On being a modern employee

Live the behaviours!

An actual manager at my step-daughter’s workplace

Before the media became obsessed with how evil Vladimir Putin is, there was a fair bit of hot air given to the phenomenon known as the Great Resignation. This is not, as one might suppose, some sort of renaissance of Stoicism in which large numbers of people have become reconciled to the evils of modern life. Rather it is an unprecedentedly high rate of job resignations, notably in the US and Europe but also seen elsewhere in the industrialised world. In this week’s post, I’d like to look into this phenomenon, as it is still apparently ongoing even though it has ceased to feature much in the news.

Originally it was blamed on the Covid-19 pandemic (remember back when that was a thing?) – as was everything bad that happened before we realised that everything was actually Mr Putin’s fault. Certainly that was a precipitating factor. When it broke out, various governments brought in schemes that boiled down to paying people in non-essential jobs to stay at home (with a pay-cut, naturally; a healthy 20% in the case of the UK scheme). It may well be that some of those people, given time to reflect on their lives, actually did so and concluded that they might be well-advised to do something else with them. It is clear that not all of the resignations were simply due to health reasons, and they certainly weren’t the result of people taking better jobs in a resurgent economy, given that the economy has not been especially resurgent.

But why would people with jobs not want to keep those jobs? After all, getting a job is what you do, for most people. Even quite rich people feel obliged to have a career, which is just getting a job only made to sound nicer. (It’s a bit like the well-known distinction between going insane and becoming eccentric.) And why are other people not queuing up to take those jobs that have unexpectedly become vacant? After all, doesn’t everyone want a job? Lots of people need two or three of the things these days, just to get by.

Well, maybe some of the people who find this surprising need to acquaint themselves with life as it actually is in the modern workplace.

I’m going to try and illustrate this by means of a case-study, based on my step-daughter’s current employer. (By the time you read this, they may very well be her former employer.) I’m going to refer to them as Acme Foobar Retail, for the very good reason that they’re called something else in real life and I’m not a big fan of being sued. Their core business is selling foobars over the counter, but she actually works for a subsidiary, which I’ll call Acme Frobnicating. (Yes, that’s a made-up word. See previous reference to being sued.) This is an appointment-based service, which allows individuals to come in and have their foobars frobnicated by trained frobnicators, because with today’s fast-paced lifestyles not everyone has time to do it themselves.

Now the management of Acme Frobnicating know absolutely nothing about the nitty-gritty of frobnicating, except that you can make money from it. All they care about is getting clients through the door in largest possible numbers, getting their foobars frobnicated as quickly as possible, and moving on to the next. Like so many things in modern life, this is a completely rational view, provided your only window on reality is Microsoft Excel.

For the actual frobnicators, though, it’s different. They actually care about frobnicating and they want their clients’ foobars to be as well-frobnicated as possible. To be clear, this is not intrinsically a McJob. Rather it’s a calling, and people go into it genuinely wanting to make a difference.

I think you can probably see where this is going.

No malice is required to make this situation untenable for the frobnicators,. The decisions are being made by people with no clue as to what their decisions entail. Worse than that, the decision-makers actively avoid finding out what their decisions might entail. They are afraid, I strongly suspect, that decisions that will make things better in the real frobnicating world will make things look much worse in Microsoft Excel world, and that is the world in which they are judged. Because the managers’ managers look no further than that. It’s all about the bottom line.

But although malice is not required, it is nevertheless present in bucketfuls. For no apparent reason, it turns out that Acme Foobar Retail, or at least the branch where my step-daughter works, is a pit of scorpions. The mentality reminds me strongly of a cult. If you work there, you may not have contact with any other branch of the business. (My step-daughter used to work at another branch.) You will comply with the whims of management. You will not have time off, except at times that the management deems convenient, that is at times when nobody wants to have their foobar frobnicated, which turns out to be never, because of course their business model is predicated on an endless stream of people who want to have their foobar frobnicated. If you do have time off, you will naturally still be on call, because why wouldn’t you be? And you will never, ever, bother management with the troublesome details of actual frobnicating, because they don’t need to know about that stuff.

Is this typical of the modern workplace? I don’t claim to know, but I would happily wager that it is typical enough to explain many of the resignations were are seeing today. After all, why would anyone subject themselves to this kind of petty tyranny if they had any alternative? And people are creative enough to find alternatives.

There is no labour shortage today. What there is is a shortage of gullible idiots. Except, perhaps, amongst the managerial classes. Maybe a few of them might want to shut down Microsoft Excel and look out of the window. There’s quite a lot going on out here nowadays.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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