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I'm growing concerned that only one of two options can be true: (a) working conditions that studies such as those from the book Peopleware (summary) would condemn are actually fair, appropriate, and must be tolerated, or else (b) there is a climate of gaslighting among hiring managers and HR geared towards making a recruit feel bad about requesting certain environmental conditions in the workplace.

My questions is whether (a) or (b) is more likely (clearly reality is probably some mixture of the two, but only one can be the predominate phenomenon and I am not sure how to properly learn which is more true).

The short version of my explanation is:

  1. After being stuck with projects that fall very far outside of my job description and my education domain / prior experience, I took it upon myself to learn best practices in those project areas. This was viewed as threatening by management. Most ideas have been squelched, and I am often required to perform tasks I was not trained for and to perform them in ways that are obviously not best practice, and to raise no complaints about the lowered quality or my dissatisfaction about the situation.

  2. I have been repeatedly rated as one of the best employees in my level in the company, and so it is not very tractable for management to dismiss me without a good reason. Yet I am also genuinely prevented from steering my own work, either in quality or topical area. I figured it was a good time to begin a new job search. I have a very strong resume, with an advanced degree from a respected university and around 5 years of experience, great references, high GPA and test scores, etc. Despite this, I have been job searching for 8 months with absolutely zero luck.

  3. Most often here is what happens. Someone initially phone screens me or has a short in-person interview, centering on technical knowledge. I usually do very well and the hiring manager becomes excited. There is frequent contact, frequent follow-up interviews, most of which center more on technical skills, and I generally tend to do very well. Then, after they have decided to make job offers, they reach out to ask me about salary requirements and other desires. This is usually where it goes bad. As soon as I mention, from e.g. Peopleware, that I feel it is a basic requirement of the job that I am given a suitably quiet and private working space, and access to the specific computer technology that I am most productive with, everything derails. The frequent and positive exchanges all subside. Long delays happen.

  4. And then, gaslighting. Bothing within my current company (where I sit in a loud cubicle in an open floor plan) and coming from the recruiters at all of the other firms that have made offers, folks spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to convince me that my standards are not just regrettably too hard for them to meet, but in fact that my desire for an office is "flippant" and "intransigent" and shows that I am not a "team player." All of the classic excuses (which have been debunked with credible studies that I will often cite) are proferred, and when I won't accept them, then either a nasty final offer is made to me (which I have turned down) or else I get terse rejections such as "you are not a good cultural fit" or "we are going to move forward with other candidates."

I know that readers have no reason to trust me when I say that I carry myself well in interviews and that I know how to politely talk about my workplace needs without seeming "flippant." Sure, maybe I could use some work improving that skill, but I don't suspect that my tone of voice or demeanor during the discussion is the problem.

And further, friends and family have supported me by saying "you really dodged a bullet" when this kind of behavior has led to a possible job offer being rejected or withdrawn. But after 8 months? After 4 distinct final job offers and a half dozen late stage interviews all going down the tubes because I feel that a quiet office is as basic a need as a keyboard or mouse (given that many studies have shown this). I don't want to leave my current (dysfunctional) job just to enter into another job that is equally as dysfunctional. But it's starting to look like the very definition of "having a job" is that I must put up with not just some mildly unpleasant parts, but to simply redefine my entire perspective on what the very most basic elements of a functional workplace even are.

So back to the question. Is it gaslighting, and if so, how does one find jobs at places that don't behave this way? If it's not gaslighting, what are concrete steps to sort of "lifehack" in such a way as to turn my deeply held beliefs about basic workplace conditions on their head and come to some resignation that it's just impossible to have these kinds of workplace conditions?

Added

One clarifying point following jcmeloni's answer. This issue is perhaps much more about who I would be working for and what do they value as opposed to what are the exact conditions I will work in. Of course, I want good working conditions. But the bigger problem is that if a company chooses to ignore 30+ years of cost/benefit analysis, productivity studies, and best practices, all in favor of shaping up a particular "fun" environment (as in the tech start-up example) or in favor of using quality-of-tools (including office space) as an expression of status or rank, then I profoundly want to avoid working for or with such people because I feel it would be dysfunctional to a degree that is harmful to my cognitive health and career development. I don't want to orient myself with their company because they don't have congruent professional or work-space values. I don't come right out and say this in an interview, of course, but it's a deeply held personal value.

The problem is that (1) I believe this is a basic, sane, and obvious value more or less objectively flowing from decades of studies, and (2) 8 months worth of companies that I've interfaced with believe it is a "flippant" and "intransigent" value that makes me "not a team player." How do I reconcile the two?

