On work and employment

Three years ago, while my business partnership stood on the precipice of implosion, I had a little conversation with the young woman we had hired as my design assistant. My partner and I hired her fresh out of college, giving her her first real job in her chosen career. Along the way, our young business would develop something of a split personality, and the divergent paths would soon wrench both the partnership and our friendship apart. What started as a consulting and design business had more or less become a construction company — and one completely strapped for cash.

Because of the greater demand on resources imposed by the construction side, my partner drafted my assistant into service as our de facto office manager and bookkeeper. Thankfully, she had already proven her organizational skills, and I considered her wise beyond her years. Still, I felt bad for her, because we used her less and less for anything creative. She never complained, but I knew she couldn’t be happy. My partner and I had already begun the negotiations for splitting up the company, but they weren’t going well. He wanted to go full bore into construction, and I didn’t.

When I had a moment alone with her, knowing that my partner had left for the day, I pulled her aside for a chat.

“You need to know something,” I began, choosing my words as carefully as possible. “This company will soon transition in a way that will no longer require the services of a graphic designer. Because of this, I need to tell you that it might be in your best interest to start looking for another job.”

With that, it looked like I had just removed a ten-ton weight off her shoulders. “You have no idea how relieved I am to hear that,” she said, her smile finally returning to her face.

“As an office manager,” I continued, “you’re doing a great job, but I have to think that you’re not very happy since that’s not what you signed on for.” Then after a bit of nicety, I said, “This is the part of the talk where I’m supposed to impart some profound wisdom upon you, but honestly, I can’t think of anything at the moment.”

She then revealed that she wanted to quit, but that she was afraid of how that might affect the company. She didn’t want to leave us “high and dry.”

And with that, the words came. “Stop right there,” I said. “You need to understand something. Never, ever, act against what you believe is your best interest. There isn’t an employer on this planet that will not fire you if they no longer think they need you. Do not ever believe you are more important than the bottom line.”

I’m happy to say that my former assistant almost immediately found another job for a design firm, and she will soon complete her masters degree in design management at the Pratt Institute. During our little chat, I told her that I wanted her career to start off on a positive note, because I could be asking her for a job someday.

I wish I had more opportunities to work as an employer. With about thirty years in the workforce under my belt, both as a common laborer and as a career professional, I’ve developed an understanding of the nature of employment I don’t often see in others. I think I also have a good grasp on how to motivate and inspire employees. Good workers want recognition for their value, and though you can’t discount the power of salary, money doesn’t always solve the problem.

A good friend of mine emerged from business school with a truism that I wish I could carve in stone somewhere: If you don’t give an employee the benefits they feel they deserve, they will take them anyway. Presumably you hire someone to fill a gap and/or to add value to the enterprise. In a perfect world, a good employee costs nothing, because the work they do more than pays for itself. That good employee will likely recognize that value, and if they receive inadequate recognition for that contribution, they will quit when they can but will extract value from you until then. Say what you will about the evils of pilferage, etc., but that’s just human nature.

My employment history includes a varied list of jobs and job types. I can honestly say that I’ve earned a paycheck almost continuously since the age of 15, when I began my working life retrieving shopping carts at the A&P in Indian Orchard, Springfield, Massachusetts. Every Saturday for four hours during that summer, I kept watch over the parking lot making sure that customers didn’t walk off with the carriages. For my efforts, the manager, a relative-by-marriage, paid me fifteen dollars per day.

Between then and my first career-related position, I worked stints as an industrial laborer in a plastics shop, a steel cutter in a concrete form factory, a mail handler, a custodian, a secretary, a warehouse worker and clerk, a microfiche camera operator, an art gallery attendant, a house cleaner, a floor refinisher, grocery bagger, and a hospital admissions officer — not in that order.

I collected unemployment for two short periods over the past thirty years. The first time after a six-month temp assignment as a janitor and the second after getting fired from my own magazine.

Early on in my work history, I came to understand that first and foremost my job means that my boss has purchased my time. From the time I set foot in the room to the moment I leave, those hours belong to my boss. When asked to do something, I always said, “yes.” Because of that, I had a few superiors tell me that I could come back any time I wanted, though I never did.

It all seemed so simple to me at the time, and yet coworkers never seemed to quite get it. I would never say that I didn’t horse around for a little diversion in the face of monotony, but I never complained about working while on the job. Any smart employer knows that the occasional goofing can help boost productivity and morale, but I never did anything stupid or destructive.

While I understood that a paycheck bought my time, it didn’t buy my loyalty. My parting words to my assistant came from experience. I have worked in several situations where my performance exceeded expectations, but my employer for whatever reason suddenly decided that I no longer fit into his plans. A few times, I fell victim to office politics. Sometimes I bailed before I they pushed me, but sometimes not.

I came of age during the rise of the “temp worker,” which both helped and in some ways hindered the advancement of my career. Temping provided a steady source of employment particularly during the economic downturns. I temped before I became a designer and after, as a freelance designer, temping exposed me to a variety of work situations and people. As a result, I learned quite a lot and further honed my craft, but I gathered few resume-worthy accomplishments.

Also, you can “fire” a temp without actually firing them, which avoids stepping on someone’s feelings, but it deprives them of the feedback that might help improve skills — perfect for the boss with a passive-aggressive nature.

From the firings, the various layoffs and the wordless dismissals I developed a hardened pragmatism for my employers, and I learned that when push comes to shove, loyalty counts for nothing. In business, bottom line means everything, and if it becomes a choice between your job and your boss’s BMW, you will lose your job.

I wish my former assistant nothing but the best for her career. I expect great things from her. I’m glad I could give her something I never got at the outset of my career: Mentoring. Now that I find myself likely past the halfway point in that career, perhaps the jury has yet to reenter the room, but I regret nothing. Well, not much. Okay, a few things.

Yeah, I’m thinking maybe I should have become a Porsche mechanic. More on that next time.