The tricky part of working in Antarctica wasn’t the 20-below temperatures, the sunless days or the dagger-sharp winds. It was the fact that there was no escaping each other. That is, unless you’re Al O’Kelly, a power- equipment mechanic, who remained a mystery employee despite the close quarters. A talented “magician” with diesel generators, O’Kelly managed to stay out of sight so well that people thought he was a figment.
“I actually have photographic evidence that he exists,” says seabird ecologist Donna Patterson-Fraser, who almost got to know O’Kelly. “The guy was always pleasant and soft-spoken, just not one for the crowds.”
Glenn Grant, a science technician who worked with O’Kelly for months at a time on two occasions, met him only once or twice, in part because of O’Kelly’s tendency to work odd hours and read in a seldom-used stairwell. “It’s funny,” says Grant, “it’s impossible to avoid someone.”
Some colleagues wore T-shirts that acknowledged and intensified O’Kelly’s mystery-worker status. “I saw Al O’Kelly,” these read.
Sometimes you know what colleagues do but not where they are, such as O’Kelly. But it’s far worse when you know where they are but haven’t a clue what they do. That’s a telltale sign, similar to a fever, that any one of a number of things isn’t right at the company.
At worst, it means the mysterious colleague’s duties strikingly resemble—nothing. Whatever the cause, the status of these employees leads to speculation—typically more fun than fact—that they know where bodies are buried, conduct espionage, or are related to a bigwig.
Tom Colbert once had a client company where one of its well-dressed “executives” baffled the lower-level colleagues. “They had no idea” what the man did, says Colbert. But the unofficial title his co-workers gave him explained everything: brother to the top brass.
Many mystery staffers are off the org chart. Says Mary Wilson: “No title, no direct reports, no staff. Not even a picture of the wife on the desk.”
At two of her previous jobs, Wilson encountered these employees when she interviewed staffers for internal audits that measured company performance against employee perceptions.
“I would always end up across the desk from one of these mystery guys” whom everyone was speculating about, she says. “There would be almost an office pool as to who the person was.” The closest she could guess was “chief snoop,” usually a classmate of a senior-level executive retained to find out what was going on.
Often, the mysteries are a symptom of management taking too long to explain something. When Howard Karten worked in a bank, occasionally a mysterious person would occupy an office, which meant that person was marked for promotion. Until then, employees supplied their own job description: “He’s writing a revised revision of the repeat of the report,” is how they put it.
In an online survey conducted by social polling site BuzzDash, 75% of people who were asked if they “work with anyone whose job function is a mystery” responded, “Yes, what do they do all day?”
Mystery employees seem to thrive in calcified bureaucracies, where job positions outlast necessity. But they also are present in supposedly nimble matrix organizations where an employee, using the excuse of working for multiple bosses, does nothing for any of them.
They thrive during growth periods when profit masks unproductivity. “But most puzzling is their presence in firms during recessions,” says Pradeep Anand, a former oil industry executive whose former colleague was an international man of mystery charged with landing overseas business. He spent more time shouting in foreign languages on the phone and managing little collections of foreign currency.
Anand supplied his own “tangible romantic rationalization” explaining the man’s longevity. “I often wondered if he worked for the CIA.”
It is possible to be mystified even by one’s self, says Anand. That tends to happen to people who get hired to implement change a company only thought it wanted. “The conscientious ones quit,” he adds.
These employees might not be so mysterious, of course, if someone would just ask them what they do. Much of Robert Moliski’s work as an executive recruiter involves spending hours behind closed doors with the chief executive. “People always stare but never ask who I am,” he says.
At the risk of spoiling the mystery of Antarctic recluse Al O’Kelly, O’Kelly had long heard about those Al-spotting T-shirts. “I never saw them,” he says, unsurprisingly.
Yes, he kept to himself a bit, but that’s because he wanted to stay “sane and sober” in case the station equipment had a problem. So he didn’t socialize much. Currently, he is a camp host near Fresno, California, US, greeting people who visit the Millerton State Recreation Area.
“It’s just about as non-reclusive as you can get,” he says.
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