Posted by: maryg09 | March 19, 2009

Gustafson: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Posted by contributor Mary Gustafson

When I got laid off I felt, oddly enough, as if I had finally been given a solid return on my investment — because most often I worry endlessly about things that never come to pass. For once, the worst case scenario became a reality. But now, even though I don’t have a new job yet, I’m starting to think that unemployment is far from the worst case scenario.

Franklin Roosevelt was on to something when, during the great depression, he cautioned “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I used to think it was a nice sentiment, but was never quite able to put it into use, nor did I comprehend why it was such useful advice at the time. But now I see examples of this daily, if not hourly. And nowhere is it more evident — at least to me — than in the workplace. Even if you no longer have one.

To me, the prospect of being trapped in a job where you endure daily attacks on your character, talents and abilities is worse than the alternative. Many people have told me that the day they were laid off was one of the best days of their lives, although that comes as cold comfort when you’re newly laid off. They told me that they started to see severance checks as an incentive or reward for getting away from their abusive boss or toxic work environment. Granted, they may be singing a different song if they have mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay. But as Reid McCormish pointed out, the recession has made people more afraid to stand up for themselves and confront the source of the problem out of fear of retribution. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, but it may also give your company a rationale for laying you off instead of your quieter but equally as qualified coworker.

And I’m no group psychologist, but it seems lately that the recession brings out the worst in people, from Bernie Madoff to gossipy office drones — especially if their industry has been hard hit, such as the real estate, publishing, construction or auto industries. As one friend put it to me recently, the workplace would be so much more humane if people reacted to financial uncertainties with love rather than fear.

For example, a friend of mine worked for a non-profit that she adored but had to deal with a boss who became increasingly insulting as finances there worsened. Instead of sitting her down and laying her off humanely and with kindness, her boss acted out of fear, accusing her of dishonesty and other misdeeds so that she had little choice but to leave on her own accord or admit to things she didn’t do. I suspect a lot of employers can’t afford the severance and unemployment contributions required to lay workers off. Instead, they find more subtle and insidious ways to make employees miserable enough up and quit. That way they never have to publicly risk looking like the bad guy.

A quieter form of on-the-job and job-search misery comes in the form of incongruous ethical standards between employer and employee. In the face of potential layoffs and prolonged bouts of unemployment, current and would-be employees are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to reconciling what their boss and what their conscience demands they do. The marketplace is full of conflicting interests, but nobody wants to seem fickle when they’ve been out of a job for six months.

A former professor from my alma mater graciously returns emails and dispenses advice to graduates dealing with professional upheavals. She shared with me a response she gives when asked about such conflicts:

I am seriously uneasy about anybody ever taking a job just because they need the work. I see that as a failure waiting to happen. Yes, the opportunities right now might seem highly limited, but look for the long term. Will this job help you get where you want when the sun again shines on the economy (and it will), or will it hinder you from achieving your ultimate goals?

Look at this as a marriage. Would you jump at marrying that jerk you met in a bar just because you’re tired of being single? I seriously hope not. Nor would you stay in an abusive relationship.

 [It seems as if I’m not the only one to notice similarities between matters of the heart and a new job search].

In other words, don’t make decisions this important based on fear. Or, as my friend’s boyfriend put it when she was struggling with her beloved non-profit, “Don’t make any decisions while you’re still crying.”

I don’t think you can go wrong if you follow such sound advice.



  1. I think you said what I was saying even better than I did. Work really is relationship, and one that has a very high rate of abuse. Sometimes, you just need a divorce.

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