It's not just that some hiring managers have said something like, "Well, I can appreciate your desire for quiet space but we just don't work that way here. We'd be happy to try to do XYZ to either compromise or offset the workplace incompatibility." They don't say that. They say, "Your unwillingness to work in the office layout that we have dictated is flippant and instransigent, and frankly indicates that you might not be a 'team player' so either you accept our offer with no compromises, or we will simply find a different candidate."

Again, if it was just one or two companies, I might understand that sometimes compromises can't happen -- or that some companies are just especially set in their ways. But this actively antagonistic response has happened everywhere and I am at a loss for reconciling it.

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closed as unclear what you're asking by ReallyTiredOfThisGame, bethlakshmi, shivsky, Paul Brown, CMW Dec 27 '13 at 13:15

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4 Answers 4

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Currently, one hardly can operate Peopleware research to set the office space expectations. An additional research is needed to verify whether their analysis in Chapter 9: Saving Money on Space is up to date. Their conclusion is based on cost-benefit analysis:

Savings have to be compared to the risk of lost effectiveness.

The cost of the workplace is a small percentage of the salary, employee benefits, training etc. The total investment in the worker could easily be 20 times that of his or her workplace. It implies that workplace cost reduction is risky...

In turn, above analysis is based on particular estimates for "total investment in the worker". But thing is, 1st edition of the book is dated 1987 and 2nd is dated 1999. According to statistics, there were about 400,000 IT professionals in US in 1990 and about 1,100,000 in 1999.

Recent research indicates that current numbers (worldwide) are dramatically larger than that:

The number of software developers worldwide is expected to grow from 16 million today to over 20 million in 2015, according to Evans Data’s recently released Global Developer Population and Demographic Survey... http://evansdata.com/reports/viewRelease.php?reportID=9

You see, amount of programmers seems to be about 40x larger today compared to the date of the 1st edition book and about 15x larger compared to 2nd edition date.

Based on these changes, one can argue that worker investment estimates in Peopleware are out of date. "Supply of workforce is 40x (15x) larger than back then, that could mean investment in worker is 40x (15x) less, couldn't it."

To avoid misunderstanding, I believe that Peopleware estimates and analysis are about right even today, but without additional research to back this up, it's merely a matter of personal opinion, holding no real weight.


They say, "Your unwillingness to work in the office layout that we have dictated is flippant and instransigent, and frankly indicates that you might not be a 'team player' so either you accept our offer with no compromises, or we will simply find a different candidate."

Above sounds a pretty bad sign. If you hear this from HR, you can only hope that you stumbled upon someone misinformed about how their IT department really operates.

If you hear something like that from an IT professional, this means you risk getting into quite troublesome job and you better adjust your other expectations (salary, working hours, vacations etc) to compensate such a risk and trouble.

The problem with defining 'team player' skills based on office communication is, it ignores the fundamental fact that programmers are expected to primarily communicate via code (if you're interested in details, refer eg Code As Design essays by Jack Reeves). From this perspective, good team player is one whose code is easy to understand, modify and maintain, even when they aren't in the office at all!

When professional teamwork priorities are violated, this sets performing your professional duties at serious risk. And, while finding research to back up office space requirements may be tricky or even impossible, risks of misaligned team player expectations can be estimated with pretty straightforward what-if analysis. Just think of it...

All right, it is nice when your colleague is a 'great team player' in a sense that they can explain particular tricky code. But, what if they are simply absent ("hit by bus") when you need them? Would that force you to wait or delay the work?

What about project schedule and deadlines, are these expected to slip indefinitely until key person is back or until critical knowledge is recovered some other way? What about management, are they "agile" enough to accommodate delays caused by their own over-prioritizing of office communication skills?

...And, most important, what about customers? Are project customers okay when the project delivery is slipped for personal circumstances of particular team member? For how long, for how often would they be okay with slippages like this...

...and here it's probably appropriate to get back to data about dramatic increase of "Software Developer Population" referred to in the beginning of the answer. While it's maybe not clear how it could impact office space requirements, one thing for sure: this increase tightened competition between the teams. If your team fails and delays deliveries too much or too often, your customers may choose to switch to another team.

Summing up, you better keep your eyes wide open when considering joining a project that practices office communication as a primary quality of a 'team player'. You need to understand that this generally implies a danger for delivery slippages and even total project failure caused by reasons you can't control, like sudden absence of team members for their personal reasons.

If you decide to join such a team, you better make sure that you clearly understand associated risks and how you offset these risks, by respective offsets in salary or working hours or vacations etc.

