The Office Fight That Changed My Life

I never wanted a Sales job. But it was 2009, the world was still reeling from the GFC, and after slogging through a ridiculous Arts degree for five years, I definitely wanted a job.

During my final semester at UNSW in Sydney, my girlfriend helped me get a foot in the door at a huge Australian media company. I got hired as a PR Assistant on a short two-month contract.

On the final day of this gig, an entry level Sales position for a different division got posted on the internal job board. I was 22 years old and had no clue what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. “Fuck it,” I thought to myself, “how bad could it be?”

I had my first day about a month later. My new manager showed me round, introducing me to everyone. I was joining a team of about 25 people. Everyone seemed real nice — they all took the time to chat as the fresh meat was paraded around the open-planned office.

I quickly learnt the lay of the land. You see, I was doing media sales, which involves selling print and online ad space. A dirty little secret about media sales is that the buyer holds all the power. The sales rep can do their very best to make a compelling case — about how the advertising will get a brand into the lizard brains of a target demo. But, at the end of the day, that’s just speculative bullshit.

In certain industries, salespeople need to be skilled at describing what they’re actually selling, because the prospect genuinely doesn’t understand what’s on offer. Not so much with media sales. You give me X amount of dollars and your ad will appear here in my paper. You don’t have X amount of dollars? Ok, well if you give me Y amount of dollars, your ad will appear here instead. It’s not rocket science. Again, the simplicity of the equation gives the buyer implicit power over the salesperson.

So, for someone who didn’t wanna become the next Wolf of Wall Street, it was the perfect sales job. I waited for the phone to ring and my clients told me how much they were gonna spend each week. My base pay was okay for a recent grad, and there was also a monthly bonus if everyone made target. I also got really good at looking busy.

The vast majority of the team were on my wavelength. But of course, there were some outliers.

At one extreme were the McAllister sisters, bogans from the Western suburbs. Barbara, the older of the two, had joined the team about a year before me. She’d been instrumental in getting my manager to hire her younger sister, Dana. The McAllisters had both come from the world of real estate and were therefore more dogged when it came to sales. They’d be on the phone all day , annoying cold leads, simply not grasping the fact that when someone says “don’t call me, I’ll call you”, they sometimes actually mean it.

At the other end of the spectrum was Sharon, an uppity divorcee from Double Bay. She was an ad sales veteran who’d been in the industry for 20+ years. Sharon took the concept of “phone-it-in” to the highest level possible. Late starts, long lunches, early finishes and plenty of “sick” days. Sharon was so disconnected that she often missed calls and emails from clients who were frantically trying to buy ad space. A couple of times her incompetence nearly made us miss out on the monthly bonus, and she became an enemy of the commission-hungry McAllisters.

Fast forward six months. The end of the financial year was fast approaching, and after a huge June, we were desperately close to hitting our annual target, which made the monthly bonus look like chump change. On Wednesday, two days before the cut-off, we exceeded the threshold thanks to a flurry of federal government spending.

The party on Friday started in the office at around 4. We clinked glasses of champagne, then got stuck into the Dominoes pizzas that were handed round the room.

On typical Fridays, most people went home after a couple of drinks, but this night was different. Everyone was in the mood for a proper knees-up. There was a lot of back-slapping and rosy-faced laughter in the main meeting room on that fateful evening. At about 7, most of the office decided to relocate to a nearby bar.

This is where things started getting hazy for myself. I still had the “eating’s cheating” broke uni student mindset, and hadn’t lined my stomach with enough Dominoes. I remember getting to the new bar, having a few cocktails, jumping in a cab. And then I woke up in my bed next to my girlfriend the following morning with a pounding headache.

I remember feeling curious all weekend. “The whole office was there, from the top brass to the shitkickersand everyone was pissed as farts,’’ I thought to myself. “Surely something interesting must’ve happened.” I kicked myself for brown-ing out.

I walked into the office on Monday morning and it was like someone had died. A hideous silence filled the office. I put my lunch in the fridge then sat down at my workstation.

Paranoia seized me. “Holy fuck. Did I do something stupid on Friday night?”

I knew I was in the clear the moment I saw Dana. She walked towards our station, desperately trying to hold it together, but then her face crumpled the moment she sat down. Dana then started ugly-crying like a grieving mother.

So unfolded a hokey version of the Spanish Inquisition. Sharon’s claim was that at some point on Friday night at the bar, Dana drunkenly misplaced her handbag. She found the bag on a chair next to Sharon, and became enraged. Dana got right in Sharon’s grill, claiming that she’d been rifling through it. Sharon denied the claims, and this only made Dana angrier. Dana was on the verge of becoming physical until big sis Barbara dragged her away, and took her home in a cab.

Multiple people were called into HR throughout the week to get to the bottom of the mess. My best friend in the office, Tony, was the star witness. He’d seen the whole thing from a perfect vantage point. He let me know that Sharon’s version of events was completely accurate.

“Where the fuck was I when this was going down?” I asked him.

“You were in the loo,” Tony said. “It fizzled out just before you got back. I tried telling you about it but you were blind.”

Dana didn’t stand a chance, not that she particularly deserved to. Sharon was old pals with several of the head honchos, and there was no way they’d keep the two of them in the same office.

As a last minute Hail Mary, Barbara said that if they fired her sister for such a minor off-campus scuffle, she’d resign. But after a week of interviews, HR had more than enough ammunition. Dana was given her marching orders. Barbara held true to her word, and quit a few weeks later.

At the time this all just felt like a crazy soap opera that was unraveling before my eyes. But now I realize that this event was an example of natural selection in effect. Habitats produce a pecking order. And if you run afoul of this order, you’ll be asked to leave the tribe.

I knew from Day 1 that I didn’t have it in me to become a McAllister. But the scary thing was, I could see myself becoming a Sharon. It’s a common corporate trajectory. Keep your head down, kiss the right rings, quell all creativity, and then one day, you’ll have enough tenure to become a professional slacker.

Instead, I chose a different path. I scrimped together $10k and quit about a year after that infamous party. I went backpacking through Vietnam and North America, and eventually wound up in New York with my girlfriend.

Even though it’s not for me, I don’t have any issues with sales as a profession. My issue is with sell-outs, specifically young ones. When you’re young, you generally have such a poor understanding of risk, that when you choose to ignore an opportunity and stick with a “safe” option, you’re probably not even protecting what’s truly valuable.

So if you’re a young person reading this today, be careful when you accept a corporate job straight out of uni or college. Because the reality is, fresh meat doesn’t stay fresh for very long.