Cubicle Culture: When corporate culture shows up on YouTube

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One can imagine that the merger of Bank of America and MBNA was pretty exciting to many of the companies' employees. But to sing a sultry ballad about the union is arguably pushing it.

Still, when the card-services division held a conference over the summer, organizers asked employees Ethan Chandler and Jim DeBois to write a song for the event. Basing it on U2's smoldering ballad, "One," the B of A employees rewrote the lyrics of the Irish rock band's song and renamed it "One Bank."

No one can say that Mr. Chandler didn't "bring it" in his performance, at times pointing his index finger skyward, hand over heart, and caressing the microphone with both hands. "And we've got Bank One on the run. What's in your wallet? It's not Capital One. It's us. ... so which card are you?" he sang passionately, wearing a tie and conference name tag. "And we'll make lots of money. Forever I can sing about trusting and teamwork and doing the right thing. We'll live out our core values, while the competition crawls."

A corporate video of the performance was leaked to YouTube and replicated on servers as far as New Zealand. Public response was uncharitable. Many noted that Mr. Chandler, who has had some musical success, could really sing. But more found it hard to watch. "Goodness, that had a car crash quality to it," wrote one viewer. Words like "awkward" and "painful" came to mind. Someone proclaimed they had to watch the video through their fingers and others theorized that this must have been a veiled marketing campaign, if not a joke. "I got goose bumps and then punched myself in the face," one person wrote.

Yet the audience gave a standing ovation. This is a company where the corporate culture spreads through "spirit training," where terms like "onstage" reference everything visible to the customers and "offstage" everything that's not. "We're delighted to have colleagues who can both carry a tune and be great bankers," says a B of A spokesperson, Betsy Weinberger.

Corporate cultures conjure behaviors -- whether a heartfelt paean about "core values" or chest-thumping pep rallies for the latest product upgrade -- that aren't usually the least bit satirical within the company's four walls. They just seem like hilarious satire to the rest of us. That's why, after explaining your day at the office, your spouse says hopefully of your colleagues: "They were kidding, right?"

Even though the performance went over well, it raises an office truth: The workplace isn't the best venue for a gig. Corporate anthems don't inspire the waving of Bic lighters as much as a run for cover; rock 'n' roll and corporate culture are unbridgeable contexts. And it's hard to watch colleagues be so moved by their own performance, eyes closed, swaying, outstretching a hand to grasp -- something.

When Steve Santagati worked at a TV company, he watched one colleague paste sticky notes with lyrics onto the microphone stand. The man also began gyrating and, mostly bald, he ran his fingers through his nonhair. "We're hoping and praying they're kidding," says Mr. Santagati of collegial crooners, "and then there's that moment when you realize they really think they're like this -- a sexy rock star."

And they don't have to bomb to embarrass. Ken Keller, who manages business advisory boards, was recently at an annual recognition banquet on the chairman's birthday. One colleague took the microphone and sang Patsy Cline's "Crazy" to him. There was no accompanying band -- or irony -- just her voice, which was good. Mr. Keller averted his eyes. "I wanted to crawl under the table," he said.

There's nothing wrong with rocking the house with your co-workers in some corners. Tom Archer, a management consultant who has worked with dozens of Japanese companies, would have been sent home if he didn't at least try karaoke. For Mr. Archer, who was ejected from his church choir, it was a struggle. Instead of trying to out-Elvis the senior Japanese executives, he'd bring unrecognizable music -- Ohio State football songs. "I'm able to graciously get off stage after one or two" songs, he says.

"If they're having fun and getting lots of acclaim and approbation, the embarrassment is our problem and not that of the actors," says Rowland Miller, professor of psychology at Sam Houston State University, an expert on empathetic embarrassment, or discomfiture on someone else's behalf. "It's only we outsiders looking in who find it cringe-worthy."

Then he watched the B of A video.

"Holy mackerel," he repeated amid wheezy laughter. "They are serious!" The reason for his mackerels, he explained, was the romantic treatment of the merger and the sincerity of the singer. But it's no different, he notes, from when you see a football fan in full body paint supporting a team you couldn't care less about.

The bank employees, Mr. Chandler and Mr. DeBois, are embarrassed by having been YouTubed. Mr. Chandler won't be jamming at the office again. "This was not meant to be my big debut or shot at fame, by any means," he said in an interview. "I enjoy working at Bank of America and I am passionate about music, but I plan to keep them separate from here forward. One has nothing to do with the other."



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