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Monday, March 27, 2006

Part Five: Ethics and Lessons Learned

*note to my readers: this is the fifth and final installment in a sort of "catch up series" on my personal job-hunt. I started the series with a couple of job search dilemmas I am currently facing and asked if anyone else is encountering similar difficulties. Then I jumped to the other side of the balance sheet and took a look at the "up" side of being unemployed. :) The fourth post in the series is a recounting of the events that led me to my current job search.

This final post attempts to reflect on lessons learned and on the ethics of current work place practices such as "at will employment" from my perspective. I had hoped it would be shorter than it is, but constructivism and the struggle for meaning doesn't seem to be a short process when life hands us certain materials to work with. Sorry about that. :) After this series the posts should be lighter, shorter, and of more general interest to job seekers as I go about my job search.

Here are the links to the previous posts in the series. It was a story I felt that I needed to tell. Thank you for stopping by.

Intro to the series
My job search dilemma
My (other) job search dilemma
My job search joys
Getting down and dirty



Long before we met our daughter-in-law, my husband used to tell me about a guy named Laurence that he worked with at a local factory that had gone out of business many years ago.
Both Benny and Laurence worked there for many years. What was so notable about Laurence was his dedication to his job and his devotion to the company. Laurence wanted to advance to line supervisor and worked very hard to accomplish that. He also had a lovely wife and family. Even though he put many, many hours in at work - he was a good husband and father. The company didn't reward his dedication. It kept him and his wife and three children at little more than minimum wage through all his years there. When he finally did get a promotion, it didn't come with much of a pay raise. Still it meant a lot to him. He worked even harder. Imagine then how he felt when a few years later the company knocked him back down the ranks on not much more than a whim. Shortly after that he had several debilitating strokes. He lived out the rest of his life in a wheel chair and eventually in a nursing home. Imagine what that did to his family and their quality of life, not to mention his.

He was our daughter-in-law's grandfather.

Over the years and particularly during my last (fulltime) position at the university, I thought a lot about Laurence’s story in conjunction with those self-help questionnaires on stress that we used to see a lot in newspapers and popular magazines. The questionnaires asked how many major life changes you had experienced (death, divorce, changing or losing jobs, moving) in the course of year - and then told you the impact on your life expectancy and your risks of contracting heart disease or some other serious ailment. I would often wonder if I faced a major career setback or disappointment (like Laurence’s) if I could somehow deflect the negative effects by simply willing them not to happen. But in the end I’ve learned that we are only human. There’s only so much one little person can withstand and overcome.

I’ve also found that it is very hard to move on when you can’t seem to find anything to move on to. Unlike in the story of the good Samaritan, it often depends completely on the ability and resilience of the victim of an injustice to pick themselves up and go on, in the absence of any recognition of harm done or compassion and assistance needed. In my case, I wondered how I could put it behind me when I still needed to work, still needed a job, and was making every attempt to find one but just not getting any results? At times I felt like I was drowning and no one was throwing me a rope. So was I just supposed to forget my education, forget my experience and happily go off and live under a bridge, or work outside my field in low-wage, no benefits jobs the rest of my life? Not without a fight. I really loved my chosen field and using my skills. I prized my education and work experience – all of it. I went on and finished my master’s degree and did a very successful one year graduate assistantship. After I graduated, I hung out my shingle to do some consulting, and collaborated on a scholarly paper for publication with a professor at the university. Even though I eventually did have to work outside my field to help pay the bills, I always looked for opportunity to apply my learning wherever I found myself. I also kept up several websites and self-studied php, xml, and various web technologies. And I have continued my job search. That’s what this blog is about. But I must confess that there are moments when I still struggle with feelings still of incredible sadness and disbelief that I could wind up so completely shut of my field simply for speaking up for my rights. These often occur when I'm at the factory and not particularly enjoying what I'm doing.

In reference to the story with which I opened this post, we have had several bouts with serious illness in recent years. I have managed to stay out of the hospital so far, I do have several issues pending - arthritis and severe eye strain and dental needs (partly because of lack of insurance). Shortly after the university terminated me, Benny had a heart attack and an angioplasty. Then last year, he was forced into early retirement. He had been a very hard, a very valued, and a very reliable worker – and he took it hard - and I think his employers since wish they had him back, but ... This January he underwent (open heart) valve replacement surgery. Oh, well. We are both getting to the age where we are feeling our age. So perhaps these things would have happened anyway. But I still wonder if the job-related stresses had something to do with them.

