Can you tell when someone is up to no good, simply by looking at them? I can, at least sometimes.
Like most writers, I’m a people-watcher. I pay attention to what people wear, how they move, their mannerisms, and their facial expressions. If a particular hairstyle or an article of clothing catches my attention, I make a note of it. If I see someone display an interesting personal habit, it might end up in one of my novels. This doesn’t make me an expert in decoding human behavior, but it probably means that I pay more attention to strangers than the average person might. And every once in a while, it allows me to notice when people are up to no good.
Let me give you an example…
I go for long walks several times a week, as part of my exercise routine. I like to switch my walking paths around frequently, but I have a few favorite routes, and one of them happens to follow a sidewalk that passes close to several office buildings. When the blinds are open, I can see into the ground floor offices, and the office workers can see me. They often smile and wave when they catch sight of me strolling past.
I have no idea what companies are on the other side of those windows, but they all seem to have positive working environments. Except for the office on the end.
It probably took me two or three weeks to notice that one of the offices was not like the others. I didn’t pick up on it immediately, because it doesn’t look any different. The décor is about the same as all of the other businesses. The desks are cluttered with family photos, coffee mugs, cute little inspirational placards, and all the usual knick-knacks of cubicle life. The furniture seems nice enough, and there are colorful calendars and posters on the walls. But after a number of walks past the building, it gradually dawned on me that something about that one office didn’t feel right.
As soon as the idea rose above the threshold of consciousness, I realized what has been bothering me. It’s the people. They never smile. They don’t wave. Their shoulders are hunched, and their eyes are downcast. I never see them chatting between desks, or standing around the coffee pot. Their body language is depressed and furtive. It’s like they’re all terrified that someone is going to catch them doing whatever it is that they’re doing.
Every worker in that office looks like a naughty puppy, waiting to be spanked. No, it’s worse than that… They look like they expect the cops to kick in the door any second, and haul them away in handcuffs.
At first, I thought it was my imagination. It isn’t. The people in that office are unhappy, and they are ashamed.
A few weeks ago, I decided to cut through the building on the return leg of my walk. It’s an open architecture complex, with a sort of garden courtyard in the center, and open access at either end. The front entrance of the unhappy office was easily visible as I breezed through the courtyard. I spotted the logo on the front door, and jotted down the name of the firm. I won’t repeat it here, but the company name suggests images of global scope and international vision. Let’s call them the Questionable Global Corporation. (Obviously not their real title.)
When I got back to my computer, I did a quick search for Questionable Global Corporation. I was curious to see what kind of company might spawn such a dismal internal culture. Google answered my question immediately. Questionable Global Corporation is a debt collections agency, specializing in highly aggressive phone and internet-based collection efforts.
I realize that debt collection is a necessary element of our system of commerce. I am also aware that there are legitimate debt collectors out there, who operate clearly within the boundaries of ethics and the law. Perhaps Questionable Global Corporation is one of those. I honestly don’t know, but I have to say that it doesn’t seem likely. The internet buzz about the company is exceptionally negative. Even my brief search brought up several thousand references to deception, intimidation, and outright harassment. Except for corporate PR statements, I didn’t see a single favorable mention of the company.
I haven’t delved very far into this company’s business practices, and I have no intention of doing so. As I said, I was mostly just curious about the internal culture of this bleak little office. But it appears that what they are doing is technically legal. If the web gossip is anything to go by, their operating model may be shady — at least in the humanitarian sense — but it doesn’t look like they’re actually breaking the law.
Even so, it only takes one glance through their office windows to tell that the employees of that company are ashamed of themselves. I doubt that even one of them is willing to talk about his or her job outside of business hours. In their hearts, they know that they’re up to no good, even if the law technically condones their actions.
I feel sorry for the people on the other end of the high-pressure scare tactics that the company is known for. I also feel sorry for the workers themselves. They might be earning a living, but I suspect that every paycheck is coming at the cost of their personal happiness and self-respect.
The next time I choose that walking route, I think I’ll make an extra effort to smile at the poor worker drones in the offices of Questionable Global Corporation. Something tells me that they won’t be smiling back.