This is a guest post, I was approached by this graduate (who will remain anonymous) to share their experiences working at this firm, as it’s a story that needed to be told.
I’m unsure about the appropriateness of my writing this piece, mostly due to possible negative repercussions for future career prospects. But my conscious tells me I should, and that by doing so I could help someone. Most people have worked in a negative work environment, and often you are cautioned by others never to bag the employer (apparently it makes you look bad to potential new ones, hence the anonymity.) But the danger with not talking about it is that bad bosses become the status quo, and people get stuck working somewhere they don’t enjoy. So I’m going out on a limb, because I know there are other recent graduates, heck even some veterans of the industry, who are struggling at work. Like I was.
I won’t be naming the specific firm, as this could be considered defamation. Rather we’ll focus on some widespread practices but, in order to do so I will describe the basic structure of the firm. It was a small family business, although I didn’t clue on for a while since they neglected to tell me that the Director and Principal (also the one person HR unit) are life partners, and that other members of the immediate and extended family work in the company in design and administration.
If you’re in a job that you’re not enjoying because it is in any way abusive or exploitative, the first thing I need to say is just because you are young, that does not mean you don’t have options. Don’t think that “jumping ship” will necessarily look bad on your resume, there are just some firms with terrible reputations in the industry for staff treatment, and other employers will understand if you had to leave! You didn’t go to Architecture School for five years so you could work somewhere you hate.
Ideally you should avoid being hired by bad firms in the first place, and although I’m no expert here I can tell you what I’ve learnt so far. In my experience, you should beware firms that hire exclusively through recruiters for two reasons. Firstly, this suggests that they don’t have HR staff in-house, most architecture firms don’t in fact and 99% of the time it won’t matter but remember, this also means you have no impartial representative to talk to if you feel uncomfortable. If you are considering applying through a recruiter, call them before you submit an application, have a chat, scope out what the firm is like.
Second, try to remember recruiters are not your friend. It is their job to get you hired, on whatever premise they can. They don’t necessarily care if you are the right fit for the company, or how employees are treated. They don’t care about you. Recruiters get a commission for each person they get hired into the company, they get a second payment if you stay for 3 months (or whatever period is on their contract). At my old firm, recruiting was done through an agency, we dealt with a regular agent and he was aggressive, calling multiple times a day and being incredibly rude. He also made threats towards staff that wanted to leave before his second commission (a lot of people never made the 3 month mark) after being their best friend during the recruitment stage. I’m sure that he is a minority and that many recruiters are well meaning, but be smart.
This next point troubles me a little, because I know how much it sucks to be unemployed. Sometimes you really do just want whatever work and experience you can get. But if you can afford to, try to apply to firms where you can actually see yourself wanting to work for the next few years. Yes this means applying to firms that do projects that interest you, but more importantly pick somewhere that has values that align with yours. If you are passionate about the environment, chain yourself to trees on the weekend and have just invested in solar panels for your treehouse, don’t apply somewhere that is designing a coal plant. The lies you’ll have to tell about loving their work will make your stomach turn and working on the project will make you miserable fighting that internal battle everyday.
Once you have scored yourself an interview make sure you take the opportunity to ask your potential employer questions. I wish I had asked “What is your staff turnover like?” or “How long do staff usually stay at the firm?”. In my case the staff turnover was like 600%. The figure they state might give you a good idea of what the workplace culture is like. If a high number of people are coming and going, there is usually a reason. And poor management is the biggest contributing factor to staff in any industry leaving a company.
Turnover rates can also help you gauge the learning opportunities of the firm. Although we’ve all been through school, there is nothing more valuable than a mentor who has been in the industry for a while. If your new work colleagues have been at the firm for years, they will be able to teach you all about the processes unique to the firm, how to connect to the printer, even something as simple as where to find the stationary cupboard – this is called corporate knowledge. Now, if everyone else at the firm has only been around a couple months, chances are they probably also have no idea. You can’t exactly interrupt the Director to ask him what line weights they use – my Director (although he would go on spiels about how he could use CAD better/faster than any of us) never did any drafting. Office manuals are helpful references, but they can be hard to navigate and I find that they don’t explain why we do things a certain way.
