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What Happened To The Pop In the Break Room?

June 4, 2013

It seemed like a logical question. The answer was, by far, the worst corporate response I’ve ever heard.

I explained in The Biggest Raise I Ever Received why I provided my employees with free pop (Sorry, East Coasters, I grew up in the West, it’s how we say it.) I learned this lesson early in my career. First at WordPerfect, and later at Microsoft they stocked the break rooms with pop, juice, WordPerfect even provided ice cream sandwiches.

It’s a trend that is fairly common across the tech industry. But, like I said, for me it started at WordPerfect, and in fact, it started from my first day in 1988, (Back Where It All Began) so it was going on long before then.

But in the fall of 1993 something changed. First all the really popular flavors started disappearing. You might have to check two or three different break rooms to find a Diet Coke.

The refrigerators were normally stocked twice a week and the delivery guy was clearly falling down on the job. It was kind of funny to think about. An account as large as WordPerfect and some poor slob missed making the delivery. I’ll bet his boss royally chewed him out.

But, then the next week came and now, not only was there no Diet Coke, but the rootbear was gone and the Squirt was running dangerously low. This was getting serious! Maybe someone in purchasing was screwing this up. We decided we’d give them one more week.

Next week, no delivery truck. All that was left in the fridges were a few tired cans of Country Time Lemonade. This required an email, actually a lot of emails to managers and executives.

The response was one of the worst corporate responses I’ve ever seen in my 25 year career. Obviously management had been getting bombarded with complaints. I don’t remember which VP sent the email but it went something like this.

Many of you have complained about the lack of pop in the break rooms. We are disappointed that employees have obviously developed such a sense of entitlement. The company is under no obligation to provide free drinks. We did so as a courtesy to you the employees. It costs over $1,000,000 per year to provide this benefit. This is a benefit that we can no longer cost justify. It is disappointing that as we try to improve the corporate financial picture in a competitive software environment, that the employees are not more willing to do their part.

The effect of the company-wide email was mostly confusion. It’s OUR fault? Some employees felt guilty for not being more understanding, ignoring the fact that we had no way of knowing why the benefit was being cut. A few, a very few employees understood that we shouldn’t be feeling guilty at all. There were over 5,000 WordPerfect employees. If you do the math that works out to $200 per employee annually. At an hourly rate, it’s about $0.10 per hour. A dime per hour!

What we didn’t understand was what a HUGE red flag this should have been. To you or me, or any of us support operators making $32,000/year, a million dollars is a huge amount. But, to a company with a payroll of 5,000 employees, a million dollars, while not insignificant, is not really a tremendous expense. I should have recognized one of the Five Signs Your Corporate Culture is Sick. But, it was my first real job and mostly I was just one of the ones who were confused.

WordPerfect didn’t trust its employees. Of course, you can’t share all your corporate financial data with your employees, but rather than try to engage us in the process, for example, by trying to get us to help look for ways to cut costs, instead they attempted to make us feel guilty about what had become a standard practice.

Many years later I learned the actual reason the WordPerfect quit providing free pop.

They were broke. By the fall of 1993, they’d burned through all of their cash reserves and were most of the way through a $100,000,000 line of credit. The company that I’d defended to my father, when he said it was sick and likely would never go public, was headed for bankruptcy. The executives knew it, of course, but us rank-and-file members just knew that there was no more pop in the break rooms and somehow that was our fault. We didn’t understand how serious the company finance problems were.

Well, we didn’t know until we got the next corporate-wide email, which shook us more than the loss of free pop.

It was entitled, “Pending Layoffs.”

(This is the second of a five part series on Leaving Utah: How I left WordPerfect and Went to Microsoft. Part One described Saying No To Microsoft. Part Three explains How NOT to Quit a Job.)

  1. John Skeen permalink

    I love reading your writing!

    I have been on both sides of those tough decisions management sometimes has to make. As a finance guy, my career often included influencing those decisions. The thing I learned along the way is the very point you are making: trust your employees. My experience is that “rank and file” employees are often better positioned to spot cost saving opportunities. And when they cant come up with a better idea, they are more understanding of the ones management suggests.

    For the old-fashioned type, like myself, I hope these entries find there way into a book. I would love to have that book sitting in my lobby for clients to enjoy.

    Please keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement. I’m working on the book. It won’t just be a collection of these stories, but it should be in the same vein.

    I agree that trusting your employees works much better than the alternative. Part of WP’s worry was that they were in the process of selling the company to Novell and didn’t want to screw up the deal.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. How NOT To Quit A Job | Rodney M Bliss
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