Sunday, February 01, 2009

Two Kinds of Workers

The past few weeks, my workplace has been going through a meltdown unrelated to the current economic crisis. I won’t get too specific, lest some wondrous HR matron spelunk the web and stumble across this. But the basic situation is a manager in our smallish department (about 15 people) resigned a few weeks back: found another job less than five minutes from his home in central New Jersey, which neatly dove-tailed with his rapidly eroding work relations with our overall boss. As a result, two of his employees decided it was time they left, too, as they were closely aligned with the exiting manager and must have perceived that things would not go well for them with him gone.

In my mind, they were mistaken. The nature of the work they’re doing, especially now, the company would have made efforts to keep them, even if only to maintain a semblance of stability with a key manager exiting on two weeks notice. As it was, they both resigned and made it clear they had every intention of burning bridges. Normally, not that big a deal, but in this kind of economy? Best course to take would have been wait until their new boss was hired, see how that panned out (for all they know, it could have improved their lots in life), and if they still had a negative vibe, start busting out resumes and find another job before exiting. You don’t want to get caught off base in this kind of economy, as thousands of workers are being picked off daily.

The past three weeks, phew. The key error made, I’m assuming by HR, was not to tell the two departing workers, “Sorry to hear you’re leaving, we’ll pay you for the next two weeks, feel free to use that time to find other employment.” Because they were not happy campers on the way out, were pretty up front about their negative feelings, spent a lot of time whispering (always bad when people whisper in an office), and you could cut the tension with a knife days they were there. (They seemed to burn through more than a few sick days a piece, which was a relief.) Add to that HR staff skulking around like hungry bears knocking over campsite trashcans, holding private interviews with department staff in a nearby office (they didn’t get to me, praise Jesus) to “get to the bottom of this” … and you had a very rocky, tense few weeks of work.

I pretty much kept my mouth shut. Because when I’m around angry people hinting they might indulge in lawsuits and such, I recognize any stray comment be repeated back to me in a courtroom. Work in an of itself presents enough issues with tension and problems that heaping this extraneous bullshit on top of it doesn’t help matters any. I saw more than a few positive and negative attributes of coworkers come to light. Bottom line, there’s a huge difference between your typical work-day carping about the job (which we all do, routinely) and expressing a sort of bleakness that suggests maybe you should just get the fuck out of whatever negative place you perceive yourself to be in. But what I’ve learned about people: if you’re that kind of person, everywhere you go, you find the same problems. You’re not escaping a bad situation – chances are you did a lot more to create and nurture it than you’re aware. You can’t escape yourself.

That factory job I had during college was the first time I had to work in a structured environment with other people. (Previously, it was all lawn mowing, snow shoveling, landscaping, etc. with my brothers – good work, too, that I still enjoy doing.) In that place, I learned that there are two types of workers: people who like to work, and people who don’t like to work. It’s that simple. Everything about how people function in a workplace flows from those two sources.

Too many people don’t like to work. I’ve come to realize that unfortunate reality. They somehow got it in their heads that life owes them something, and their vision of heaven would be winning the lottery and doing nothing all day in a big house … not quite realizing they’d drive themselves crazy in that kind of scenario. How many times have you read about lottery winners simply losing any sense of structure, or having any real understanding of how to preserve the enormous amount of money they’ve been given, and eventually going broke?

I should point out that there are plenty of people in my life who don’t like the work – I don’t hold it against them, just recognize this aspect of their personalities. But it just seems to be one of those things developed in childhood and followed through young adulthood to a full flowering in adulthood. I hated working as a kid, mostly because that meant my father pulling me out of some leisure-time situation, like reading or listening to music, to help him fix one of the numerous dumpy used AMC cars he purposely bought so he could work on them. It wasn’t until I grew into lawn mowing, and receiving money for this, that work made sense to me. Even through college, I didn’t much like the concept of working. College felt like enlightened play time (it was), maybe a hard slog at times, but probably the most relaxed time of life.

