The wonderful world of work

On three different occasions I have witnessed a co-worker cry.

Many times I hear co-workers complain about their jobs.

I recall a beloved co-worker Vanessa, of Macedonia, (a country in the throes of civil unrest on a scale not far removed from Syria’s problems), who remarked to me that the job was not at all living up to her expectations.

Last night just after work I had a profound discussion about work with my shift supervisor Bryan “Chicken Legs” and we discussed the phenomenon of promotion and who and how people get promoted.

All of this has made me think about my own experiences with the wonderful world of work as well as my own hopes and expectations for employment and I am trying soberly and objectively to look at why work is so often a “four-letter word” for so many, including myself at times.

I don’t know if I will be expressing any truisms here so rather than make too many overgeneralisations, let me, for the record, simply say what work has meant for me.

First, employees and employers are completely different animals, despite the similarity of some of their desires.

As an employee, I ask myself what can an employer do for me.

The boss asks himself what can I do for him.

Though we both ask the same question: “What’s in it for me?”, the selfishness of this question clearly leads to conflict right from the start.

An employee generally begins a job with the idea that if he works hard and does his job well, then he’ll be rewarded.

Some even imagine that if one is a good person of honour and integrity then this honour and integrity will be returned.

The idea of getting what you think you deserve is the source of many a dispute and disappointment in the work world.

I look over my own spotted “career” and see examples after examples of where merit and dignity go unrewarded and unrecognized.

Case 1: Ottawa, Canada

I got promoted to a position of shift supervisor over data input operators at a credit card producing bank.

My first duty was to fire a friend as he was consistently five words below the expected input a typist was supposed to produce.

The friend was married with a baby on the way.

I refused and pleaded for time to allow him to improve his efficiency.

My boss wouldn’t budge.

I set the record for the shortest lasting promotion in the history of the company.

We both were on the streets that day.

Though I did “the right thing”, which I still don’t regret, my good deeds and intentions meant little to the company.

Case 2: St. Gallen, Switzerland

As part of my duties as head teacher, I was required to visit company executives and teach them business English in their offices.

In a mad dash from one company to another, I missed a step, fell down and badly damaged my right wrist.

As a result I was hospitalised and missed a number of weeks from work while the wrist healed.

My employer was badly inconvenienced by my accident as I had not only administrative duties but as well the bulk of the school’s teaching hours, so he distributed the teaching between himself and the other teachers and assigned the administrative duties to a secretary.

Realising he could do without me, upon my return to work, my employer then proceeded to make my worklife a living hell to a point where remaining at a school where I was clearly no longer welcome was no longer a sane option.

The employer cared little for my performance and record as he did about the potential benefits of making my position obsolete.

Second, there is the Peter Principle in action, where a person is promoted to a level wherein he becomes incompetent.

Companies do realise that if an employee has remained with the company a fair amount of time that it is bad for morale if that employee remains unpromoted.

But being promoted does not always mean that the employee can handle the duties the new position entails.

At the same time, other more competent employees might be better suited to the new position but are denied the position because they were not at the company long enough.

And, of course, in the rarified air of top management, promotion to head positions is more a matter of reputation and networking rather than a proven track of performance, thus a politician may find himself as chief consultant for a major company, though he may have never spent a day before working for that firm.

And, interestingly enough, a politician’s poor job performance in industry still doesn’t affect his political future.

Case Three: A co-worker had been with a firm for a long time.

She, as well as everyone else, recognized she had been there awhile and remained unpromoted, so finally to silence her dissent and because she did provide valuable skills to her job, she was promoted.

Despite time served, still many objected to her promotion as she was rude to anyone who had no power over her, but she got promoted as the perceived costs, risks and benefits of promoting or hiring someone else outweighed the costs, risks and benefits of promoting her.

Case Four: Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney bankrupts his former employer, gets a golden parachute nonetheless, gets elected Prime Minister and today is still advisor to many companies and gives expensive speeches around the world, despite being reviled by those Canadians old enough to remember him.

Third, much depends upon your relationship with colleagues and administration.

Herein lies my greatest folly and clearest weakness.

I am, without a doubt, one of the world’s worst networkers.

I do my job, in fact, take pride in it and do it to the best of my ability, but once the job is over I dash away home determined to keep my private life private and not become morassed in the politics and games-playing of work (which, by the way, because of human nature, is impossible).

I know I am usually well-liked wherever I have worked as I am polite with everyone, try not to be judgemental or prejudicial against anyone, am able to have an intelligent discussion and am the type of person others would enjoy having a beer with.

(Though there are some former students of mine that might disagree!)

But there remains a reluctance on my part to interact with colleagues, because we spend so much of our lives together already, because interaction with person A prejudices person B against you, and because, despite my public persona, I remain a relatively shy person, the networking I should do, I don’t.

And, at the end of the day, it is easier to promote a friend than it is a stranger.

So, I think to myself, as I think about those jaded and disillusioned about their jobs, that there must be more to life than remaining unfulfilled in 80% of our adult lives.

And, I think it all revolves around perception of time.

Most of us believe that getting promoted is a reward for past performance.

It isn’t.

Bosses and companies do not reward so much on past merit as much as they invest in your future contribution.

Their perception of you, regardless of whether it is valid or not, is the determining factor.

So, much to my wife’s eternal disappointment, her husband will probably remain a humble teacher and humble part-time barrista, because he chooses not to care about how he is perceived for future promotion as much as he cares about how he performed on the job today.

(One can almost hear the chuckle of divorce lawyers!)

In a world that defines us by the job we do, I choose not to let my work define my life.

I am more than my job.

I work to live.

I don’t live to work.

What is needed to make work my passion is the sense of doing something valuable with my day that, in its own small way, makes the world a wee bit better than it was.

So, if my students learn something from me that they hadn’t had before and if my customers’ day is a wee bit brighter because of my friendly service, then I take satisfaction in that.

The rest remains only icing on the cake.

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