Fear of Firing

For most of my career, I went to work every morning thinking that this was the day I was going to be fired. OK, maybe not fired, but terminated, displaced, laid off, down-sized, right-sized, outsourced, rationalized and one I never heard before until doing some research for this article, amortized. Regardless of what management calls it, you go to work one day, only to find out that you won’t be going any more. In other words…you’re fired. I have watched people escorted out the door at every company I have ever worked for, and I have worked for quite a few. And observing this happen with such unrelenting regularity has had a significant impact on my psyche.

The Fear

Truth be told, I never left a job involuntarily, so I guess I have little to complain about. But almost all of my friends lost their jobs, some more than once. These aren’t blue-collar workers, for whom the idea of layoffs has become almost acceptable or, at least, expected at some level. They are lawyers, engineers and financial analysts—people in professions, which, we thought, were somehow immune to the challenges of uncertain employment. And I have never been employed by a company at which there wasn’t significant downsizing.

I worked for a company in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that went from 126,000 to 55,000 people over the course of a few years. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, people were "let go" (there’s another euphemism). It was pretty depressing. At the beginning, there were going-away parties, then lunches and then everyone just stopped talking and thinking about it. I think we believed somehow that if we ignored what was going on all around us it might stop. And as the number of employees decreased, the amount of work done by those who remained kept increasing. So in addition to the stress of watching our friends and colleagues walking out the door, we all had to work harder and longer because the work didn’t go away. And we were always looking over one shoulder as we waited for the proverbial tap, signaling that we were next.

Toxic Culture

How has this affected me? It’s hard to say exactly. But I know that my loyalty to my employers wasn’t what one might expect, given my generation (boomer). I guess I just became suspicious. I would look for signs of bad things to come. I would notice when there were unexpected reorganizations, mid-year budget cuts, sudden headcount freezes or the unanticipated departure of seemingly successful key executives. More significantly, I would try to figure out how I could restructure things if the goal was to eliminate my own job. And, to tell the truth, it wasn’t all that hard. I figured it wouldn’t take long for someone else to come to the same conclusion, so I was always looking—over my shoulder, as I mentioned earlier—for other opportunities, just in case the grim job reaper found his way to me.

In retrospect, I realize that seeing all the carnage affected me in another, more substantial way. It made me stop wanting what I now know I would never have—security. My generation was raised to believe that there was a set of rules to live by: go to school, get a job, work hard (and do good work!) and you would be rewarded with a secure future. It just isn’t true. I figured out that if I just stopped wanting the reward, my life would be a little easier. So I made new rules. If I believed in the product or service my employer offered, I got to work with smart people, have fun and learn something from time to time, then I would be happy, and I would be more than willing to work hard and do good work in return. But I expected no guarantees from my employers and, in turn, they got none from me. It's an approach that has served me well.

The After Effect

There was, I believe, an additional side effect, which the pundits of the world now attribute to a "generational difference." Basically, my kids watched all of this happen. They heard me talk about what was going at work. They had friends whose parents had lost their jobs. They learned early that loyalty to an employer was a risky proposition, at best. And, as a result, they don’t view it as a virtue. We ought not to be surprised by this, nor do we have any right to expect anything more from them.

I contend that this isn’t a generational difference at all. Rather, I think that X’ers or Millennials feel exactly the way that many of us boomers feel (stereotypes notwithstanding), which is that the best way to combat the fear of firing is to not get all that invested in the first place. You don’t feel that bad about losing something you have convinced yourself you never wanted in the first place. The goal of most businesses is to deliver a return to shareholders, and, as a result, employees are expendable. I am not saying this is wrong or immoral. Rather, I am saying that the younger generations may have different expectations than many of us had when we were their age. We were unpleasantly surprised. Perhaps their surprises will be more positive.

First published on Human Resources IQ.