I spent some time chatting with extended family members this weekend, after attending a funeral. As tends to happen, the subject of work came up, and we got to talking about difficult times at our workplaces. I’m changing some details to protect some identities, but I thought the stories were interesting enough to share. Though we all find ourselves in different worlds, the major issues we face are very similar. One family member told me that in over 20 years of working, this was the only time he had truly hated going in to work. That’s quite a statement. What sort of environment could cause that?
His particular situation could probably be best described as poor alignment of passion to position. He worked very hard for many years in small close-knit teams, overachieving in a very physical job where results directly yielded compensation benefits. He took great pride in the quality of his work and his ability to outperform his peers in a very competitive environment. But like a good employee, he did as he was asked and moved into a supervisory role when it became necessary. Now, his compensation is fixed (at significantly less than in years past) and his drive to compete and overachieve at work has no direct outlet. Even if he somehow translates his passion for excellence into those he supervises, he would not yield any compensation benefit for doing so. In fact, his passion works against him, as he often puts in extra hours and fills in gaps on his team with his own labor to keep from having an unsatisfactory team.
This directly led to the problem of poor transition planning for people whose careers bring them into unknown territory. The same attributes which make someone successful at one role might hinder them in another. Rigid attention to detail and a refusal to accept excuses might work well for an individual contributor but might be seen as dictatorial in a manager. People are being asked to wear new hats all the time, but with little to no training in new roles people are being set up to fail.
Another issue that reared its head was bad translation of company objectives to individuals. Recently, a company made a decision to lay off 200 workers. The decision was justified with a million dollar-plus price savings. At the same time, the company continued to publish documents about how much they value the communities they draw their workers from, and continues to boast about its high revenues (tens of billions of dollars). In a matter of days, they have destroyed years of credibility with their workplace: people are openly talking about how they put 200 middle-class families on unemployment in exchange for 1/20,000th of their revenue. Now, I have no insight into the decision, but they way they’ve chosen to communicate it has cost them considerably in trust among their workforce.
There’s one final factor to mention – the constant mantra of doing more with less. I heard a story of a company who suffered an internal scandal and terminated (for cause) over two dozen employees. Rather than replace these employees or reorganize, the company is just making do. People who are already stressed for a number of reasons are absorbing the extra work. In other situations non-salaried workers’ hourly rates were cut by between 20 and 33 percent. It’s not just that families are now forced to do more with less, it’s that they feel powerless. The want-ads for these industries are empty; they’re lucky to have a job. And all of them are scared that things won’t improve. Their new paychecks might be their new baselines. Their entire financial futures are looking murky.
Nobody that I talked to has lost their job, but lots of people were feeling powerless and unmotivated. There are lessons hiding in these stories – we may not be able to avoid layoffs, or pay cuts, but we can’t let our constant struggle to keep our heads above water turn into an excuse for treating people poorly. Whether we’re talking about employees, customers, or partners, they may not feel like they have a lot of choice right now with the economy so uncertain … but when the tides change, how do you want to be remembered? As the manager who made a star employee hate his job for the first time in 20 years? Not me.