Are ‘workplace characters’ a help or a hindrance?

The Secret Engineer

Our anonymous blogger casts his (or her) eye over the day-to-day issues that face engineers in the office and on the shop floor, where she (or he) plies his (or her) trade

When I first started work there were all sorts of weird and wonderful people. I remember one old fellow who still lived with his parents. He was only allowed to have the newspaper the day after it was printed and as a result he got very upset if anyone discussed any news items of the day.

He was also ahead of his time when it came to recycling. He hated waste and he used to take home any bits of paper, string and other packaging he could find. He said he found them useful in his garden, but I’m sure he must have had a shed full of the stuff.

Then there were the ‘boffins’. One of them had an incredibly messy desk which he refused to tidy. He insisted that this would ‘stifle his creativity’. Another boffin had a big bushy beard full of bits of food and yet another had to have his own office because his body odour meant that no one could stand working in close proximity to him for any length of time.

There was a health and safety manager who was obsessed with the Wild West and would come to work dressed as a cowboy

Finally, there was a health and safety manager who rarely left his office and never seemed to take any interest in health and safety issues. He was obsessed with the Wild West and would come to work dressed as a cowboy, complete with Stetson, bootlace tie and cowboy boots. Every time you went to his office you had to knock and wait for him to invite you in. On entering he would be standing opposite the door and do a ‘fast draw’ with his six guns. He would say ‘got you’ as he blew imaginary smoke from the barrels, before finally spinning the guns around and returning them to their holsters.

I’m not sure that you would find such characters in a large business these days. Any self-respecting HR department would unearth such eccentric tendencies with their magical psychometric tests before they got anywhere near a contract. Obviously, my examples include a number of employees that weren’t greatly productive and some that were even disruptive, and I agree that eccentric characters may have a tendency to both of those traits.

However, when you filter out all the characters it can make work a bit too predictable. If we are all ‘dynamic’ and ‘good team players’ then how will we find the right characters to play all the roles we’re told we need for a balanced team? Who will be the unorthodox ‘plant’ and who will be the bad-humoured ‘shaper’? Moreover are we in danger of happily team-working our way to ‘group-think’ solutions that never challenge the status quo or move businesses in new directions? Maybe HR departments could open the parameters a little bit wider. I think we just need to be careful that we don’t recruit too many cowboys!