For years, we had worked in relative anonymity as we were never given name plates. The function of the corporate name plate is to allay the need to ask where an employee sits, or to prevent the managerial embarrassment of forgetting an employee's name while introducing the new hires. Before we got name plates, we would prop up fast food toys, like the Jack In The Box antenna ball, or plastic candy dispensers or sock puppets to establish our corporate identities.
One day, the company president walked through our hallway. He stopped and asked if I was "Jack", for I was identified by the styrofoam antenna ball attached to a bent paper clip and looped into the fast-mount wall rails. I am not Jack.
The next day, we were informed that we were getting name plates. We were given a catalog and told to select a suitable font such that everyone's name would fit legibly, and we were to select a material that would match the carpet and cubicles and our easily-cleaned Formica "desks". We selected ocean grey and midnight blue to match the midnight-ocean-marble Formica. It was perfect. Except that we already know each others' names.
I have a strange history with name tags. I was my wife's guest at a somewhat exclusive engagement at a Los Angeles museum. There I met a gregarious California television personality, Huell Howser. He stood out to me mostly for his Hawaiian shirt, adrift in a sea of sport coats and ties; I wore a tie under my ubiquitous leather jacket. When I was introduced to Huell, I immediately commented on his fabulous shirt, and mused out loud about how much more comfortable I'd have been in one. He instantly admonished me for not choosing what I liked.
"My daddy always told me just to make sure that your hair is combed and your fingernails are clean. Now, next time I see you, you better be wearing that Hawaiian shirt." This was not a grumpy admonishment; Huell is a diplomat with an unflappably straightforward approach to the world and an infectious appreciation for its details. His speech is a mixture of Tennessee and California, he is part football player, part historian, and his enthusiasm for people and places is something to look upon with unmatchable admiration. Huell placed himself somewhere between sibling and parent, and I instantly felt at home in our conversation.
We joked further that I was going to try to steal his name tag when we checked in to the party, as the organizers had not prepared one for me. In the spirit of the Hawaiian shirt, Huell did not wear his name tag.
"Now, I don't need to wear name tags. If anyone wants to know who I am they can come right up and ask me." Of course, with local celebrity status, no one needed to ask who Huell was. I watched them try to coyly get a bit closer to him, inserting themselves between the man and the cheese tray so that they could accidentally assert niceties in his direction.
"Oh, Huell Howser? It's so nice to meet you. Your show is just so interesting, and how do you find such wonderful places? You know, I have an idea for a show…"
They all have ideas. In LA, everyone wants to be heard by someone who they think is even just a little bit of a bigger fish. The big fish don't need to listen; that's not how they got here.
Eventually, after enough was enough of the interruptions, Huell gave me his name tag. I put it on and we began to introduce me as him. This stopped much of the inane conversations about buffet table wine and finger sandwiches and "isn't the spinach dip simply divine". The gift of his temporary identity made a succinct point about the nature of name tags and the gentle art of self-assurance. Though I have yet to remove the name plate from my cubicle.
Occasionally we get to tell management exactly what we think about the state of things at the company, or so it is portrayed. They call this their "Town Hall Meeting". Due to low attendance, they created a mandatory version of the meeting for all employees on one of our regular company holidays; we were given a "floating holiday" in return. The all-day event was scheduled to feature team building activities, a motivational speaker, an informal and facilitated question and answer period, and a catered lunch.
The meeting was held in a room with a maximum capacity of 247 people, per order of the local fire marshal. There were 343 employees. Plus a motivational speaker.
The facility had one set of rest rooms. This meant that when management called for a break, we queued up to pee out a flavorful combination of sweetened bitter coffee and acidic orange juice, gently blended with softly freezer burned poppy seed muffins. The facility specializes in corporate events.
When we entered, we were given name tags. I dutifully attached mine to my shirt pocket which was also embroidered with the company logo. Employees can purchase company shirts from the human resources department as they become available. Under our names, we were given categories, like "Strategic Business Units", "Individual Retirement Accounts", and "Big Hairy Audacious Goals". We were told to sit at the table with that category listed on its centerpiece so that we could "network". We assumed that we would have to talk amongst ourselves about our category, or brainstorm ideas about how we could better contribute to shareholder value, etc. Our group task, however, was never made clear and I merely spent the day feeling strangely like what can only be described as a "Deferred Annuity".
A few people who I didn't know introduced themselves to me. In reality, they introduced their name tag to my name tag, shook my hand, wondered aloud about how interesting our day would be at the Town Hall Meeting, and wandered off for a refill of apple juice and a cube of cheese.
After a short while, the motivational speaker took the stage. He had a name tag just like the rest of us. He was part of the team. He was part of our organization, ready to help us understand management's goals, ready to lead a pep rally of epic corporate proportions. I don't recall his name.
He was quite the opposite of Huell Howser. He was dressed in what appeared to be an expensive suit with a yellow flower in the lapel to match his handkerchief and the hallway wallpaper. His shoes shone like lacquered licorice. After his introduction, he stood up and unbuttoned his coat as he strode to the center of the room. He self-effacingly rejected the praise heaped upon him by the management team. Really, he was just a regular guy who liked football and beer and had worked his way through the University of Kansas.
This regular guy told us all about the values of exemplary customer service, like the time that Delta Airlines upgraded him to first class when his flight had been delayed on the way to his Manhattan vacation. Or the time that the clerk at Nordstrom sent his car out for an oil change as he was fitted for a suit. Or how, when he was lunching with the CEO of Starbucks…
I drifted off, wondering how he really felt about that name tag, and how it might leave a sticky rectangle of residue on his neatly pressed suit that might attract some horrific worker dust exhaled by the disgustingly regular people in the front row. Or how the pale blue outline of the name tag clashed with the licorice shoes and the lollipop red tie. Or how that bitter coffee was currently churning and burning as it swished back and forth in the tide of the the runny eggs and cold sausage that were the only items left on hotel's breakfast buffet.
What was really on my mind, though, was that I should have worn a Hawaiian shirt. And at the end of the day, I felt as though it was high time that I did something about my name plate.