In my adult life, doing some freelance and temp work, I’ve gone through plenty of down periods, in which I recognized it was very easy to slip into a “not work” mode, to get up late and spread out my time, to develop routines that take up the time I would be at work, and I realized I was doing the same thing I would at work – developing a daily structure – to pass the time, save I wasn’t getting paid to do this. Thus, it made more sense to do some kind of work, even if I found it dull and recognized it took up too much time. I could separate the act of working (and making money) from the work itself. And when you do that, the doors open in some sense, because you recognize you can get through anything in life with an attitude like that. You’ve made peace with the downside of adulthood: recognizing that most of it isn’t doing what you want to do. (Even if you love what you do, you’re going to spend a lot of time doing things you don’t want to do.)

Which is why this last workplace disaster has really left a sour taste in my mouth. To walk away from work at this point in American economic history, without work to replace it, has to be one of the more shockingly foolish things I’ve ever seen in an office. But I’m also realizing these people were genuinely unhappy there. The difference is I gather they pin their unhappiness on the place itself, particularly our overall boss, when I know the greater reality is they’re the source. Most emotions are a choice. You choose to feel happy or sad, to love or hate. It may not seem that way when you’re younger, but you pass through X number of emotional states as you age, you recognize that many of these thunderbolts of emotion, you’re hurling them, not some unseen force. I’d say things like death or the birth of a child supersede emotional choice, but not much else. Most times if you’re unhappy, that’s your personal choice, not a bunch of external factors that have magically conspired to force your into a state of misery. And it’s basic force of habit that people keep moving along the path that comforts them most. If you’re more comfortable feeling unhappy, you go on that way.

You get a bad attitude, nurture it, and it will grow. I’m not saying this like I’m above or outside the influence. Hell, I have a horrible attitude towards the creepy white college grads pouring into my neighborhood and paying outrageously inflated rents, as if the quality of life has increased to match their arrival and the 100% boosts in rental values. (It hasn’t, unless you equate yearning for overpriced coffee shops and “cool” indie/empty book stores selling books at retail with quality of life.) But I also realize hating these spoiled little brats is only going to eat me up inside if I nurture it. So I keep that in mind and declare some sort of truce in my mind, because I have no power to control the situation, and going around treating these people like crap is going to change me (in a bad, corrosive way) more than it would influence them to leave. Besides which, for every overbearing, self-absorbed, twentysomething prick with an iPhone jammed in his/her ear on a crowded subway staircase, there are five people quietly going about their lives the same way I am, with the caveat that 80% of their paycheck is going to their rent to live in a working-class neighborhood.

Life is going to throw enough shit at all of us, in the forms of failing health, disease, death, the passing of loved ones, horrible accidents, frayed friendships, friends in crisis, betrayals, falling outs, crossing paths with truly rotten human beings, unforeseen money issues … the list is endless. It makes no sense to purposely make your life harder. Or to routinely choose negative emotions. To place yourself in situations where the most likely outcomes will be anger and misunderstanding. I can joke about this shit, because I’m hardly Mr. Positive, but I’ve been passing those phases in life where those people I once thought were novel and fun in their bleak attitude, I’ve slowly realized, they just get worse with age. They don’t mellow like fine cheese or wine. The quirky darkness turns into ongoing depression and medication, and sometimes even into time in institutions. Cynicism plays well in your 20s, but through your 30s and into your 40s, it gets tiresome, loathsome even, and it starts to feel like dead weight.

These are the kind of thoughts that have gone through my head the past few weeks, in a pressure-cooker situation where the maturity level felt like something similar to a high-school cafeteria. I go to work to work, not to get engaged in soap operas and psycho-dramas. If I find myself growing unhappy at work, I bide my time and figure out a way to leave. Sometimes it’s an overnight/two-weeks-notice type deal; other times, it takes months to play out. Man, I would try like hell to avoid a scenario like that right now, because this economy is no joke, not something you want to assume is going to work for you, because it just might not. About the only thing I wanted to impart to my coworkers through all this: that guy is here to work! It should be that easy, and it is, if you let it.

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