The Worst Office Meetings

Workers recount their most maddening tales of useless meetings.

June 3, 2010 — -- Now that we've all had a couple years to adjust to the frugal new realities of the recessionary workplace, you'd think the unproductive practice of meeting for meeting's sake would have subsided.

Sadly, aimless assemblages still top many an office agenda.

In 2005, a survey of 38,000 workers in 200 countries found that 69 percent felt the six hours of meetings they attended a week were anything but productive.

I doubt little has changed in the intervening five years. Don't believe it? Ask 10 of your employed friends to recall the last time they suffered through a time-sucking, soul-quashing, mind-numbingly dysfunctional meeting. I guarantee most of them will say, "Yesterday."

Sure, there are unsung innovators who, in the interest of working smarter, have learned to kick time-killing confabs to the curb. And management consulting superstars Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson have built a career on teaching companies to adopt their balance-minded brand of corporate culture, known as ROWE, or Results-Only Work Environment, which nixes cubicles, office hours and, yes, even mandatory meetings.

Still, I had little trouble finding workers who said their conference rooms continue to brim with bleary-eyed meeting attendees who have no idea why their presence was requested, let alone what the heck the speaker is gassing on about and how it relates to the projects on their plate.

How bad is our nation's meetingitis? Check out these stories:

Just Say 'Om'

For "Tina," a marketing professional who worked at a manufacturing firm in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., the straw that broke the meeting camel's back came last year. (For obvious reasons, Tina didn't want her real name used.)

Apparently, the executive leading the company's Monday morning staff meetings mistook the conference room for a New Age meditation retreat:

"The CEO was a self-help, Anthony-Robbins-loving nut. The two-hour, mandatory Monday morning meetings were 30 minutes of business-related topics and 90 minutes of chanting, positive-reinforcement-quote-reading madness. It was like a cult. We had to close our eyes and chant whatever the CEO was saying -- long passages about loving ourselves, seeing our inner light and never saying 'no.'

"Not one person in the room felt anything positive. Absenteeism on Mondays rose to 50 percent after a few weeks. I left the company after six months when it became apparent that the Monday morning meetings were going to be the best thing that happened to me all week. It was nuts. I have never seen anything like it and I hope I never do again."

Death by Catchphrase

Sometimes veering wildly off-topic isn't the trouble with meeting leaders -- stringing together a coherent, jargon-free sentence is.

Anthony Adams, a former software salesman in Dallas, shared this tale of buzzword-riddled slideshow woe:

"While we had soul-crushing, death-by-PowerPoint meetings on an almost daily basis, I was subjected to a week of them in mid-2008 at a 'sales rally' at a hotel nearby with about 500 other employees. It was the worst experience of my working life, just inane buzzwords from one speaker after the next, talking about leveraging existing resources and viewing developing opportunities from a 20,000-foot view and monetizing low-hanging fruit.

"After one middle manager went up and spoke for about an hour and a half, I leaned over to a co-worker and asked what the hell we had just listened to, and he just shrugged his shoulders. It was about as mentally stimulating as watching paint dry. While hiding in the men's restroom, I decided to start my own business. I was mercifully laid off in early 2009 and haven't had to sit in a single meeting since."

Back to Kindergarten

Some group exercises are better off left to five-year-olds. Elena, a former web manager with a Palo Alto, Calif., company, will attest to that. Her ex-boss was a master at facilitating a "100 percent useless" weekly meet-up that more resembled a kindergarten class than a meeting of management minds:

"Each of the seven or eight companywide managers had to take turns reading out what they had worked on through the week. No one was allowed to interrupt to ask questions, but the floor was opened up for three minutes at the end of each summary for 'discussion.' Anything approaching a useful argument or in-depth analysis was shut down by the boss, who would say we needed to move on in the interest of a quick meeting. Despite our protests and suggestions for modification, she said that this was the way she'd done it when she was a hotshot marketing expert in New York and would not budge.

"All this resulted in was a group of frustrated managers reading off meaningless statements while no one paid attention -- no better than kindergarten show-and-tell. We'd then have to scramble to create more meetings through the week to resolve issues that could have been dealt with on the spot. No one was particularly surprised when the company filed for bankruptcy."

Revision by Committee

Those who've worked with any type of tangible content (words, graphics, software code) have probably been blindsided at some point in their career by a meeting facilitator who "just wants to spend the next hour or so going over these changes."

I'm not talking about having an intelligent, big-picture discussion of the approach to the content being created. I'm talking about painstakingly combing through the line-by-line minutiae of each piece being produced -- in a face-to-face meeting.

Kiai Kim, a communications professional in New York, knows this revision-by-committee syndrome all too well. Here's one of many examples she experienced last year:

"I'm sitting with a client, someone in the accounts department of an ad agency (where I did PowerPoint production), and we're going over edits. The changes were not this woman's edits. They were someone else's. Things like adding a comma, typing a different word, changing the color of an object. But I'm not doing anything. I'm just watching this woman flip through the document page by page. It's over 100 pages long.

"Early on I say, 'Do you want to just give me the pile, and I'll make the changes to the document?'

"Answer: 'No, I really want to sit down with you and go over them.'

"Me: 'Well, how about I make the changes as we go?'

"Answer: 'I just want to go through them quickly, then you can make the changes.'

"In a fraction of the amount of time it took her to explain each of the edits, I would have completed all the changes. I've since left the advertising world."

The Early Bird Gets the Squirm

Of course, nothing smacks of inefficiency more than openly admitting that you've called a meeting just so others can see that you're working. Just ask "Jason," a regional manager in Atlanta. (Because Jason's still at this job, he didn't want his real name used.)

Jason's boss, who owns the company, took the idea of demonstrating the firm's culture of "working when others are not willing to" a bit too far. To prove his commitment to working 24/7, he recently had his team meet in a chain restaurant at 4 a.m. -- with in-person attendance mandatory. Here's how Jason described this misguided gathering:

"I had to get up at 2 a.m. to get ready and on the road to make the 4 a.m. meeting. When I arrived at the restaurant, several prostitutes and their pimp were seated there. I found it rather ironic that we were looked at by those individuals as 'freaks' in our suits and ties. "My unfortunate fellow co-workers and I then heard stories of the past -- when the company was started, et cetera. Our owner then proceeded to call our largest client at 4:30 a.m. Atlanta time to let him know that we appreciated his business and partnership over the past several decades and that we were meeting at 4 a.m. in the morning and working hard. The best part was that this CEO was in the Midwest, so it was 3:30 a.m. for him. Our owner explained to us that this CEO slept 4 to 5 hours per night and woke at 3 a.m. every day to go running.

"We then proceeded to hear more stories about various people that worked for our owner over the years and how they built the current culture we have today. I also heard how many of them died in their 40s and early 50s.

"At the end of the meeting, around 6 a.m., the owner asked me what I learned. I responded with two points. The first was that to be successful you had to get no sleep and get up ridiculously early every day. The second was that everybody that has worked for our owner has died a premature death."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and former cubicle dweller. Her books include "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire," and, "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube." Follow her at @anti9to5guide.