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This is overwhelmingly the best advice here and I really appreciate it. The additional trouble for me is that every place I've interviewed at for 8 months has taken the "team player" attitude above. It feels as though that is genuinely impossible to avoid except perhaps at insanely risky, brand new start-ups where such culture is not yet endemic. But even medium-age start-ups do this. On Peopleware, I tend to believe it's more true than ever. I believe the argument is that offices are cost effective on a per-worker basis, in the sense that adding a marginal office for a marginal worker wins. –  prpl.mnky.dshwshr Jan 7 at 15:11

I am answering this from the perspective of a hiring manager -- predominantly I've hired for startups and small companies (< 50 employees), with the occasional large organization thrown in for good measure.

I don't know if what you're experiencing is gaslighting or not -- I'm not looking into the hearts and minds of the people you're dealing with. I don't believe that there's a conspiracy in the industry around "making a recruit feel bad about requesting certain environmental conditions in the workplace."

In fact, I'd argue the opposite, as both in my own hiring practices, and among many leaders of (typically smaller, startup-ish) companies engaged with recruiting new employees, a focus on working conditions that foster productivity is making its way to the forefront. That is not to say there aren't groups in large corporations who are trying similar things, and it's not to say that all startups and small companies care at all about workplace conditions. Unfortunately, there's no one way to "tell" which type of workplace you're interviewing with or being recruited by, unless you ask. Since it sounds like you are, let's focus on that.

Regardless of whether or not this is "gaslighting", consider focusing on both of your final questions but with some modifications. Your first question seems really to be "How do I find jobs at places that are honest and forthright and match what I'm looking for in a company" while the second is "How do I find a compromise between my workplace requirements and what is being offered?"

For the first question, take every opportunity to ask the questions you need to ask -- it sounds like you have lots of phone screens and interviews, so take advantage of that time. When you ask question, make sure you're not phrasing them in confrontational or aggressive ways (not saying you are, just make sure you don't) but rather in exploratory ways. For example, instead of something like "Will I have my own office?" ask "What is the physical layout of the team space?" or something like that, and work from there. Gather information, ask followup questions, use the information for negotiations, but don't derail the process early -- let it play out. If you have as many offers as you've noted here, then you are clearly valuable and in a good position to negotiate. Let that value work for you.

For the second question, make a list. Rank your needs in order of priority, and use that as your framework for negotiation. If every single thing listed in Peopleware is a must-have, then you're going to have a difficult time finding that needle in the haystack where all of those environmental factors are present, and you're just going to have to come to terms with that. But if you can compromise on a few, you may find your opportunities open up.

I, too, believe in the type of productive environments described in Peopleware. As an employee, I would love for the ideal workplace environment to actually be my workplace. But there are many, many reasons (some good, many not) where that environment isn't possible or isn't part of the culture. In my experience as a job seeker, hiring managers are typically pretty forthright when I ask about environmental factors. Similarly, when I am interviewing people, I ask them about their ideal environment and describe whatever one I'm in at the time (typically 70-85% of "ideal"). If it's not a match, and the person is otherwise a good candidate, I try to find compromises.

But at some point, the effort isn't worth it -- either on the hiring manager's side or the candidate's side. All you can really do is:

  • know what you really want
  • know what you'll settle for
  • ask questions to get as much information as possible
  • negotiate in good faith
  • continue to reflect on your own choices (e.g. reassess points 1 and 2) as your job hunt moves along
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I was seated in the middle of an 'open plan' office until I developed a bad cough which lasted two weeks. This was right during the SARS epidemic and it terrified everyone in the bull pen. They offered for me to work at home, and later on they gave me an office.

For the most part, if you want to control your environment, you have to work on your own. I've been through this more times than I can count, and over the years I've had less and less patience with it. The last full-time job I had there was no place to park, the place froze in the winter and cooked in the summer, and I had department managers filing in one after the other trying to bump 'their' project to highest priority. I walked out on these people in the middle of 2009, nine months into the 'great recession' - that's how bad it was.

You might find a small crew of like-minded people that allows you to get a group going if you want an office outside your home. You can implement the policy you want from others - make the place comfortable and productive.

If you're going into a company with hundreds of IT workers and you're asking for something exceptional given norms within that business, they're not going to hire you. You either have to work on an unusual project in the company, work for a small employer, or roll your own.

I ran across someone that 'wasn't making it' in the job market. Our discussions over lunch would start out dealing with the strategies for making do when options were limited, and what would come up is something like 'employers are going to have to start embracing...' - in short some quality of life metric for parents with kids or software tool investment or whatever. The pattern that emerged over time was that he was expecting employers to wait on him hand and foot. Needless to say, this goes nowhere.

