You are at least free to whittle your nibs

We’re not overly prescriptive in enforcing ‘workplace rules’ these days. Casual Friday is now blurring into Laid Back Monday and Seriously Slobby Wednesday. When managers feel compelled to say anything about dress, hairstyles or body odour, they generally put it off for the fear of crossing some line of harassment or causing offence. The standard working week in most Australian contracts is 38 hours by law, but in many workplaces, setting targets is the norm and clock watching is out.Some organisations are strict about uniforms and safety workwear, but then the prescribed clothing is generally supplied. Of course, we care if some workers show up with drugs or alcohol in their system, because safety may be compromised. But when the boss asks if we had a good weekend, we know it is a social custom and not an enquiry about our dissolute natures. If a colleague wants to tell me about how they spend their free time, that is their choice.  Often times, I wish they wouldn’t. I recall one manager telling me about his Sundays at the city’s nudist beach. There are some images that produce nightmares forever.

I do not know the religious beliefs or personal circumstances of most of my colleagues. I do not need or wish to know. That’s a good thing. As Richard Glover points out in The Land Before Avocado, it’s not so long ago that in the typical Australian workplace, a woman might conceal the fact that she was married or pregnant in order to keep her job. Announcing your engagement was the same as announcing your resignation.

I was thinking about the ever-changing psychological contract of work, when I came across this wonderful list of workplace rules from 1872.

(It is thought to come from a New England carriage works).

1. Office employees will daily sweep the floors, dust the furniture, shelves and showcases.
2. Each day fill lamps, clean chimneys and trim wicks. Wash the windows once a week.
3. Each clerk will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s business.
4. Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to your individual taste.
5. This office will open at 7am and close at 8pm except on the Sabbath, on which day we will remain closed. Each employee is expected to spend the Sabbath by attending church and contributing liberally to the cause of the Lord.
6. Male employees will be given time off each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they regularly go to church.
7. After an employee has spent his thirteen hours of labour in the office, he should spend the remaining time reading the Bible and other good books.
8. Every employee should lay aside from each pay packet a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years, so that he will not become a burden on society or his betters.
9. Any employee who smokes Spanish cigars, uses alcoholic drink in any form, frequents pool tables and public halls or gets shaved in a barber’s shop, will give me good reason to suspect his worth, intentions, integrity and honesty.
10. The Employee who has performed his labours faithfully and without a fault for five years, will be given an increase of five cents per day in his pay, providing profits from the business permit it.

Progress is not always linear, but working lives really are better. The next time you feel slightly daunted by the alarm clock, and the burden of scrubbing up reasonably for the office or a Teams meeting, spare a thought for these workers. After bucket carrying, chimney sweeping, and a thirteen-hour day, they may have been free to go courting, but it’s likely that their energy was running a bit low for much fun.  And we have been free, for a very long time, to whittle our nibs as we please.

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