Thursday, December 22, 2005

Outside, Looking In, Liking the View
The employment firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas is out with its list of Most Unbelievable Workplace Events of 2005, documenting the year's weirdest employer/employee relationship issues. One of them involves a security company with a rule prohibiting employees from socializing outside of work hours. Can't go to lunch together, can't go to each other's weddings. And as if that isn't weird enough, the company's employees challenged the rule--but the National Labor Relations Board refused to overturn it.

Fortunately, that rule isn't widespread. For example, I went out for drinks last night with some colleagues from my old corporate job. We wouldn't be covered by the security company's rule anyhow, because, with few exceptions, everyone I was with last night has left the company since I did. We call our group the Alumni Association.

It's too simple to say some people are wired for corporate life and some are not. Sure, some people take to it like a Republican to lying--they thrive on its rhythms, take its peculiarities in stride, and live happily ever after without looking back. Others simply can't handle it at all, out of an aversion to hierarchy, or neckties, or something. The vast majority of people, however, are sufficiently wired to handle it for a while, but the life of the wiring may be finite. How long your wiring lasts depends on the sensitivity of your crap detector.

For example: How well you can handle motivational rah-rah will determine how long you last. The more you can swallow, the longer you'll last. I have a friend who was working for a small, privately held company that was purchased by a large corporation. The corporation sent some of its well-dressed executives from New York out to the provinces to aid the transition, and in the process, they unleashed a full barrage of MBA motivation-speak, to the point at which longtime staffers found themselves restraining laughter in meetings. "We're too smart for that nonsense," my friend said. And they were. People who are paid to write and think well--as these people were--have a professional obligation to avoid cant and boilerplate in their work, so what makes bosses think they'll be motivated by it? If you can put that sort of thing in its place--either as background noise or words to live by--you'll last longer than if you can't.

The amount of tolerance you have for hierarchy will determine how long you last, too. The CEO of one company I worked for had his own private bathroom, but to his credit, he rarely used it, and more than once I found myself talking to him while we stood at adjacent stalls in the men's room. But the same company had a rule that one particular conference room couldn't be used unless one of the people in the meeting was at a sufficiently exalted level on the organizational chart. That meant it got used a couple of times per week, while groups of 25 or more crammed themselves into rooms meant for a dozen almost daily--which seemed to fly in the face of the we're-all-in-this-together spirit with which we were supposed to work. If you can suppress your egalitarian impulses--or live with the absurdity of certain hierarchical preogatives--you'll last longer than if you can't.

Whether you keep the job at arm's length or not can also help determine how long you'll last. For example, at one company I resolved to skip company parties and other occasions of forced socializing, but that was only part of my strategy. I also determined not to give my life to the place--not to take an emotional interest in what I was doing. I'd gotten emotionally involved at other places, and that involvement became an energy-sucking monster that entangled me in office politics and generally made it hard to leave work at work. However, I discovered after a while that keeping an emotional distance had a negative side-effect: I found myself crossing over from "not emotionally involved" to "not giving a damn." By the time I made this discovery, however, I already had one foot out the door, and within a few months, the rest of me followed. If you can find the right balance between emotional involvement and emotional distance, you'll last longer than if you can't.

In one way or another, every member of the Alumni Association decided after a while that it was time to move on. Some did it to go home and raise their children; others did it for a better opportunity somewhere else. And some of us did it to cut the corporate cord entirely. Someday, I may have to go back to corporate life, but I'm not looking forward to it. Right now, the view from my dining room table, where the laptop sits, looks pretty good to me.

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