I can't get to work on time no matter what

I've tried to toe the line on my arrival time to no avail -- and I think it's gonna get me fired.

Published September 3, 2008 10:29AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

Back from Burning Man. It was good. Even the dust storm was good.

Still kind of slow, though. Please bear with me as I try to remember how to write.

Dear Cary,

I'm an I.T. worker with creative pursuits that I don't wish to call "hobbies." I tried to pursue these dreams full time in my early 20s with disastrous consequences and eventually decided I needed to get the day job so I could have time to develop my other skills. I didn't and don't see this as a sacrifice; I came to believe artistry shouldn't be full time and came to the conclusion that I genuinely dislike art created by prodigies in their early 20s.

I also really like solving computer problems and have a knack for it, although I'm not a Google-style whiz. I finally got a break at a small shop repairing computers and got a few certifications. Eventually I decided that the place was too uptight and got another job for a nonprofit working with a friend. Then that place got really uptight and I got fired for refusing to come in to work at 8 sharp every day. My verbal agreement had been to get a "flex-time" arrangement so I could pursue artistic interests, in exchange for somewhat less pay than scale. Other employees had envied my arrangement and there were other things, but that manager was really uptight.

There's that word again. When I was in college throughout the late '90s, I read story after story of I.T. being a haven for task-oriented work. Be skilled, get the job done, and there would be bouncy ball chairs, the vaunted foosball table, video games to blow off steam. And, the only one I cared about, no one would care when you came or went. I never even really wanted to come in later than 9 or so.

I really just wanted to come in "or so" -- with no one counting the minutes, with no buzzer I couldn't snooze, waking when it felt healthy and not out of fear. When I had pursued artistic interests before, somewhat sponsored by a loving relationship, I could have woken up and slept whenever I wanted, but I generally woke up around 9.

So after getting fired and spending six months on unemployment waking up every morning pursuing my artistic interests, and after looking at the results and seeing I wasn't ready, and after having applied for every potentially enlightened work environment in my Midwestern college town, and realizing I wasn't the type of artistic and/or professional community I wanted to be in anyway, I sold most of my possessions and left for the big city.

Once here, I took the first temp job I could get in I.T., and they weren't just uptight, they were incompetent and dishonest, so I wasn't surprised when they fired me. But then a recruiter contacted me for a job in a fancy building with an upscale nonprofit; I interviewed for it and got the job. My one reservation was that I had to be there by 8:30, but it looked like it would pay well, I could learn a lot, and, of course, they wouldn't be uptight.

Fast-forward through five months of temp-to-hire. I have generally been there around 8:30. I ride the bus in this new city, which introduces all kinds of variables. But I don't want to make excuses. I just don't/can't go to sleep at the same time every day no matter how hard I try. In fact, the more nervous I am about going to sleep at a given time, the more impossible it becomes. The more I wake up before I'm ready, the more I hate my life all day.

What's more, now having done the job, I know that there is never, ever any real reason to be there at 8:30. In five months, there has not been a single emergency or appointment at that time. One time my supervisor, who is my age, said someone came by my cubicle looking for me. It was not urgent. In the past, when there have been emergencies, I've been able to get up at 3 in the morning if necessary and I don't mind. But if there's nothing to do, I always side with my well-being.

Now, this last Monday, when getting my time sheet signed by this supervisor, I find out that the previous week, even though I had gone several weeks hitting the mark within five minutes every day, he had noticed each day exactly the time I had arrived. In fact, I remember one day I was relieved to be there at 8:39 and he said I was there at 8:40.

At this point I about lost it. I'm about three weeks away from getting hired and I've gone through all of this under-the-microscope, temp-to-hire business for five months, all to work under the supervision of this guy, who is quite uptight (doesn't start to cross street if orange hand is blinking uptight), and who has been clocking my arrival every morning.

So I said, "From now on I'm going to enter in the exact minute I come and go onto my time sheet, because it is clear that is what you want." And I said it with a tone of voice that was full of disrespect.

Now things with me and him are off the rails and he's the one who decides if I get the job. The other guys in the small department are looking at me strange, and I know they're going to be disappointed because there is pressure to get this position filled and we have become friends. In my reviews I think it's been clear that I have performed my tasks and learned what I need to learn. I get along in the organization, I have the broad skill set they are looking for, and I even got a certification they wanted me to get at my own expense. (BTW, did I mention they all show up around 10 or get to work from home at will?)

Now it's all in limbo. I thought I had finally solved this "day job/career" thing in a new city. I was so happy it was working out. But now it's all shattered. I can't even sleep. My stomach is full of acid, and not the good kind. There are other I.T. opportunities, but this has been a year and a half of unemployment and temp-to-hire scrutiny, and I'm not sure how much more I can take.

Am I asking too much? Is something wrong with me that I can't show up like a machine every day? Or is it wrong for me to be treated like a machine? Why are people so obsessed with meaningless punctuality? Am I narcoleptic (I also have trouble not nodding off after lunch)? Should I switch careers? I can't work in restaurants anymore -- that doesn't go well for other reasons. There are no jobs available related to my artistic interests, I don't have any savings, I have an apartment now, and I don't want to start a new day job career that I like even less. Should I move to the Netherlands?

I am going to send out my résumé but I'm not optimistic. I would be a teacher or join the Navy, but the same problem is just going to arise.

Please help, Cary.


Held Uptight Against My Will

Dear Held Uptight,

Tell this guy that you have a mild sleep disorder and that the measures you take to manage it -- i.e. varying your bedtimes -- sometimes cause variations in your arrival time. Tell him you're sorry that it has not been possible for you to arrive on time every day. Tell him you are going to see a doctor about it. Offer to work more hours to make up for any perceived shortfalls.

Then get out of his office before he strangles you.

Why would he want to strangle you? Because he senses your disrespect and would like to get rid of you. But he needs you. Knowing that you may have an actual medical condition is going to make him think twice about canning you.

So after you explain this to him, start working to make a better relationship with him. If you do this, you may have a chance to keep your job.

Also, we're not kidding about the sleep disorder. See a doctor and tell him you think you have delayed sleep-phase syndrome. Tell him that you told your boss you have a sleep disorder. Be nice to the doctor. Maybe he'll try to help you out.

So basically the answer is twofold: One, treat your inability to wake up at the same time every day as a possible symptom of a real sleep disorder and not just a personality quirk. Two, treat your relationship with your potential boss as the most important relationship in your life right now. Swallow your pride and treat the guy with respect. That is Rule No. 1 of how to stay employed: Don't fuck with your boss. He may seem to be obsessed with your arrival time, but what he really wants is your respect and cooperation. Try giving him those things.

And keep doing your art.

The Best of Cary Tennis

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