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Horror in the Workplace

Why your office should make you afraid -- very afraid.
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Oct. 31, 2005--They are chilling tales not often told when Halloween rolls around: The gun-slinging CEO who throws chairs, the radio ad man who took a stapler to the head, or the sales team that stumbled upon a nudist office tower. Forget the creepy dungeon lab or gothic crypt - for sheer terror, it's hard to beat the everyday office.

From "Little Shop of Horrors" to "Soylent Green," small enterprises and innovative products have long inspired horror flick thrills. That's because Hollywood knows the best innovators and entrepreneurs are half crazy. Since the silent era, well-intentioned mad scientists have tampered with taboo new ideas.

Like their big-screen counterparts, "mad" CEOs refuse to accept failure - blaming mishaps on difficult working conditions, bad technical equipment, or unreliable underlings. They are almost always destroyed by their own monstrous creations, if not once, then several times in their business careers.

Seem far-fetched? A few years ago, Robert Hare, a leading criminal psychologist who created an industry-standard test for suspected psychopaths, coined the term "corporate psychopathy." Amid then-breaking scandals at Enron and WorldCom, Hare likened business world rogues to sociopaths, saying they showed no sense of guilt or remorse for the suffering they inflicted. Instead, they ruthlessly pursue their own reckless interests - though, like Henry Frankenstein, believing them to be in the greater good - with no regard for risk to others. "I always said that if I wasn't studying psychopaths in prison, I'd do it at the stock exchange," Hare has said.

Take "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap, the former head of Sunbeam. Dunlap once reportedly threw a chair at the human resources chief (the same one, by the way, who had earlier approved his handgun and bulletproof vest as a corporate expense). This after Dunlap had fired half the workforce at Sunbeam - some 6,000 employees. The HR chief had reason to fear: Dunlap had allegedly threatened his own wife at gunpoint; their divorce being granted on the grounds of "extreme cruelty." When Dunlap himself was eventually axed, he demanded severance pay and insisted the board reprice his stock options, despite having been exposed for masking corporate losses by cooking the books.

But workplace horror doesn't start or end with the person at the top. Dan Seidman, a sales coach at SalesAutopsy.com, has collected over 600 cautionary tales of everyday product demos, sales presentations, and technology gone awry. In the workplace, "when we hear success stories, we congratulate our co-workers, but that's about it," Seidman said. "Failures are much more interesting." Some take on the air of urban legends, though Seidman insists they are all true. In a postmortem that follows the stories posted on his site, Seidman examines what went wrong and how to avoid a similar fate. "You can learn from them," he says, "while still thinking 'Thank God that didn't happen to me."

Few, for instance, would have wanted to be the Denver radio ad salesman who was sent out to re-sign the station's regular local clients the same day its syndicated morning man, Howard Stern, tastelessly weighed in on the Columbine High School massacre. "Josh" (almost all Seidman's stories are anonymous, though fact-checked, he says) was about to land a $36,000 contract with an auto glass shop when he used the station's call letters, rather than its corporate name. "She went absolutely berserk," according to Josh, who was stunned as the owner leapt to her feet and began screaming obscenities that Stern himself seldom utters. Worse, she pelted him with a stapler. "With blood streaming down my face, I ran for the door, mad woman at my heels. I jumped in my car and she continued ranting, now kicking my door. This was selling?"

Apparently so. Seidman tells of another rep who almost burned down her client's plant while demonstrating a new line of welding tools. As she cut through a huge piece of steel, the smoke from the smoldering debris underneath drifted into the air ducts, filling the mailroom and front office. The entire plant was evacuated, including top executives holding a budget meeting. "Six months later and the maintenance supervisor has still not returned my calls," she said.

And then there's the pair of food-service equipment peddlers in the Midwest, who once made a sales call at a giant glass-and-steel geodesic dome office building, where the entire staff was naked. "We walked up a long, beautifully landscaped path," as "Tom" told it. "Inside, a car that had belonged to Elvis sat in the lobby." That, and a used 707 jet from Hugh Hefner. A nude receptionist greeted them, and together they entered a boardroom full of naked company officials, including the owner's elderly mother. As they went into their pitch, two women and a man, all nude, starting jumping on a trampoline behind the room's glass walls," Tom recalled.

But as the sales team learned, horror stories can have happy endings after all - the pair left the nudist dome, sale in hand.

Last updated: Oct 27, 2005




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