The Contract From Hell

I had to take this contract. I was already in a contract close to home but the money was poor and worse than that the agency had just gone bust leaving me four month’s out-of-pocket on a six-month gig. Then out of the blue I get a call about a financial-services company wanting someone to run their website for three months. Great low-tax location in central Europe, fantastic pay, and I’ve even got an old girlfriend in the region who wants us to get back together again. The agency pay my expenses to go for the interview and after a 30-minute chat with the manager I have the offer – more than twice what I’d just been earning. I took the job. What else was I going to do?


At reception the team leader, who had declined to be present at the interview, arrives to take me to my desk. She greets me with a scowl and en route to the desk she stops and announces, “BTW, we are very religious in this team and we have rules: There’s no cursing or taking the lord’s name in vain”. OMFG, I think to myself, what’s she telling me here? “I know you IT contractors are all foul-mouthed heathens“. How did she guess? That’s some greeting and I’m thinking: “Welcome aboard, sinner“. She wasn’t kidding either. Of a team of six, three of them were bible-belt fundamentalist American christians, including both the senior team members.


View from office On a Tuesday, we have to report on “what we worked on this week”. Now, instead of having the team email her individually and compiling the report herself, as a good team leader would, she has the team take turns editing a text file on the shared-drive. She, the team leader, instructs the office junior to “train” me on this. My “edit window” is set at 14:00-15:00. The level of incompetence of this “leader” astonishes me when I see that she uses the same text file each week and she hasn’t even deleted the reports from the week before, including her own comment which states, “I hired a contractor for three months”, a lie since she took no part in the hiring process, “but we hope to replace him with an internal as soon as possible, certainly within two months”. Being the only contractor hired that week, and having been told I was hired for “3-6 months”, I ask the junior rhetorically, “This doesn’t refer to me does it?“, and she went bright red, poor lass.


My first appearance at the “weekly status meeting” where marketing, legal, and other stakeholders in the website discuss their upcoming plans. Our entire team has to attend, but only the team leader will speak. She is unable to set up the video conference link, but one of the girls from marketing does it for her.


She keeps me behind until 18:45 for no apparant reason, but as I’m on an hourly rate and my flight home doesn’t leave until 20:50 I’m not complaining.


I’m up to speed with this job. Each day we are required to attend an utterly pointless “roll call” meeting at 09:00am. The team leader insists on this because she wants to make sure we are all in at the time she sets. She also sets everybody’s lunch hour as 12:00-13:00 not a minute before, not a minute after. My work involves editing one or two lines of html each day (in an interwoven template) and ftp’ing the occasional pdf to the webserver. I am a webmaster with in-depth knowledge of interwoven, but for the money they are paying I guess I can put up with it. Pity they don’t allow web access for contractors though, so I’m going to be bored a lot. Thankfully I have a window seat with a nice mountain view. There are 18 desks in the office and 6 of us in the team – she has us sitting three to a desk around her so that she can constantly look over our shoulders.


I notice some inefficiencies in their approach, and as my official job title is “consultant” I write a quick paper on process improvement and demonstrate it to the manager. This was something he had requested from me during the interview. The improvements use capabilities of the existing system and cost nothing. He asks me to implement it. Next day she cottons on, drags me into an empty office and threatens me, “This is why we had to let the last person go. You have to do what I tell you“. I tell her I have management approval and she tells me that neither the manager nor I know how to run a “digital service”, by which she means “a website”. On Friday she keeps me behind until 19:30 falsely claiming that I have to obtain her sign-off for a Monday morning change before I leave. After waiting around for her for almost two hours, at 19:25 she finally turns up, with her shopping, and when I present the change-request for her signature she flipplantly says, “Oh, the manager can sign that on Monday”.


Team lead doing her thing
End of month. I submit my timesheet for signing and the manager freaks out. “You are not allowed to do excess hours without written permission“, he yells, “You stayed late twice on Friday. Don’t do it again otherwise I will have to cancel the contract! I don’t have budget for overtime.” I explain that the team leader asked me to stay behind and that to compensate I will leave a couple of hours early this Friday (which will actually save me money as I can then get the earlier, cheaper, flight) and that calms him down a little. The team leader openly denies that she’d asked me to stay behind. I meet a couple of permies in the bar on the commuter train and they tell me that hardly anybody in the company will talk to this woman. She was a secretary but they can’t fire her because the redundancy package would be too high, so they stuffed her into the web team to get her out of the way. They also tell me she has no knowledge of IT whatsoever (a fact I had independently discovered).


