The Grind of Work? Hey, It’s Just a Job!

GrindingIt’s delicate, if not downright impossible, to write about work. I found this to be true when I was a freelancer, but it’s even more true when having a formal employer. Yet there’s always been a part of me that believes it’s possible to strike a balance. The hallmarks of that balance, in my mind, are to stick to generalities and certainly to avoid defaming anyone (bearing in mind that it’s only defamation if the content is untrue).

Regardless of the current malaise I may be feeling at the moment, my overall impression of my employer remains overwhelmingly positive. I still believe that, from an employee’s perspective, I work for one of the best employers in the nation. I can’t imagine where I would be right now if I hadn’t landed this job back in ’06.

By any definition, however, mine is a large corporate employer, and that has its downsides. When I was a one-man show, I had only myself to praise for the successes and only myself to blame for the failures, although most of the failures were the direct result of the difficulty — if not impossibility — of having one person trying to do everything. But there’s no comparison to the gratification stemming from knowing that I and I alone earned every cent even if there were far too few cents coming in, not to mention no security and no way of planning for a rainy day or a retirement. In a corporate environment, despite an employer’s efforts to recognize individuals’ accomplishments and to encourage career growth — and my employer is second to none on that front — an individual can easily be dispensed: “It’s not personal; it’s just a business decision.”

My own business never grew large enough to have staff. I had the occasional “contractor” toward the end before I mothballed the operation and those arrangements worked out well …at least for me. But what if they hadn’t worked out? Would I not have been obligated to do something about it? Of course I would have.

However, within a large corporate employer, the context seems more opaque. In one instance I can recall from about a year ago, it’s true that no one was really sure what exactly one person’s job was. But that didn’t lessen the shock of learning that, overnight, that person “was no longer with the organization.” Then it happened again more recently, except this time within my own team.

Allow me now to be totally selfish: it happened immediately after I had finished working on my financial rejigging, so my first thought was, “What if it had been me?” I immediately had visions of my best-laid plans falling apart in an instant. And then, less selfishly, I thought of my former team member, who may have had similar plans, suddenly reporting to work one morning and having the carpet pulled from under his/her feet. Conversely, another of my team members was moved to another job which, if not in fact, seems like a promotion. Still, it was discombobulating for me to go from a team of six to a team of four.

Objectively I know that I needn’t worry much about my job, at least for now, for I’ve managed through my work ethic, my “extracurricular” skills, and sheer luck of my location and being fluently bilingual to make myself more needed than my former colleague. But I also know that I have made some choices (and have been standing firm on those choices) that make me wonder if they’ll ever be held against me one day even though they would never be cited as such. For instance, now that I’ve finally moved to Montréal, I categorically refuse to relocate to Toronto and I’m resistent to the idea of ever giving up on working from home. I’ve been working from home since 1996, and knowing myself as fundamentally introverted, I know that my usefulness to my employer would plummet should I be forced to work in a cubicle jungle. But I can’t help feeling the pressure of not making myself as “malleable” as an employer that takes “not-personal-just-business” decisions would like me to be.

There’s also a kind of schizophrenia within a large organization. On the one hand, individual accomplishments are encouraged, praised and even rewarded — I’ve certainly been rewarded handsomely — but on the other hand, individuals expressing too much candour is frowned upon. We have to tow the company line with the blind belief that those who are higher up always take the right if sometimes hard decisions. After I wondered out loud how we would manage the same workload with a team reduced by one-third, I was later privately told (for my best interest, no doubt) “to be careful not to say ‘negative things’ in open discussions.” That stung a little, for I wasn’t (at least in my mind) being “negative”; I was expressing concern about my/our ability to fulfill our mandate. What I didn’t say out loud, which WOULD have been negative, is that I was pissed about how the data I helped design and accumulate got interpreted. That thought — that bean counters have no soul — I kept to myself.

In times like these, it’s difficult for a former freelancer and part-time university instructor like myself to fit into that kind of corporate culture. I come from a background in which criticism is not inherently negative; it’s an exercise to reach a better understanding and to effect change for the better. It’s also a background in which intellectual freedom is cherished, and is understood to be about the expression of ideas or facts that may at times be inconvenient to the prevailing orthodoxy but isn’t confused with an individual’s whims or style of doing things. So you can only imagine how I, with my degree in communications, don’t take well to being imposed quasi-Fordian methods, including not changing a single word in an outgoing e-mail even though it would personalize the message, because the text has been vetted and there’s an inherent belief that equal input always leads to equal results (or output). Insult is only added to injury when this state of affairs is the direct result of one bad apple previously sending out downright rude and equally impersonal e-mails because of his/her own Fordian approach to the work we do.

I toil within a corporate culture in which subtlety falls on deaf ears, superficial reading reigns supreme, and the adage of “more with less” is held as an inviolable objective regardless of the real impact on individuals — the impact that is invisible to the eyes of bean counters.

Despite what this rant might lead you to believe, though, I am nowhere near the funk I was in two years ago when I allowed myself to feel betrayed by my work. Note the emphasis on “allowed myself”: work didn’t betray me; I allowed myself to feel betrayed because, unable to face up to my horrendous mistake that was NowEx, I threw myself even more than usual into my work until the well was poisoned while under the supervision of someone who disliked me as much if not more than I disliked him/her.

No, today I just feel a bit shaken after being reminded that no one, including myself, can take anything for granted. I suppose that’s not a bad lesson to learn and relearn. But since my last visits with Lucy last fall and perhaps moreso now, after a shock like the most recent one, I pick myself up, dust myself off, turn off my computer for the night, and say to myself, “It’s just a job.”

I’m a Montrealer, god dammit, not a Torontian! Therefore, I work to live, not live to work. And I continue in my resolve to own what I own and not what I don’t. As such, I own the need to make a living, but I don’t own the need to make my employer even more filthy rich than it already is.