Sunday, June 2, 2013

Working for a Living…

This week I had lunch with a friend and former coworker, who I will call Sally. We hadn't seen each other for several years, besides running into each other while shopping. At one point while Sally and I worked in different sections at the same organization, we would commiserate frequently.

As soon as we discovered how miserable we both were at work, we began to meet for lunch or a post-5:00 beer to exchange words of support. We joked that getting together was cheaper than seeing a therapist. In the truly dreadful situation in which we worked, it was important to vent our frustration in order to remain at the job.

The situation at our jobs was stressful, to say the least. The place of employment gave many individuals long-term jobs with nice, steady income. In truth, work there could not be considered a career since little actual skill was required, continuing education was frowned upon and there was little chance of advancement. But the job was as secure as most jobs. Few people got wealthy as a result of their work experience but money was not the driving force at this job. What was important was security and regular pay in exchange for expending no more than minimum effort.

People merely wanted to skate by without being noticed.

Of various jobs I held during my working years, the situation where Sally and I worked was by far the most unpleasant. As the economy slowed, panic swept through the office. Those workers who were aware that they were inept began to see that the party might be ending. Jobs might be cut. It was time to save their own jobs. But what to do? How to deflect attention away from fact that plenty of people were easily expendable?

The answer was simple. Lay a smoke screen. Start rumors. Drop hints about the bad attitude of other workers. Suggest casually -- perhaps accompanied by a smile -- that Worker X has been openly talking about finding another job.

The wisdom of such a plan soon became obvious to other workers. If there was some way to turn attention off of their own mediocrity, it sounded like a good tactic.

And so it was that a mass hysteria began to creep through the work place. Innuendo and downright untruth ruled the day. Each day workers would spend a large amount of [company] time and effort furthering their cause. As a result, even less work was accomplished on a daily basis. Fear of being singled out led to more clandestine activities. Closed door conversations and quick emails were commonplace. The situation had become so intolerable that I was relieved when I could announce that I had found another job.

The minute that I saw Sally earlier this week, I knew that nothing had changed. More personnel changes have occurred with many new faces hired to replace those of us who left in an attempt to improve the situation. Sally was extremely stressed out. The continuing misery had actually taken a toll on her appearance and, as I later learned, her physical health. At the end of our lunch, I departed feeling as though I had resumed working in that wretchedness myself.

Sally reported that most people are just "waiting it out" until retirement, taking even less initiative and trying not to anger anyone. She referred to coworkers we both knew as "three years out," "one more year" and otherwise designating how long before they can take their pensions and leave.

A sad story indeed.

Sadder yet is the fact that this particular situation cannot be an isolated incident. There must be countless work environments similar to this. No doubt the fragile employment market has fostered a vast number of terrified workers who fear being unemployed. Never mind that they are miserable, even disrespected. They see that nothing could be worse that being unemployed. So they resort to backstabbing and doing anything to survive. I would guess that most of us know of such a situation where little productive work occurs.

Life is too short to tolerate such a situation. Why is everyone so fearful of what lies ahead? Sometimes the best action is take a chance.


  1. The 94-year-old inventor of Innovation Factory's Trucker's Friend says he has no plans to retire, ever. He is also an honored war hero (member of the Dutch Resistance) and has been recognized by Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation for helping to save Jews from the Nazis. You can read more (and see pictures) at their blog:

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