It probably comes as no surprise that I spend a significant portion of my day analyzing and reflecting on things in my life. It is simply how my brain works. Things just don’t slip through without careful examination. I can barely get myself dressed in the morning without weighing the options on each garment. Has my client seen me wear this jacket recently? Will I be able to wear 3-inch heels and not fall and break a hip by the end of my day in the city? Does this shade of black seem a bit lighter than that shade of black. Yep, it is intense.
Yesterday, as I sat for hours in a less-than-desirable DMV office in a less-than-desirable part of NJ, I had lots of time for analysis and reflection, particularly the reasons why I had to end up in the less-than-desirable DMV office rather than the a little-bit-less-than-desirable DMV office closer to my home. It had something to do with letting my license expire, some unpaid parking tickets and a lack of analysis and reflection on important papers that go unnoticed when they arrive in the mail. But, rather than focus on my own foibles, I used this opportunity to think about how the experience at DMV could be better for both the employees that spend so much of their lives there and the patrons who view a trip to the DMV as a gateway into hell.
I put on my workplace consultant hat and thought about what the employee experience is for the typical DMV worker. They start their days entering through doors covered in bars and manned by county police officers. When they have the occasion to look out the windows at the lifeless streets and drab parking lot, they have to also stare out through bars. It definitely gives the impression that you are imprisoned which, as any DMV patron can attest, is exactly what it feels like when you are being shuffled from one line to the next, to the next with no sense of what indignity you’ll be facing next. Their offices have not been updated in decades and, in and age where we have more technology than we know what to do with, they have handwritten signs posted all around and have photocopies of photocopies that probably started on a mimeograph machine and you can barely make out the words. To add to the ambience, rather than some unpleasant muzak playing in the background, there is a cacophony of workers yelling the names of waiting guests (that is how Target refers to their customers so I am going to pretend DMV values theirs in the same way) mixed with the low murmurs of patrons cursing about how long it is taking to get their necessary business handled. (I wonder if the Muzak people have a service for that background noise).
Some – well, most – would suggest that anyone who is crazy enough to take a job at DMV deserves what they get. The office staff is generally comprised of under-educated civil servants who make barely more than minimum wage (although they have killer benefits, which is nice) and they tend to be a disengaged and disgruntled 99% of the time. I recently read a post by a woman who was telling of her son’s trip to DMV for his road test and she referred to the workers as “lazy and stupid who don’t give a frig about serving the public.” I’m not sure if I completely support that sentiment but I will concede that it is easy to draw that conclusion given the experience most have when they are forced to make any type of visit to the office. No one ever meets you for a drink at the end of the day to tell you about the amazing experience they had at DMV. “Today they served champagne and chocolates. I didn’t want to leave!” Not quite. However, I would suggest that perhaps we might be looking at the question of the chicken or the egg. Does the culture of the DMV exist independent of the employees or do the employees create the culture. If you read any articles written about how the government treats DMV workers and the significant cutbacks being made to the agencies which creates longer lines and, no doubt, more frustration on both the part of the workers and the public, you might consider that working at the DMV might cause a normally lovely person to turn into a hardened, miserable one.
I was watching one particular woman who seemed perfectly “normal” to me. She was fairly well-dressed and, unlike some of her colleagues, was not chomping on her gum as if she was trying to use her teeth to crack open a walnut. When I glanced over at her, hoping that my name was the next out of her mouth, she was rifling through a stack of papers as if she was looking for one in particular. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was actually in search of some poor individual’s paperwork or if, rather, she was just shuffling the papers to avoid calling anyone’s name and let the clock tick forward a few minutes closer to closing time. I gave her the benefit of the doubt because I believe the best in people. Minutes later she was helping a gentleman who clearly was missing one of the points for the 6-point identification process (yep, I got the lingo down…that is how I roll). You could tell that he was pleading with her to help him out so he would not have to return home to find a piece of mail to prove his address and continue on in his nightmarish journey. I wondered if she simply did not care or if she was just following the stringent rules set by the powers that be that suggest “we make absolutely no exceptions whatsoever because we simply cannot trust the general public because everyone is really a criminal who is trying to get one over on us.” Now, given some of the shady folks that were walking around the office today, I am not sure I entirely disagree with that line of thinking. There were quite a few people that looked like they had some secrets tucked away in their very baggy jeans (perhaps that is what was weighing them down so they could not quite stay up on their waists). I watched as this man pleaded and observed the body language of the DMV worker as she shook her head at him. He was searching through his manilla envelope (did everyone else get the memo that you are supposed to bring a letter sized manilla envelope with your paperwork to the DMV? I seemed to be the only one who simply tucked my stuff into my purse) to find the required paper and, each second that went by without him locating it, his shoulders slumped deeper. He knew what was before him – go to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200 – and was dreaded starting over. I am certain that I observed a glimpse of sympathy in the woman’s eyes as she confirmed his fate. I felt bad for the man and wished they could make an exception (although was still bitter about the fact that I took the very same path the day before when I arrived without a piece of mail) but recognize that, in a culture, such as this, exceptions are out of the questions. It would create mass hysteria. My attention on this exchange was interrupted by the large African American woman sitting several seats down from me who was providing us with the enjoyment of her ongoing commentary of what was going down in Room 3. At this moment, she offered some commentary on how that poor fool is going to have to take his ass home and come back tomorrow. This was followed up by a long string of whining about how much she needed to go out and have a cigarette and, if they do not call her name soon, she is going to need to pop someone. Good times!
My name finally did get called and I had the pleasure of having my picture taken which resulted in a photo that looked like I had seventeen chins (I though I had lost just a few of those already) and taking a vision test through some type of view master viewfinder device from when we were kids. I did stumble before I was able to leave and, once again, had the opportunity to evaluate the culture of the agency. Was the woman who was helping me (the fourth individual I had come into contact in my three hours at the office) going to go the extra mile or would she happily send me on my way to resolve the inane confusion related to my married vs maiden name? Would she go out on a limb for me and actually read my marriage license to see that both names are represented? “It doesn’t have a raised seal, I don’t know if they are going to accept it.” That right there? That is the transference of blame to some nameless, faceless individual. That has got to be part of the training. Much to my surprise and delight, they did accept it and I was released from the holding cell. Perhaps there are some renegades who want to feel good about helping others and putting in a good day’s work. Maybe, just maybe, there are people who work at DMV that want to shift that culture to one that it inclusive and inspiring, moving from what feels like a hostile work environment to a place where people look forward to going to work. Well, that might be a stretch but I will hold out hope. You can say one thing for the employees at the DMV, they can certainly bring their true, authentic selves to work, and that’s something.
My journey this go round is not completely done and I get to go back one last time to fix my problems that I neglected, ignored and failed to analyze but, for now, I am done and for that, I am grateful!