In less than three years at my company I have had five different CMOs, three different senior managers, and three new direct bosses. My role has changed four times, my department five. We have had layoffs at least twice a year and a reorganization every six to nine months. As you sign off conference calls, someone inevitably ends it with, “May the odds be ever in your favor.”
This is the corporate dream.
It’s startling when it becomes apparent that you are nothing more than a title and salary on a spreadsheet that has to be balanced. If the C-suite executives have a whim to change the business, the lack of strategy and pervasive theory of throwing shit at a wall to see if it sticks isn’t working, then the only solution is to knock everything over and start again. Your success and achievements are pointless in the light of potentially being an expenditure they can eliminate to make their numbers. For all your education, experience, and humanity, you are a pawn to be moved or sacrificed at will.
It’s a psychologically damaging way to live.
The mental effects start slowly, a jump at any “ding” resembling the sound of your work email alerts growing until your phone is in bed next to you, set to awaken you from a dead sleep at a moment’s notice. One of my bosses would receive an email from Europe and respond within five minutes at 3 A.M. in fear that someone would think she wasn’t always available. There is no hour of the day, no family event, nor emergency that cannot be subsumed by the immediate need of The Company.
In my first year there, every single month involved at least one notification of another employee who had died from a heart attack. On my own team three separate people went out on short term disability for undisclosed reasons, but were widely purported as burnout. On an average Monday morning check-in the remark, “I only worked for five hours on Sunday,” is responded to with cheers.
And yet people stay, despite the re-orgs, the layoffs, the burnout and the intrinsic knowledge that they are instantly replaceable. The Company purchases their lives with a competitive benefits package and the illusion of job security, and the fear that even in a recovery, the job market is scarier than the realities of staying put. As they spend their days telling customers how they can help them “do more with less” they’re paralyzed with fear over the day they’ll fall in the “less” pile.
Perhaps the economic downturn over the last 10 years has seeped into the corporate culture as stocks play hopscotch up and down the DOW, countries’ entire economies balance on a razor-thin wire keeping them from collapsing, and profit margins depend on convincing others to cut “resources” to be more profitable. The people, the ones who make up these corporations, whose lives depend on upon them become nothing but tools, no different than the standard issue phones and laptops they must remain glued to 24/7. There can be no individuality when even the government accepts corporations have the rights of citizens. We live in a time of “too big to fail” and protection of businesses trumps the welfare of the electorate.
As technology and data continue to grow at unprecedented rates, the concept of disrupt or die drives every component of the business. Change is the only currency that can be relied upon as people miss family dinners, take business calls from happy hours, spend their weekends traveling for work, and fretting every minute of every day if it will be enough. Will the numbers they have little to no control over be there? Will their department be next in the Russian Roulette of corporate layoffs? What hot new trend are they already behind on?
Lives are delayed, pushed back for another day. I’ve had the down payment for a house for years, but have never pressed go, doubting whether I should run the juggernaut of saddling myself with a mortgage when my job could disappear at any moment. My friends have pushed back having kids, burned by layoffs, jobs without maternity leave, or the bare minimum of vacation days that leave no wiggle room for a sick child. I’ve seen coworkers logging in from the hospital while their children stay overnight, damned because they can’t leave them and damned because a sickly child has run them out of days off from work.
We kid ourselves tweeting about #lifeworkbalance and talk about having it all while our lives disappear, swallowed up by impossible demands and a culture that prioritizes the mechanization of humanity. Companies brag about their great benefit packages and the importance of attracting quality talent, but still they do the bare minimum to make their employees, their lifeblood, happy. Because the fact is that in the economy we live in, there are a hundred replacements queuing up behind them to take the spot.
And so you cling to the hope that maybe it will get better. Sooner or later the C-suite ruining our lives and Wall Street will be replaced when they’ve let their disruption slide the company closer to death. Perhaps the next person will care a little more, will be held less hostage by a board with only figures on their mind.
But the longer you linger, the less the odds will be in your favor. You watch your boss and teammates be let go, the guy who’d been there since the start, the woman who just returned from maternity leave, and your coworker who was one of the best people you’ve ever worked with disappear with a, “They’re going to be great.” The ice you’ve been left standing on keeps getting thinner, fractured by too many missing pieces, too many close calls and “Oh thank god it wasn’t me.” It keeps falling out from underneath you until there’s nothing left, it’s just you, all exposed and the only thing you can do is decide how you’re going to fall.
Until finally there is the day you find yourself saying, “I volunteer as tribute” and you take the odds in your own hands. You take the jump yourself and control the free fall instead of holding your breath and waiting for the push.
And on the way down all you hear is a whimper of relief.