These complaints weren't limited to employers. He kept finding the cities he was living in 'weren't supportive' or the cost of living was too high or one thing or another, so he kept casting around for something more to his liking. Employers can spot people like this a mile away, and won't touch them with a ten foot pole.

George Bernard Shaw remarked that "...progress depends on the unreasonable man" so people that aren't accommodating are the ones that trigger change. However, by the time the changes are in place the 'unreasonable man' has spent years and other forms of sacrifice to get what he wants. It's a lot easier to simply take command of one's fate and surround themselves with the appropriate environment, however this requires that one be able to create and maintain business relationships, and none of this is any easier than landing full time work.

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If someone comes to you with a check for $10,000,000 and says 'we need this done now' you fill a building with bodies and get busy. Nobody spends any time studying anything. These things are at the bottom of the priority queue - this has been a fact of life for the American worker from Day 1. I find companies in Austin (where I live) that go to some trouble to create comfortable employees - of course one of their ads said 'must love dogs'. These tend to advertise themselves as 'boutique' and work in obscure corners of the profession. –  Meredith Poor Dec 24 '13 at 19:27
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I am in a Meetup group that goes to various tech company conference rooms for presentations - we walk right by the bullpens with the cubies and the multi-monitor workstations. It reminds me of the jobs I had in my 20s - I was working for a major minicomputer manufacturer at the time (1978). All I can think of is 'nothing has changed, except that the chairs are probably more comfortable'. –  Meredith Poor Dec 24 '13 at 19:32
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@EMS The answer is you are both crazy :) Yes studies have proven the things you are looking for, but the reason most companies ignore this stuff and focus on outdated unproven management techniques is because humans are by and large depressingly irrational. Traditional management techniques when embraced give a comfortable sense of control and stability to those that believe in it. It is just more attractive and sexy than the truth. Likewise you have trouble seeing this truth as well in your quest for idealism because your idealistic goal is attractive and sexy. –  maple_shaft Dec 26 '13 at 12:35

I think you're looking at the wrong companies. That might be because of where you live or the skills you have, but it sounds very much as though the way everyone does what you want to do, is what you're complaining about. I suggest trying smaller companies, 5-20 employees.

I think most people are aware of the studies you mention, and I'd even suggest as evidence supporting you that most managers demand a private office on order to be productive. Unfortunately private offices are seen largely as a status symbol, and you can't change that. The productivity argument is true, just as giving you a car parking spot right next to the door you use would increase your productivity (assuming you drive to work*). But, like the car park, it's not going to happen.

What I have seen in Australia and New Zealand is that small-medium companies are more likely to have an egalitarian mindset, and are are more likely to provide offices. But even when they don't you're likely to be in a room with 3-5 other people anyway just because they don't have that many employees. Focussing on finding those companies would seem to me to be a better use of your time than trying to change American corporate culture.

The trade-offs are that you're likely to get paid less, expected to have a wider but not necessarily shallower skill set, and job security will probably be lower. Smaller companies can't usually afford to pay star rates, and are more likely to suffer major financial crises (where sometime everyone, including the owner, gets laid off). The great flip side is that you're likely to work the the owner(s) on a daily basis and be in a really good position to get management to change their mind.


As one example, where I work right now has ~20 employees, 6 engineers/developers (we do embedded stuff so the distinction is loose), and I'm a Delphi guy currently writing C++ for the first time since uni 20 years ago. Because that's what I decided would work best for the project I am on right now. But in terms of influence, there's no way I can have a private office, there just isn't room in the space we have. Instead I'm stuck in an 10m x 8m room with the 6 developers and two managers. Two big things for me are flexitime and holidays. Really, really flexitime. I can start any time after 5am (if I wanted to start earlier I would ask and I expect they'd arrange access to the building for me), and if I'm still there about 8pm people will ask questions (normally "what's the problem and can I help"). I can work from home, management would prefer I not make a habit of it but ... next point. Holidays. The company shuts down for three weeks over Christmas, and everyone has to take leave. Except that I don't want to, so I asked and management said "sure, but you have to work from home because there will be no-one else in the office and that's not safe, if you fall or something no-one will know". So I'm working from home for three weeks.

I offer that as an example of management flexibility. And also boasting, because yes! I have a cool job :) But it's not unusual in my experience. There's more variation with smaller companies, but once they grow past 10 employees the rough edges normally get worked through and you have the sweet spot of working directly with the owners but not being the only one in your category (ie, "the programmer" or "the adminstrator", rather than "the Java build manager", which is too specialise).

(*) note that owning a car and driving it to work are normally silly things to do from a purely economic perspective. There are solid arguments for not doing either.

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