Only Round Pegs in Round Holes Moved Up.
My first full-time job after college was working for The Hartford Fire Insurance Company. It was then, and still is, one of the several big insurance companies located in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s just called “The Hartford” now, but back in the early 1960s, and for probably a hundred years before that, there were three separate companies under the one Hartford banner: the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, the Hartford Accident & Indemnity Company, and the Hartford Life Insurance Company. No one in Hartford ever used the full names. If someone asked where you worked, you could simply say “at the H, A and I”. That would be enough.
Anyway, I was hired as assistant to the editor of The Hartford Agent, a monthly magazine for agents and employees of the Hartford Fire. I’d been there for only a couple of months when the editor, a 60ish woman named Ernestine Robin, fell ill and went on an extended leave of absence. And there I was: a 24-year-old kid responsible for putting out what was, for its day, a very classy publication.
The Hartford, at that time, was considered one of the more progressive insurance companies and treated employees comparatively well. Other companies in town were a lot tougher. The Aetna for example, was notoriously hard-nosed. Rank and file employees right up to company officers punched in and out with time cards. And at 8:30 every morning, a loud bell rang and uniformed guards appeared at every entrance recording the names of employees arriving late.
Back at the Hartford, there was a very clear hierarchy for the company officers and you knew exactly where each man stood by the decor of his office. Ordinary employees sat at one of a hundred or more desks in a huge room — one of many such rooms. As men slowly worked their way up the management ladder, they went from one of those desks to a private enclosure and from there to a private office.
At that point, rank was discerned by the office’s furnishings and accessories: an assistant secretary (of the company) rated a carpet on the floor. When he was promoted to a full secretary, came a nice credenza placed against the wall behind his desk. When he was bumped up to assistant vice president, the credenza was ceremonially adorned with a silver water decanter plus an ornate silver tray with a couple of glasses. From there, it was up to the rarified air on the fourth floor. That’s where the several vice presidents, the two senior vice presidents and, finally, the one and only president were ensconced in their individually decorated offices.
(You will note the consistent use of the masculine pronoun; there were no female officers in those days. In fact, I would guess that Ernestine Robin had been the most prominent female in the entire company … and she was gone.)
There was an unwritten-but-strict dress code for all officers of true company: dark suits, white shirts, conservative ties, black or dark brown shoes. There was one guy, however, who was the exception to the rule. He faithfully observed the dress code, but with one exception: every day without exception, he wore bright-colored socks: green, blue, yellow and even red. He was a very bright actuary, was highly regarded and had been with the Hartford for several years. In all that time, no one in upper management had ever been so petty as to speak to him about the color of his socks.
I asked him about that one day. He grinned at me and said, “It’s just my way of letting them know they’re not going to get all of me into one of their goddam little boxes.”
As it turned out, Ernestine Robin never returned to work and, before long, I had been the de facto editor of the magazine for a full year, although still at an assistant’s salary of $6,000 a year. About that time I was offered another job at $7500, a sizable increase. I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing, however, and sought out the appropriate vice president one day. I told him about my job offer, but said I loved my work and recognized the value of working for the Hartford. If, I said, the company could match the other offer, I would like very much to stay on as editor of The Hartford Agent. The man stared at me for a moment, then shook my hand and said — I remember his exact words — “Let me be the first to wish you success in your new career.” I learned later that he had taken my approach as an ultimatum … and that was just not done.
I left the Hartford and, a year later, moved to Hawaii. And I never had a chance to thank him.