fix things, but that might mean listening to the people who actually do the work and focusing on things other than profits, and that just ain’t gonna happen. Never mind that you would make more profits from not treating your employees like they’re disposable, but I’m not holding my breath for companies to figure that out.

There is almost no reward except the money; the working conditions are basically okay, since I know what game I’m playing and what the rules are. There is very little job satisfaction since you are almost always bogged down in bureaucracy (rules for the sake of rules), and it can be extremely difficult to get anything done. I set my expectations very low; I put in my hours and I go home and leave it all at work.

ETA: I should say, though, that the camaraderie is one of the high points of office work. When you get in with a bunch of people that are on the same wavelength, it makes it almost enjoyable. The only thing I’ve ever missed after quitting jobs has been the people I’ve worked with.

Old Boss: “Where’s your loyalty to this company?”
Me: “Where’s this company’s loyalty to me? I can be fired at will. We get crappy raises…blah, blah, blah.”
Old Boss: “Good point” (changed subject)

Had a job interview today. Dunno if I buggered the whole thing with one answer.

Him: What’s your biggest weakness.
Me: I have a problem dealing with unethical and abusive bosses. (Then explained how and why.)

Oh, I’ve worked with good former mils myself. I’ve just learned that the biggest assholes are the ones who invoke their military background as a reason for whatever dickery they’re about to perpetrate on their subordinates. Actually, from my last job, I’d have to say former cops are much much worse at that sort of thing than the former mils. The soldiers know about loyalty and comraderie, the cop thing seems to confuse loyalty with the idea of being utterly silent in the face of any other cop’s malfeasance.

I think for most of us , you compartmentalize. Your work day for factory is 8-12 hours depending on if you work overtime or one of the more exotic schedules like continental shift.

Work is something we (factory peeps) to pay the bills ,and once the shift is over then its miller time. The down side is that it can seem like a bathtub at times. You start a new place and everyone is great , your and your new buds are novelties to each other , boss loves the new blood. But nothing is static. Couple of years later , your an old hand and new boss comes in. Working conditions , economic conditions , the world rotates and you start making the mental rotation to leaving.

Now in comparison to my job , there is no way that I would jump to management. Salary slaves all of em, 60 to 80 hour work weeks, on call all the time , and their main job in effect is to be fired , if GM or Chysler has a problem with us. Gottta love human sacrifice.


The money is why I’m here. I have no desire for comraderie, friendship or anything else from my work experience. I am here to get a paycheck so that I can do the things I actually want to do.

I’ve been in office situations where there’s a great amount of comaraderie. People were roughly the same age - say mid 20s to early 30s - doing roughly the same things that they can bitch about with each other, in a field that they’re fairly committed to. It helps having multiple drinking establishments within a block or two that we can repair to after work or on Friday nights.

Being in an open environment as opposed to everyone being in offices contributed to the comaraderie I’m sure, the downside being everyone knew about everyone else’s business.

I worked for a large pharmaceutical for about 8 years. There was a core of people I worked with that stayed in touch through it all - up to where the department was dissolved and everyone scattered to the four winds. The people in the study teams respected one another. It was a great place to work up to the shipping our jobs to India part.

The next pharma I worked at there was no camaraderie whatsoever and I was nowhere near anyone else at my level. It was just me and my micromanaging boss. It was awful.

See, that’s what I’m talking about. I wonder if guys like Antinor01 have ever actually experienced a good workplace. I really wonder how I’d handle a job where the only motivation I have to do the work is the paycheck. Which is funny, because I’m probably looking at that when I retire and look for a job in the civilian world, and what’s more, I’m most likely looking at a pay cut as well. I know I’ve sort of been spoiled, and it’s going to be hard to adjust.

I agree 100%. I don’t want comrades, friends, team bonding or any of that BS. I’m here for the check so I can spend it doing things the other hours of the week.

I have no desire to see my co-workers one second after I leave the building and don’t want to see them again until I return to work.

Yep, I’ve had good workplaces. I simply have no interest in anything beyond a paycheck from my job. That’s what it’s for, to provide me with money to live.

A lot of that is simply that I’m not a very social person. I don’t go out much, have a select circle of friends and no desire to change that. I’d rather make my friendships and the like from people that I choose too, not just because we happen to work in the same place.

I do my job and STFU. I’m not the least bit concerned with the junior high politics and I don’t care what other people do. I have pride in my work and a committment to quality. If it’s wasted on incompetent people, so be it. If politics or weaselly bosses make it difficult for me, I bail. I have a unique, desireable skill set and I don’t need to play bullshit bingo to keep my job. My identity isn’t wrapped up in my job; that helps.