After having abandoned my process improvement and gone back to her overly complicated way of doing things (each stakeholder was signing off every change three times over) she again criticises the approach, says I am doing it wrong, and now tells me to do it the way I had suggested in week two, but this time the process improvement has morphed into her own idea. The office junior has a problem with her PC and it’s clear that the team lead hasn’t a clue what’s wrong. I overhear them discussing the problem and, to be helpful, I suggest a known workaround. The team leader gives me a withering glare and snarls, “Don’t you ever interrupt me while I’m speaking again.” I call up the manager from my previous contract and ask if his offer to come back under a trustworthy agency is still open, but he’s just hired a replacement.


She tells me I’m doing it wrong again, and, in one sentence essentially tells me to do things both her original way, and the new way, despite them being incompatible. By now I’ve learned to ignore whatever she says and just do the damn job. It doesn’t matter how I do it, she will always find fault. This is why she constantly contradicts herself. She has a copy of “Stupid White Men” on prominent display on her desk, and when I open a discussion with her about it, it is clear she hasn’t read it. The title appeals to her though. Also she has strictly forbidden the team from making any personal calls, yet she sits next to me and constantly hectors her hen-pecked husband over the ‘phone. I feel sorry for him.


The temperature outside has dropped to ten degrees below, and the bible-thumpers, it turns out, are also fresh-air freaks one of whom likes to come in at 6:00am and open all the office windows. Brass monkeys never had it this bad.


A few UK wintel contractors are over for a couple of days and obviously they know this woman. They are effing and blinding all day and dragging the lord Jesus’ name through the mud – normal behavior when working with windows. She has no authority over them, and they are clearly winding her up. I try not to laugh. When things go wrong for her, as they often do, she always exclaims, “shoot”, or “fudge”. We all know what she means, but in her devout mind she has not technically committed any sin so it’s ok (the sin of cursing being presumably limited to vocalisation and not explicitly forbidding the transmission of profanities from one mind to another so long as an element of plausible deniability is maintained). Her ticket to rapture is still assured.


She wants to make conversation:

“How many agencies do you work for?”
“Whichever ones get me contracts and pay up on time”
“No, I mean how many are you actually signed up with?”
“Well none of them. I send my CV to all of them on spec, and resend it if I see a contract I like.
“When I was temping as a secretary I worked for three agencies.”
“Sorry, but I’m not temping, I am an independent contractor.”
“It’s the same thing.”
“Well not really, I don’t get paid between contracts for example.”
“Then you’re stupid.”

End of conversation.


I’m still in the job, so I guess they never found that permie they were hoping for. One of the guys in marketing has just got married to a CSR he met in the company’s Dubai office. To get her a work permit they fire the contract DBA and give the CSR his job. The newly-weds hold hands during the weekly status meeting, sweet but staggeringly unprofessional. A week later they have to hire another contract DBA to show the CSR what to do – he is professional, sizes up the situation, and quits after two days. End of month and I’m offered an extension and I take it – the money is that good. I insist that the notice period is raised from 2 to 28 days.

It’s xmas, and the cross-worshippers are full of themselves. There is a non-stop barrage of anecdotes about Jesus coming from the manager, as if to suggest he knows him personally. These have also dramatically increased since the muslim girl joined the team. Something else I learned about the culture there: You can’t swear, or say anything un-christian, but it’s ok to fart in the office so long as you say sorry afterwards – no matter how much it stinks.


Things are starting to slip. She doesn’t like men in general, and me in particular. She has budget to take the team out for a meal and decides to make it “girls only”. I’m the only contractor left on the team. I’m also 10 years senior to the next eldest person, and the only person qualified in IT. She announces over my head to the team: “You know these contractors make twice as much money as you do“. I am not going to let this stand and defend myself saying, “Wait a moment. You have no idea how much I make, all you see is what the agency charges. Think about it for a moment. If you were sent to work abroad for three months the company would pay all your flights, all your hotel bills, and your meals. You’d do very nicely out of it. I have to finance that myself“. Her response, “Well you’re stupid. You should move house.”


I turn up at work on the first Friday of the new year and immediately notice that every change to the website over the last three months has been backed out. Alone in the office I use my skills to discover what has happened (developers had promoted new code over the holiday and also promoted three-month old test data – a cut from production – with it). I repair the damage, decide that under the circumstances I do not require sign-off as I am simply restoring the site to a previously signed-off state, and redeploy the correct content. Before leaving I send an urgent email to management detailing what had happened, the steps taken to recover, and how to avoid a repeat.

On the Monday I get an email from the boss’ boss telling me well done, and she, having not bothered to read her email properly, gives me a bollocking for deploying without her permission. I’m getting fed up with her b.s. by now so I forward her the email from management. I also show her how to avoid it happening again and she says that won’t be necessary as she has told the developers not to make any mistakes in future.