While any stress, including job stress, impacts people’s health, it also impact relationships. For instance my family are alumni of the university. So are my husband's family. The university has been a staple in our lives for generations. My family loves to support the athletic teams and attend the football games and have tailgate parties. They love the rivalry between athletic competitors. So they certainly can’t understand or even believe how the university could do something so out of character. My husband's family retired from the university after a long and rewarding career, and can't fathom how the university could do something so out of character. In both situations, it's a shame that a shared or common bond with the university that should bring the family together is now a source of some ambivalence. In my marriage I have the college degrees and have been the higher income earner for several years. This was an asset I had to offer in the marriage. It was something my husband and I both depended on and something he valued and found attractive in me. Now, by the university being such an authoritative source and yet seemingly thumbing their nose at my university degree and experience, and by my subsequently not being able to find work in my field (interviews but no offers), he has more trouble respecting and believing in me and the university. Before either of us knew what was going on with his heart and that he was going to have to have open heart surgery this winter, Benny was working hard and struggling up hill.

One day feeling overwhelmed, he turned to me and said, “I’m disappointed in you.”

I’d never heard this statement from him in all our years of marriage. For my part, in the preceding 48 hours, I’d gotten off work at the factory at 1:00a then gotten up at 6:00a to drive 60 miles to a job interview in Indy, then was called in early and had just put in another 12 hour shift at the factory. So I wondered, what the hell? Was Benny losing his mind? I was interviewing and working to help pay bills and helping out at home. And it wasn't like I was 21 anymore. Or 31. Or 41. Or even 51. What more could I do?

The disillusionment and disappointment that results when trusted institutions such as a school, a church, a work place, or even a government treat someone unfairly, affects more than that individual. It affects his family, friends, community, fellow employees, and even the employer itself. So yes, I believe there are ethical considerations about current employment practices. At will employment shouldn’t mean “at whim employment.” Employees shouldn’t be merely toys and pawns in the playgrounds of the powerful, especially if managers are too immature or irresponsible to recognize and appreciate the far-reaching effects of their carelessness on people’s lives and the organization.

I know this is a controversial statement. In a free market economy, many believe that companies should be empowered to ensure their own survival and prosperity and to make decisions and take actions accordingly. But I think current civil rights law should also be revisited. Perhaps back in the fifties and sixties and seventies when women and minorities became protected groups under the law, more consideration should have been given to extend fairness and equity to all people under the law, including people like Laurence in my story above. For Laurence was not a member of a protected minority. Neither is my husband Benny. I am. People from all backgrounds and heritages have suffered unfair and inequitable treatment at the hands of their employers from time to time– and have needed recourse to justice. If employers are not willing to self-regulate in this matter, then perhaps they should be bound, as are physicians and researchers and other segments of our society, not to harm people by destructive management practices.

In the preceding paragraphs I have been talking about the ethics of certain management practices from my own point of view. I would like to turn now to lessons learned from my own point of view. These are likely to be ongoing, so this list may not be comprehensive or even the same five years from now. However, after four years I feel that I have gained some valuable perspectives on the events that lead to my current job hunt.

Lesson number one.

With my background in speech education, debate, public speaking, and persuasion, I was “raised to believe” that if you argued passionately and expressively and convincingly and eloquently and logically and respectfully, and if you spoke the truth- and backed up your words with integrity - then people have to listen to listen to you.

They don't have to.

Any of us are free to turn a deaf ear at any time we choose. That knowledge must be the ultimate Machiavellian secret of the powerful. So while my sincere beliefs did work with great success for most of my life, the time eventually came when they didn't work. That was quite an earth-shattering discovery and shaking of faith for me. It sent me reeling, and it took me some time to regain my balance. In retrospect, perhaps it was merely a shedding of youthful naivete in exchange for a more mature and realistic recognition of life’s complexities.

Lesson number two: the importance of networking.

I must ask the reader to bear with me while I indulge in a little stream-of-consciousness thinking here.

