I Believe You Have My Stapler

One of the biggest reasons I don’t want to take a permanent role at a large corporation is their furniture. It’s not my number one reason, but it’s in the top five.

The chairs are awful. They’re bulk-bought, partially adjustable, cheap, and nasty. Sometimes a company has a policy for how you can get a better one, usually involving medical certificates, being 7 foot 2, or weighing 148kg.

I’m 5 foot 6 and 62kg. No snazzy chair for me.

If I’m lucky, the desks are adjustable. Usually though, the furniture police have the special key thing you need to adjust the height, or (as in one place I worked at), they’ve actually bolted other, non-adjustable pieces onto the adjustable bits, so none of it can be moved. Again, I’m 5 foot 6, so I perch on a chair that’s too high so I can reach the keyboard, and need phonebooks so my feet reach the floor.

This sucks, but I have a solution.

My New Hiring Test

Should I ever interview for a permanent role, here’s a question I’m going to ask:

“I would like a small, discretionary budget I can use for things like a chair, LCD screens, whiteboard markers, that sort of thing. Five to ten grand per year. Would that be possible?”

It’s a question, not a demand, because I’m interested in how the question is answered, more than the specific answer.

I’m expecting that most companies would just say no. A slightly more progressive company may at least entertain the idea. A better company will ask me about why and be willing to be persuaded. The best companies will already have something like this in place.

Here’s why.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

A crappy chair annoys you every day. A too-high desk is irritating all the time. A too-small screen is frustrating every time you open a large spreadsheet.

I want the power to make these small annoyances go away, because small annoyances grow into large ones over time. If I have a comfy chair to sit it, doing boring work tasks sucks that little bit less. I can deal better with all those minor annoyances you get with any job.

A small budget of my own is great for several other reasons:

I get to solve my own problems. Since people are different, there will be loads of different problems. Jill over there might be fine with the standard chair, but wants a footrest. Adam might want a different mouse. They get to solve the problem that affects them specifically, all by themselves.

I’m accountable. I only have $4k to spend (say). If I buy a $3k chair, the money’s gone. I can’t decide half a year later that I should have bought a $2k chair because now I don’t have enough money to buy extra pens. It teaches people that company money isn’t just an endless pile that they get to spend on whatever they like, because hey, it’s not my money.

It demonstrates trust. The company doesn’t assume that I’m stupid and need a manager to figure out what sort of chair I want. People are pretty good at figuring out what their own personal preferences are, and in my experience, managers are almost universally woeful at it.

Penny wise, Pound foolish

A really good chair, say an Arthur Miller ‘Aeron’, costs about $1300 retail. LCD screens are, what, $300-$500 each? An Aeron will last more than 10 years, and an LCD screen will last 3-5 easy.

Try getting your work to buy you one. Listen to the excuses. No doubt there will be company policies, or the need for managerial (or worse, finance) approvals. If you’re super-lucky, you may get to fill in a business case!

Then think about this: If you’re on $100k a year, you cost the company $400 a day. If you goof off for just one day, that’s an LCD screen worth of wasted company time. You can waste an equivalent amount of money with no oversight required at all. But you can’t buy an LCD screen for yourself.

The higher your salary, the worse this is. At my level, salaries are $175k and up, so it’d take about 2 days of watching YouTube videos to buy an Aeron. Or, I could just go to 16 hours of pointless status meetings over the year. Same thing.

Implementing a change that saves a team of 5 people an average of 10 minutes a day (by, say, improving the timesheeting system) is a cost saving of $15k. Enough for everyone to have an Aeron and 2 LCD screens each.

I have total discretion to waste significant amounts of company money with no oversight at all. But I can’t buy my own pens. How empowered am I really?

What would you buy if you had a personal budget for the year?

Bookmark the permalink.


  1. This rings true for me as an employee of a huge multinational company. They are more concerned with stability and consistency than individual needs.

    I like your interview question, I think I might use that some day.

    (The article clearly has the same themes as the classic book Peopleware. Everyone should read it.)

  2. Hi Brad,

    Yep, I’ve definitely read Peopleware, and I agree it’s a must-read.

  3. I foiund this interesting. I am a sales person and actually I am allowed to buy things of up to $1000 a time but of course I would face the same problem as anyone else If I spent that on a new 32 inch LCD…
    What s more horrifying is that I make decisions on pricing every day, I can price anywhere from 100% of list price to 65% off. on the deal I did today that difference was $700K. Did I need to do that discount? Who knows? Probably, but could I have got away with discounting $200K less? we will never know, and yet I can’t buy a screen, or a chair…

  4. Hi Steve,

    Wow. I’ve found Sales tend to get pretty much whatever they want, because hey, you guys bring in the money that keeps us all in a job!

    Interesting that you’re trusted enough to discount as required, and hopefully not too much most of the time, but you can’t buy a chair? Maybe they’re trying to keep you out of the office and out meeting customers? ;)

  5. Pingback: Think Meta » Links and Whatnot, Take #1

Comments are closed