It was long past time to replace my office chair. Over the years screws had loosened and supports had relaxed into positions far from those intended by the manufacturer. When a arm-rest fell off I realised it was definitely time to get a replacement.
How to go about this? I work for a beaureacracy. We have forms, we have procedures, we have departments for all things. Who then is the mandarin of replacing broken chairs?
"Health and Safety offficer" one of my workmates volunteered."Get a HSO to certify that your chair is unfit or unsafe an you will get a shiny new one the very next day"
"That makes sense, I'll give them a call" I replied.
An older colleague lifted an eyebrow. "Don't even think about it" he growled.
This veteran has lived in the organisation for long enough to know things.
"John, on the second floor", he elaborated, "got a HSO in to look at his chair."
"John got his new chair but that HSO didn't stop there."
"Went over every inch of John's office with a magnifying glass: every old folder, every scrap of paper, every rubbish bin, every kink in the carpet, every loose fitting."
"All of it, everything classified as a safety hazard"
"John got a new chair alright but he has been so busy cleaning and tidying he never gets a chance to sit on it. Once you get on the HSO list you are there for life. Poor John doesn't do much work any more - doesn't want to have papers around when the HSO comes on a spot inspection".
It turns out that health and safety officers are a bit like social workers. Everybody thinks they are a good idea but no-one wants them poking around their particular corner of the world.
I thought about my lived in office with its files and its folders and personal momentoes. Perhaps the HSO was not such a good idea after all.
I still needed a new chair and if I was not prepared to get one through official channels then one avenue remained - the grey market.
Every organisation I have ever worked in has had a grey market. A thriving movement of goods and services which functions entirely outside of the official organisation chart. The currency of the grey market is promises made and favours owed.
Although I have never really been an operator in the grey market I have learned to identify the key players in this subterranean game and to befriend them. The doorman, the car park attendant, the storeman, the keyholder of the stationary cupboard: These people wield power far above their apparent station in the company hierarchy and you ignore them at your peril.
So I talked to a few people and I dropped a few hints. I got a chair. In fact I was given a choice of three. The one I chose is not brand new and the screws needed a precautionary tighten. It is however very comfortable and it feels incredibly safe compared to deathtrap I have precariously balanced on for the last few years.