I’ve asked myself, “Good gawd, June, how'd you dig yourself into such a hole - couldn't you have gotten yourself out if you'd been a little better at networking with your bosses at your job?”

I guess some people would call that “kissing up” or being political, but I prefer to see it as simply taking the time to get to know people. Perhaps if I had spent more time conversing, showing interest, and being friendly, or even arguing, or even if I had made more of an effort to keep in touch with colleagues and bosses from my previous jobs, I’d still be working at the university. Not that I was entirely anti-social. I did find areas of common interest with my colleagues at the computing center, but I didn't spend as much time hob-nobbing with the bosses there as some others did. Also I had served on University-wide committees, but that all stopped when I moved to the computing center. And while my previous bosses and I held one another in high esteem, most of them had either moved on to other institutions or had retired.

Truth is, I hadn't formed close relationships with many people who could help me get another job - most people I knew at the university were powerless like me. I think about that a lot. I think about the time my neighbor Louise, also a long-term, dedicated employee of the university came to me with a long held dream of hers, and asked if I knew of any positions or openings for a business administrator. I wasn’t able to help her. I think about the time when Benny was considering changing jobs because the company he worked for had been sold and he didn't know what the future held. I couldn’t help him even get on maintenance/janitorial staff at the university - and neither could any of my friends or bosses. After I left the computing center I did touch base with Al, a former mentor of mine, about my situation, but nothing came of that in the way of a job. Why are so many of us so powerless to help other people or ourselves find work? It’s a question I've often asked myself.

At any rate, while networking may not have helped, it probably wouldn’t have hurt, and if I'd found ways to broaden my circle so that I had someone to turn to, perhaps things would have worked out differently. So I've considered why I haven't been especially successful at connecting. In order to have a broader circle I'd have to show interest and strike up acquaintances and give of my time and attention. Truth is, after I married and started climbing the career ladder, I invested myself so much in my work and education as a necessity to attain the rest of my life goals, that I wasn’t as social with people. I wanted to have children and give my parents grandchildren so that we could all have a happy life. And Benny, for whom all this was second time around, didn’t feel like we could afford it. So it all fell on my shoulders to make those particular dreams happen. And I was young and strong and unstoppable.

But I digress. I used to be good at meeting people and making friends when I was a kid. My dad was a mining geologist and we moved every year. In each new town, I'd have to go out and find new friends and playmates all over again. Sometimes, when we lived in Mexico and South America, my playmates didn’t even speak the same language. I didn’t care. Those kids brought me home to their moms and pops, and soon afterwards my parents would receive a dinner invitations. That's how they met the neighbors. I guess what I’m saying is that I used to be better at this. So what happened? For one thing, I was also good at pulling up roots because we moved often. For another, I was also good at being alone. We often lived in isolated areas where there weren't children my age. I learned to happily bury myself in books and stories when that was the case. Also, when my folks divorced in 1963 and I came to rural Indiana at the age of 13 to live with my grandparents, all the socializing and entertaining stopped. Except for church. Not that people didn't socialize in rural Indiana. They just went about it in a different way. They socialized through church or the lodge or picnics and family reunions or the Eastern Star. People didn’t have one another over for dinner much. At any rate I guess that's when I changed. I became a much more serious student and person in my teenage years, perhaps to my own disservice.

Lesson number three: don’t naively assume that you're going to keep up in your field through your job.

This may seem like a no brainer to many of you. But when I hired into the university, it was the dawn of the micro-computer revolution. I started out getting to play with the latest and greatest toys. My boss was a biochemistry professor and director of a regional NMR facility who was thinking of getting one of the first micro-computers in the department. Since there weren't a lot of people at that time who had experience with desktop computers, he went for aptitude when he hired me - and boy did he ever get it. I took to it like a fish to water – I trained myself. I mastered all the programs. I went back to school and learned how to program. And I continued moving up the career ladder at the university. I guess I thought that access to the latest and greatest toys would continue as I climbed the ladder of success. But as the desktop revolution sped on, employers including the university fell behind, and when the latest and greatest toys did arrive, I didn’t always get to play with them. The speed of the desktop revolution also reversed the usual progression of education for me. I had to decide whether to earn an advanced degree or to start over again and learn programming with the new technologies. The point to all this is that I’ve learned you need to keep your finger on more than one pulse and you need to remain pro-active in order to keep up with your field. This is of course important for any professional in any field.

