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When you are treated like a child at work, you don't have a real job.

How to Tell if You Have a Real Job

This year, I got my first real job. It only took 44 unreal jobs to get to get there. By "real" job, I mean it's actually the job I set out in life to do.

So here I am in my first not only "real" job, but my first "adult" job. An adult job is where they treat you like a grown-up who can make decisions.

This is a quantum leap from my experience at children's jobs, where you must be at certain places at prescribed times, whether it is needed or logical or not, and your reward for working efficiently and getting caught up is to be assigned pointless busy work so you look busy.

I once worked in a production department where the supervisor's only responsibility was to put a black dot next to our names for every minute we were late in the morning. It didn't matter that I was the only employee who could get my work completed by deadline without help. It didn't matter if we worked through lunch if needed, or if we stayed late to finish. In a child's job, your annual review consists of a discussion with the bosses about the number of black dots you have next to your name.

At a child's job, you do things like make coffee for men who are capable of making their own coffee. At my first coffee-making job, I didn't know how to load the filters because I didn't drink coffee. My boss went through the procedure with me, explaining in detail how to get two pots of caffeinated and one pot of decaf going in the morning. A few weeks later, I arranged to be an hour late because of a doctor's appointment. When I came in, the boss picked up his coffee cup and pounded it on his desk. Although he was capable of making the coffee, it was my job now, and he had waited an hour for me to do it.

I've had bosses who would walk past the fax machine to put a letter on my desk to fax, and walk past the fax machine to return to their office to read the sports section. They knew how to dial a phone, which is how you send a fax.

In a child's job, people who can normally press a start button dispatch you to the copy room to press it for them.

I've had jobs where I was expected to keep the office plants alive, although I have no personal interest in plants. A browning leaf meant a tongue-lashing. I had a job where the boss called from her car phone to tell me she was due to arrive in an hour, and I was to empty the ice cubes from her freezer and make fresh ice for her arrival.

There were ways to succeed at these jobs. I worked with women who knew the art of not only being on time, but coming in early. What the bosses didn't notice is once they got to work, the first few hours of the day were spent doing things they should have done at home: reading the newspaper, going to the bathroom, eating breakfast, getting coffee, balancing their checkbook, making personal phone calls.

In order to avoid busy work, they never finished their regular work. They created a mound of papers on their desk and poked through it periodically, all the while complaining about the tremendous workload. To the passing boss, they appeared engulfed in work. It was Dilbert Land before Dilbert.

To my surprise, I discovered that if you were really good at things like making the coffee and keeping the plants alive and the dust off the credenza, you could have the filing system from hell and never get a project out in time, and the boss still thought well of you.

When I wasn't upsetting the circadian rhythm of the clerical pool by revealing the work was actually easy to finish with time to spare, I was working in customer service, one of the inner circles of hell.

There was a series of Dilbert cartoons recently in which Dilbert was ordered to create a customer service call department. His impossible task was to give it two diametrically opposing goals -* customer service and speed of response. The joke is that this is indeed the goal of most call centers. They want you to complete 30-plus calls per hour, and still leave all the customers satisfied. You are constantly being charted for your call-per-hour turnover, and charts are posted so the people actually talking with the customers until they're satisfied will be publicly humiliated by their low ranking on the speed charts.

Meanwhile, the workers who are turning over the customers rapidly are infuriating them and racking up customer complaints until they get fired.

Computers monitor when you're on the phone and when you're not. At one call center, we were timed to see how long it took from the time we clocked in to the actual time we logged onto our phone and took the first call. If you clocked in a minute past when your shift started, you were put on probation for six weeks. If you were late again during that six week period, you were fired.

Workers would double park in front of the call center, run in, punch the clock, and then park their car to get around this sword hanging over their heads.

Once logged in, you were expected to talk to a person who was angry enough about something to call customer service, and who had been on hold for the past 40 minutes listening to a recorded chant: "Your call is important to us. Your call is important to us." over and over.

By the time you got to them, they were prepared to make you suffer. Your job was to not give them what they wanted, but to disappoint them it in such a pleasant way, they hung up happy. I got fired from so many of these jobs, I learned how to make a quick get-away. If you've never been fired, here's what happens.

They call you to the office, and you never see your desk again. While you're in the office being fired, someone else is cleaning out your desk. Your personal belongings are brought to you in a box, and guards escort you to the door and watch you drive out of the parking lot. You are not allowed to go back to your desk and see if the box packer got everything.

Sometimes they do let you pack your own stuff, but scowling bosses stand over you while you do it in case you try to slide your computer into your purse, or write a quick program that directs a nuclear bomb into the building.

At one clerical job, the boss called me at home one morning and told me not to come in anymore. I lost a desk fan and a candy jar on that deal.

It didn't take me long to learn to never bring anything to work. All my personal stuff came and left with me in a tote bag every day. I became the master of the Fast Job Get-away.

But in the rare and energizing land of adult jobs, it's not going through the motions that counts but actually getting the job done. As the cliché says, the proof is in the pudding. If you don't have a pudding at deadline, then it doesn't matter how much it looked like you were cooking.

Two weeks into this adult job, I brought a photo of family and put it on a filing cabinet in my office. The next day I put a spare hairbrush in the credenza drawer. My computer books started collecting on the corner table.

It's like walking through a looking glass and being on an entirely different planet.

Mariane Matera is a writer and editor who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.