Vertical Humor – How Elevators Can Be Hazardous To Your Career


Working in a high-rise office building is in many respects like stepping into a different world every day, one which has a vertical orientation. You don’t talk about going here or there, you talk about going up to such a floor or down to such a floor.

To do this, of course, you have to use the elevators consistently. As a result, elevator stories are common and frequently reach folktale status. These are the business world equivalent of urban legends, and everyone has a favorite one. Here are two of mine.

The elevators in the office building where I work have an interesting feature: they have booster rockets mounted on them. That’s the only thing that could explain their ability to rise and fall at the approximate speed of light.

I suspect they were obtained from an old carnival ride that was dismantled because it made too many people sick. At any rate, they are extremely fast and would be excellent as a simulation device for space shuttle astronauts. It’s a startling experience the first time.

While going up is not so bad, going down takes your breath away. Dropping 15 or 20 stories creates a sensation not unlike bungee jumping with no rope.

Once you’ve worked in the building for a while, you sort of get used to it, and concern about how frequently the brakes are inspected fade into the background of your consciousness. Actually, with a couple of thousand people working in the building, someone is usually getting off at almost every floor and it can be quite some time before you experience a drop of more than a floor or two.

For a certain young co-worker of mine, this experience unfortunately came during his first day on the job. He got on an up elevator at about the 20th floor along with one other passenger, a young woman. As the elevator began to go up, it suddenly stopped and abruptly began falling toward the lobby at its usual speed: Mach 3.

What my co-worker didn’t know was the elevators are programmed to stop and drop to the lobby whenever a fire alarm within the building goes off. What happened that day was that a construction working on another floor had accidentally set off a fire alarm.

Since it was going up and so suddenly stopped and began plummeting toward the ground in what appeared to be a free fall, he naturally assumed the cables had snapped. However, he wasn’t the sort to just start screaming in a mindless panic; he was a person of action.

Reasoning that their one slim hope of surviving the crash at the bottom was to lie flat on the floor and thus distribute the force of the impact, he yelled “Hit the floor!” grabbed the young woman, threw her down on top of him, and spread himself out.

When the elevator reached the lobby and made a smooth, gentle stop, the doors opened and revealed two prone bodies to the several dozen people waiting to get on. I suspect he would have preferred the crash.

The second story wasn’t the elevator’s fault at all. It can be blamed only on an ill-conceived attempt at humor.

A bright young co-worker of mine – we’ll call him Bob – got on an up elevator on the third floor with one other person, a friend of his whom we’ll call Jim. Bob was only going to the eighth floor but knew Jim was going to 19, so he playfully pushed all the buttons between eight and 19. This meant that Jim would have to stop on every floor while the doors opened and closed. All very funny, and nobody really gets hurt.

That is, until the elevator stopped on the fourth floor and the company president got on. He was going to the 20th floor. Now, with two other people on the elevator and 11 floor buttons pushed, even a company president knows that someone is playing games. Rumor has it that he patiently stood there with Jim, not saying a word or giving him a glance, as the elevator stopped 11 times. Jim commented later that it was the longest three minutes of his life.

This is what is known in the business world as a “CLM,” Career Limiting Move. We’re pretty sure Jim can scratch the president off his list of possible mentors.

Fortunately, I now work on the third floor and seldom have to use the elevators. According to Jim, this practically guarantees me an eventual seat on the board.

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