Lesson number four: Y'know ... I've worked in largely male cultures, largely female cultures, and largely mixed cultures. They are different. What works in one doesn't always work in the others. Heck what works in one may blow up in your face in the others. =:o What works for one person in any culture may bomb for another person. So it's hard to know how things would have turned out, or if this next nugget would have made any difference ... but ... here's my thought. Don't wait too long to make your stand or start your fight. If you "fight" the little battles along the way, maybe you won't have to pull out all the stops at the end. And I did pull out all the stops- I fought with all my passion, and ability, and eloquence, and powers of argument, persuasion, and reasoning, which were considerable and impressive. I used everything I had ... but in the end it seemed too little too late. So don't languish in denial too long ...

Of course this advise might lead you to lose your job a lot sooner, Ha! ;)

Other lessons I've learned are more developmental in nature. We so much count on and so blindly believe in people and institutions, because when we are young, we must. As babies, we can't survive without the care of our parents. As we develop and grow throughout life, that parental role gets passed on to schools and churches and employers. And we trust them and tend to count on these just as we do the sun coming up every morning, and the earth always being under our feet. It's sort of a sign of maturity and wisdom when we can begin to distinguish, understand, and accept the difference between the the natural world and the more socially constructed realities of human society. Human institutions aren't perfect or reliable in the same sense. The chances of the sun coming up everyday are higher than the chances of your current employer always doing "the right thing". :)

We also start out with such high ideals and expectations of life – of parenthood, marriage, and career, to name a few experiences. In my case my job was the ticket to the rest of my life, or so I thought. I was the one with the degrees and therefore the one that was going to have to fund my dreams. I may never have children, but my career was going to flourish and continue to give me opportunity. I was going to get to specialize in areas that interested me. After a long, productive work life, I was going to have a retirement party. When it became apparent that this wasn't going to happen at the university after 21 years invested in work experience and education, I was shattered. I didn't know how to put myself back together or what I should be doing when I got up everyday if I wasn't going to be working towards those goals. I was now middle-aged - there wasn't enough time to start all over again. I'm not saying that we shouldn't have dreams or that we shouldn't set high ideals for ourselves and our institutions. But again it’s a sign of maturity and wisdom when we can be flexible and realistic with our hopes and dreams. While life is precarious, it is also sweet, and we need to cherish and enjoy it while we can and then leave it for the next generation. That's probably our best legacy.

In closing I'd like to briefly return to the ethical perspective and express my concern over the demise of both truly enlightened participative management practices and of labor unions. In the late 80's early 90's I had to attend a command performance by a labor lawyer who spoke to business office staff about how to keep labor unions out of the university. As I recall, his advise seemed rather innocuous: to give or concede certain things to keep people happy. My husband Benny didn't agree that his advice was harmless.

"My daddy was a union man," he said. "You watch. Once corporate America gets rid of labor unions, you won't have any rights."

At the time, I was dismissive. But now I am concerned. Has the overall system of checks and balances slipped in this respect? Have we thrown out the baby with the bath water? Are we indeed losing the best of both worlds - of unions and enlightened management?

In the late 90's after I started working for the computing center I received an email from a woman's organization describing the plight of professional women in Afghanistan under a regime called the Taliban. The letter asked for help. At that time I lived in a different world. My own life and career was working and the victims were invisible to me. I could scarcely imagine losing my freedom in the way these women did, but while I didn't respond to the letter, I never forgot it. A few short years later, some of the insult and injury received in my own career makes me wonder if we in America are as far ahead as we think we are? How many other stories like mine are currently going on in right here in the good ol' USA?

And finally, why do we have to wait until it happens to us before we stop looking the other way or remaining blissfully unaware? Which one of us is going to eventually stand up in behalf of someone else and say, "Hey, let's do the right thing here"?

Well enough of this serious fare. In future posts I hope to take a lighter look at the process of job hunting. Thanks for giving me a chance to tell my story, and

Happy Job-Hunting!

JuneBug

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