Marketing ask me directly in the status meeting if I can prepare a press release a day early because they have a team training exercise on the publication day and nobody will be available to sign it off. I tell them it’s no problem as I am not busy that week. After the meeting the shrieking team leader yells at me never to speak in a team meeting again. “Why not?“, I ask her. “You must check with me, there might be things happening this week that you don’t know about“. “Are there?“. “No, but that’s not the point, I run this team and I won’t have juniors speaking without permission!


Agent calls me saying they want to terminate, no reason given, adding that they want me to leave as quickly as possible (I guess they have found a hapless permie and need the desk space). I remind him about the 28 days notice and that I expect them to honour that, if they do I’m happy to leave today. He gets back to me after an hour and says they will pay the next 28 days but they want me to leave at the end of the week. I begin looking for a new contract. As they will not allow me to access my webmail I openly use their telephones to call around agencies. As the team leader leaves for lunch she makes some caustic remark to a team-mate about “unemployment”.


An agency I’d contacted the day before calls and asks if I can do a telephone interview with a client that is located just 40km from my main home. I book the conference room between 12:00-13:00 for the purpose. Fully aware that I am interviewing she interrupts at 12:30 and demands I hang up and leave the room, falsely claiming that she needs it. I put the interviewer on hold, and tell her in no uncertain terms that the room is booked and she should check the booking system in future if she wants a room.


Morning, first thing, I am offered the new contract despite her childish attempt to disrupt the interview. Start on Monday, which means I will get the next three weeks on double-pay. I laugh at her. In that day’s roll-call meeting she asks what I have on for the day, and I say that I am supposed to be preparing the quarterly results press release (as was mentioned the week before) but that I cannot because she hasn’t handed over the text. “What do you mean, I haven’t handed it over?“. “Marketing and legal sent you the approval emails and the text three days ago so that it could be prepared in good time, but you haven’t handed it over. So it’s going to be late now as nobody will be available to sign it off for publication since they are all on a training exercise. They told you this last week.” “You could have asked the manager to hand it over, he has access to my email!” “No, it’s your responsibility to hand over your emails but instead you’ve been sat there next to me the last three days deliberately holding it back like some anally retentive simpleton. Why should I go over your head?” “Leave this meeting now!“. “Gladly, we’re wasting our time here anyway“.


I arrange with the back-up guys to cut my personal files onto a CD (I’d amassed nearly 40MB of photos, emails, and stuff). They say it’s fine but it turns out the CD writer is broken. She spies me attempting to use the writer and runs off tittle-tattling to management that I might be stealing data. Banned from taking my personal possessions out of the office, I zip them up, encrypt them, and copy the file to a hidden directory on the webserver (which I, and I alone, have access to). I download it from a wireless cafe over a beer that evening.


It’s my last day and I have to remove that hidden file from the webserver before I go, but wouldn’t you know it, the website is down. Nobody can access it today. Shit. I cannot leave that file there, even if it is encrypted. I root about the network and discover to my relief that the problem is simple: DNS is down. I ftp using the dotted-decimal, remove the file and sanitise the logs. Then I spend the rest of the day chatting on the phone and answering every spurious request she makes with, “I can’t, your network’s down”. The team are frustrated all day by the outage.

I’d gotten to feel sorry for the junior sat next to me though, and I could see she was frustrated by the downtime. So at 17:30 I decide to show her how to use the dotted-decimal notation to access the website. I say to her with a wink, “Remember someone told you I get paid much more than everybody else? Well look, type these numbers into your browser instead of the name and see, the site comes up. It isn’t down at all. It’s been up all day in fact and there’s been no reason for the team to sit around doing nothing all day“. Delighted, she looked up at me and asked, “But, how did you know how to do that?

I looked away from her, right into the eye of the team “leader” and said, with all the venom I could muster, “That’s what I get paid the extra for“.

Originally Posted 02-Feb-2004

Author’s Note
I originally wrote this piece based upon a real-world job I had done and the real-world bullying I observed while doing it. Some readers have mistaken the “diary format” as having derived from somebody who kept a journal at the office. As a writer I find it stimulating that people would suspend their disbelief over the style chosen for presentation, but a little dismayed that their belief did not return afterwards. For the record, I wrote this from memory about three or four months after leaving the job in question and did not keep a journal. On the other hand, keeping a journal at work is a very good idea, especially if one is being abused or bullied by an oppressive boss or co-worker. The incidents, characters, and speech portrayed in the text are based upon real people, real events, and real conversations, but these characters, including the narrator, should not be directly taken as representing any real persons. As writers we construct our characters by taking interesting character traits we observe in others and combining them in new and hopefully surprising ways into characters of our own invention. If the readers then believe those characters to be real, we thank them for their indulgence of our fantasies. — alt-f4, 21/06/2013

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