I truly believe that if you know a smarter or more efficient way to do things you should speak up. Maybe don’t start a job guns blazing but if after you’ve tried it their way, you think it could be done better, have a discussion. Even if they can’t change (affordability/time of implementation etc.) they should appreciate it, after all you only want to help them! Unfortunately the firm where I was at, took suggestions from staff as personal attacks. “We have been doing it this way for 25 f**king years” is what we were told whenever anyone had an idea. If your boss is swearing at you, leave, and a smart employer knows if the firm doesn’t evolve, it will be left behind. The firm’s Director continually referenced an award winning building of his from the last decade, as far as I could tell this was the last time he won an award. All the new projects we were working on used the same aesthetic as his prized jewel building. His determination to recreate his win meant our design ideas were rejected before they were ever explored. I get it, the building wasn’t mine to design, but decorating a shed with Symonite makes me die a little on the inside.
Another note on verbal accosting: as an employee, you would not be allowed to swear in your workplace, around or at your clients and especially not at your managers or boss, because it is disrespectful. But respect has to be mutual. I mean swearing between colleagues is sort of the Australian way, but it’s different when it comes from someone who is in a place of authority, and someone who is doing it to belittle or embarrass you. Not only did my boss name-call and verbally attack people, but he also did it in the open plan office, so everyone else was privy to it (for the record, I don’t think this is common in our industry or any other). Hearing clients being called “peasant” or having a senior architect be called an “idiot” (always behind their back) is something that will really kill team spirit. The revolving door of staff meant it was hard to have a team mentality anyway.
I don’t have a lot of experience at different firms, but it seemed to be that a lot of the frustrations faced by the firm were of it’s own making. Problems with clients making change after change and then refusing to pay could have been mitigated by writing a proper brief and having it signed off (I know all clients do this, but since there was no brief, scope was open to interpretation). Missing client instructions because there was no meeting minutes kept. Staff drafting and redrafting all day due to incoherent over-the-phone instructions. Panic stricken days that could have been avoided if the bosses had simply given you the task a few days before the deadline. Simply losing knowledge on the building because so many different staff have come and gone. With jobs being reassigned to new staff, deadlines were missed because resourcing just was not considered.
There wasn’t even any overtime recorded, in fact I had been told as a student that regardless of how many hours I worked I needed to put 7.5 hours on my timesheet. There are processes that should be in place, not only to save staff time and anxiety, but also to make sure the firm is protected. As a graduate it’s easy to ignore these things and accept them as the status quo, but any job you have ever worked on could go to court one day, and in seven years from now you might have to give evidence for a trial. Don’t open yourself up to this because your employer can’t get their paperwork together.
My employer and his family have said some questionable things to me over the period I was working for them. Overtime has to be one of the most contentious topics in our industry, and it certainly was in this workplace. We were told that even though our contract said 9am to 5:30pm, that we were expected earlier and should stay later. One of my colleagues was attacked as she packed up at 6pm to volunteer feeding the homeless, apparently giving her time to the needy meant she didn’t have any “loyalty to the company”. I myself was yelled at because I had to leave at 6:30pm on a Friday afternoon because too many people were already away sick that day. I took work home with me that weekend.
All of this happens outside our contract hours. The Architects Award states that overtime must either be paid or given as time-off in lieu. This firm mitigated that by not allowing overtime to be recorded at all. I think graduates are too easily convinced that since architects don’t get paid much, that they too should work for free. As a graduate, you are not an architect, the income of the business you work for has nothing to do with you. At the end of the day, the business owner walks away with a profit (or loss, but business is always a gamble), and you, regardless of how many hours will walk away with just a salary. Don’t undervalue yourself, if you’re working overtime daily, ask them what their overtime policy is.
Dealing with unorganised and abusive employers will make you anxious, you never know when the next outburst will be, when the client rings you hope that they won’t overhear the boss say they’re a “peasant”, you don’t want to finish your work because you don’t want to walk into their office to hand it over. When you feel like this at work, you will notice that it seeps into the other facets of your life. I was sort of edge all the time, I became rude and aggressive and I isolated myself from social situations because work was so emotionally tolling. The most important lesson I learnt at this place was that your team will get you through. Leaving them at work was hard, but sometimes you just need to get yourself out of a bad situation.
Too many students and graduates accept poor working conditions as “part of the territory” or “that’s architecture, you have to love it” or are they too worried about speaking up and losing their job. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and as cliche as it sounds keep in mind that as students and recent graduates, we are the industry’s future. We will be running the firms, hiring students and graduates, we will be shaping the profession and we can start to act now to improve the industry.