The Man with the Scarlet Socks.

My first real job after college was Assistant to the Editor of The Hartford Agent, a monthly magazine published by the Hartford Insurance Group for independent agents around the country who were selling the Hartford’s  insurance products.

The Hartford Insurance Groups home office in Hartford, Connecticut.

But there was a downside. There were rules and restrictions that, by today’s standards, would only be tolerated by anything but an intimidated workforce.

The Hartford, in fact, was considered to be quite a progressive company about the time I came aboard.  And indeed it was when compared to some of those other companies. 

For example, the Aetna apparently thought it vitally important that their employees arrive at work on time every day and that those who thought otherwise should pay a penalty of some kind.  And so, precisely at 8:30 every work day morning, all exterior doors to the Aetna’s large home office building were closed and uniformed guards posted at each entrance to record the names of any workers arriving for work so much as 30 seconds past 8:30 a.m.

At the Hartford, everyone knew an employee’s status—not to mention the potential for promotion— by the location of his or her desk. If the desk was in one of the five rows of 20 desks each (collectively known as The Steno Pool), that female person was available for any routine task that needed to be performed for one of the male employees: typing, filing, taking dictation, etc.

Almost never was someone promoted from the Steno Pool to a position with any serious decision-making authority. Employees with any ambition? Eventually they just disappeared.

Most of the male employees were located at desks within what were referred to as “enclosures.”  These enclosures were created for employees working on specific projects. If a female secretary was needed for clerical functions supporting one of those projects, she would be relocated to a desk immediately outside the entrance to that enclosure.

These enclosures were created by arranging mostly empty two-shelf book cases into whatever shape seemed appropriate for the number of employees involved. If you were the only male employe within one of these enclosures, you had been marked as having serious potential. And if one day a credenza was brought into your office and a stainless steel water decanter placed on it, you had been marked for eventual promotion to a junior management position. Every male employee took these signals very seriously.

Shortly after I stated working for The Hartford, I noticed that one of the male employees came to work every day in the prescribed business suit, looking very professional in both dress and demeanor.  Well, there was one notable exception: Two or three days a week, he wore a pair of scarlet socks.

I mentioned that to a young man who had started work three or four months before me in the Hartford’s Public Relations department. He laughed and said, “I asked Charlie about his socks one day. He stared at me for a few seconds, then said, “If the day ever comes when I have to justify the color socks I have to wear, that’s the the day I walk into the president’s office and tell them the they can take this job and shove it.”

Six months later, I was offered a job as Alumni Director at a private boy’s school. I liked the work I was doing at the Hartford and there was real potential for me there because Ernestine had already informed the vice president that she was retiring and I had put out several issues of the magazine by myself in her absence.

And so I took a deep breath and asked for an appointment with the vice president who had the ultimate say for anything affecting the company magazine.

At the appointed hour, I presented myself at the vice president’s office’s office and told him about the job offer I had received. I assured him that I enjoyed the work I was  doing and wanted to continue putting out the company’s magazine. Would it be possinble, I asked, for the Hartford to at least match the offer

I had received from the school?

The vice president beamed as he got up from his desk and shook my hand vigorously.

“Congratulations!” he said. “And may I be the first to wish you the very best of luck in your new endeavor!”

I was stunned and later that morning I asked the young man who directed the company’s public reactions activities what I’d done wrong. “You asked for a raise and you gave them an ultimatum.,” he said. “That marks you as a potential trouble maker. And trouble makers are let go.”

And people wonder why some of us join unions!

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Fifty stories from life and 350,000 miles of train travel.

  • Across the U.S. and Canada by train.   
  • London to Paris at 187 mph.      

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