Harnessing zooming electrons to create the Internet may be hundreds of years more advanced than printed information, but whether readers access it through a softly glowing screen or in the glossy pages of a magazine, the written word can cut deeply. Luminant Worldwide, an integrated professional e-business services firm, learned that lesson from a story in last week’s New Yorker.
Just imagine the scene: You open your new issue, by habit looking for the cartoons first, when an article, “My Fake Job,” catches your eye. The humorous article, by former CBS “Late Show With David Letterman” head writer Rodney Rothman, 26, describes a scenario that could have been yanked from an episode of Seinfeld. In a way, it was.
You chuckle to yourself as Rothman describes 17 days he spent faking a job at an unidentified Silicon Alley dot-com. Following real employees with pass keys around the building, he set himself up with a desk, his own extension and an imaginary position as “junior project manager” from the Chicago satellite office — much like a Seinfeld episode in which Kramer pulls a similar stunt. He proceeded to spend those three weeks eating free snacks, getting company-provided massages and pretending to work while chatting with friends on the phone.
You continue to chuckle, thinking that while the idea is crazy it’s not that implausible in the dot-com world where employees can come and go in the blink of an eye. Then you get to the point where he mentions a T-shirt that reads, “May the e-force be with you.” You stop cold. Your company gave out shirts with that slogan just this year. You look at the article again. He says the company is situated on floors two, three, four, six, 11 and 12 in a building in Chelsea. That’s it. Free massages — your company gives employees three 15-minute massages per month. Yoga classes at lunch? On the money. Name plates made with paper and magic marker…yes. Could it be?
It apparently was. Rothman had written about three weeks with Luminant Worldwide — there was only one (well, maybe more than one) catch that his editors didn’t (catch that is). Some of the things he’d written were fictitious — like a story about a massage from a co-worker named Melissa. Oh, and his mother had worked for the company, calling his reason for infiltrating Luminant specifically into question.
“There were various reactions [at the company],” said a former Luminant employee — laid-off in the company’s most recent restructuring — who still stays in contact with people at the company. She said descriptions of the office’s layout were the most revealing feature of Rothman’s tale. “Some people thought it was very funny because it was very much on the money. Some people were upset because it was a violation of their security or their space or that sort of thing.”
“It was almost like a Saturday Night Live skit on Luminant,” the former employee said. She noted, however, that she has some distance from the situation because she no longer works there.
In this week’s issue, the New Yorker apologized for allowing fictional episodes to get past its fact checkers. Rothman is a freelancer and not an employee at the magazine.
Luminant, meanwhile, may take legal action against Rothman. In a company-wide e-mail later posted to a message board on thevault.com, Jim Corey, chief executive officer of Luminant, wrote, “The author of the story was clearly deceptive in posing as an employee, and worked to gain access to the building by following persons with key cards and providing vague and false information to employees. We will be seeking the advice of our legal counsel on how, if at all, we should respond to this incident. If it turns out that the company was Luminant, I’d like to know if he took anything from our offices, interfered with our work in any way or harassed any of our employees.”
Richard Scruggs, executi
ve vice president and vice chairman of Luminant, added Wednesday that Luminant is still looking into whether Rothman did anything more than trespass — like walking off with customer information. That in turn will determine whether the company will seek legal action, he said.
“I suspect we’ll put that to bed this week and move on,” Scruggs said. He also said the company was pleased the New Yorker had taken the initiative to apologize.
Scruggs also said Luminant’s New York employees felt “the article was humorous but they didn’t think it was all that well written or all that inventive once they understood that his mother used to work for us.”
Both Corey and Scruggs said security procedures will be beefed-up.
As for Rothman, he may have lost some credibility with the New Yorker, but Hollywood seems to be clamoring for his story.