Monday, June 18, 2012

The Era of the Mercenary Workforce

When I was a young child, back in the late 70s, it was one of the unquestionable constants of this world that after graduating, you would find a job somewhere and work there until the day you retire. This wasn't a specific thing you were told, so much as one of those 'sky is blue' type concepts that was passively reinforced everywhere you looked. You'd start down at the firm, or laboratory, or whatever, and keep working there until the day they hand you a pension check and a fancy engraved watch to commemorate your decades of service. You would extend unswerving fealty to your company, and in return they would see to it that your career progressed at an appropriate rate.

And so it was, that you would end up working 30 or more years with a single company becoming the world's foremost expert on -- I don't know -- drop-forged titanium angle-planishing sprocket design, or whatever the hell it is you were doing. Having worked so long for the same company, there'd be a handful of guys that you'd worked with your entire life - retiring right along with you. And then you'd spend every Tuesday and Wednesday for the rest of your life at the local pub with your old work buddies giving shit to the new guys, telling 'em how easy their jobs are compared to when you started - back when it took a team of five burly lads to manually chuck-hammer the slag pots before the axial magnesium pump could be re-primed for the tertiary sulfur wash, or whatever. And the young guys would give you shit about how much more they're producing, or how the product has changed - all in good fun. Every so often they'd come to you for your opinion on some new problem, because you'd retire as a legend in your field.

It was a system that made sense. You stay with the company because it's all you know how to do, and they keep you because you possess a level of skill that can only come from years of experience. Merit is rewarded, you get job security and steady raises, and they get the benefit of your well established knowledge.

That system is dead.

Which would be fine, except that no one seems to be willing to admit that.  A lot of kids are being sent out into the workforce with advice that hasn't been relevant for at least 30 years. On the first day we arrive in the corporate world, we are greeted with the carefully practiced smiles of those who will soon be our professional adversaries. We are reassured that the office politics which plague the industry aren't an issue at [Company name here]. We are made to attend endless seminars and meetings and team building exercises and are told to take personal responsibility for the outcomes in our department, to move above blame shifting and buck passing. We are told that success and failure comes as a team. We are told that achievement is rewarded, and that an open and creative process is valued. Some of us believed it. I believed it.

I drank that fucking Kool-Aid and waited for the god-damned spaceships.

Face it:  If you were smart enough to catch that reference without help, you wouldn't be reading my shitty blog
The problem with 'not playing politics' is that whether you think you are playing or not, you are standing on the field of combat. No matter how neutral you stay, no matter how focused on the job you are, no matter how cordial you are, someone will eventually decide that you are a threat to their ascent, and actively work to block your success at every opportunity. With so much of your workday dedicated to maintaining an unassailable defense via a process of undue diligence, there's scarcely any time left to get work done. The whole scenario eats your soul until after an average 2-4 years you either quit, or the company decides it doesn't need you anymore.

In most cases, managers are brought in from outside the department - often from outside the company. Advancement structures have been flattened in such a way that it is nearly impossible to make the jump to the next level of the organizational chart at one's own company. You can be promoted 20 times, and never rise to the level your boss was at on your first day.

The days of company loyalty are over. Welcome the age of the mercenary.

With every new epoch, there will be new rules to be followed. Constraints which, in their difference from previous methodologies, might be counterintuitive. I've listed a few of these below. This is by no means an exhaustive list, so feel free to chime in with your two cents in the comments section.

Every job is a temporary job

At least within the tech industry, it has become standard practice for companies to hire contractors (who don't actually match the legal requirements of contractors) and temps rather than employees. This shelters the company from certain costs and streamlines the termination process. One will generally begin their journey with a company as a temporary worker, enjoying such benefits as forced unpaid vacations, 'benefits packages' that cost nearly as much as you make and yet provide little benefit, furlough days, and that special joy that can only come from having a hair-trigger pink slip dangling over your career like the Sword of Damocles. Firing a contractor is a process involving a single phone call on monday morning. "Don't worry about heading into work today. Don't worry about heading into work tomorrow, for that matter. In fact, we'll just let you know if the client needs you to come in."

They won't. The difference between a technical contractor and toilet paper is that some people are careful to conserve toilet paper.

Even after you are brought on as a full employee, never forget that the moment the stock dips and upper management is looking to protect the value of their massive stock awards, your job can be performed by a 10 people in some third-world sweatshop who would collectively make a scant fraction of what they pay you. "But they couldn't do my job well," You might be saying. Have you called tech support lately? How well would you say Pradheep Channarayapatra handled your call?

The reason your skill level is irrelevant to this discussion, is that the people responsible for making these decisions have absolutely no idea what your company does, much less what your department does, or what you specifically do. It's irrelevant to their job. If you distill business ethics to its core, the sole responsibility of upper management is to deliver a solid return on investment to the shareholders. Moreover, as some of the largest shareholders themselves, they are uniquely motivated to do whatever it takes to post good numbers. This means the moment your job, department, or site can be cut, moved, or replaced for a short term gain on the P&L worksheet you're done for. It's not merely profitable to them on a personal level - it's the only ethical thing to do.

Loyalty is dead

I can't drive this home enough. If the lives of 20,000 people in Bolivia depend on your sticking around for a few months to complete a project and you're offered a better position, put in your two weeks and take the better position, because the moment you've completed your project, the company might not need you anymore.

You will never see an ounce of recognition or gratitude

No matter how far above or beyond the scope of your job you go, no matter what you accomplish, you will never once be truly appreciated. All you can do is make 'em pay up front. Get what you're worth, because it's the only thanks you'll ever get. Take advantage of every perk, claim every expense, and then keep the receipts and write them off your taxes on the back end. Use every minute of PTO, and never pay for printer paper or pens for personal use. Because when your process reforms save the company millions in wasted time and costs you won't see a single red dime for your efforts - though you might see your VP taking credit for your work in the company newsletter (he'll probably earn a massive bonus for it too).

Tell HR nothing - Tell your lawyer everything

If you have a grievance with management, remember this one rule: Human Resources is never on your side. In fact, Depending on where you sit in the hierarchy, there's a good chance they report to the same boss you do (or his boss, which is often just as bad). Even if HR comes to you, unbidden, due to widespread accounts of managerial misconduct, you should never, ever talk to the HR representative. If it is absolutely necessary to file a grievance, use that prepaid legal, and let your lawyer handle it.

Either way, once you've engaged the grievance process, you'd best shine up your resume, because in a few months you're about to be released because of 'unrelated circumstances'. Think you were laid off unfairly? Not if you want your severance pay, you don't. Faced with the spectre of an economy that is uncertain and bills that are not, you're going to shut your mouth and sign away your rights (which never held any real value anyway).

Socialize, but don't REALLY socialize

One of the most challenging situations you will ever face in the workplace is the office Christmas party. By which, I mean the 'mid-December semi-compulsory office gathering which just happens to take place the Friday before Christmas' - because you can't actually call it a Christmas party.

Let me preface what I'm about to say with the following: There isn't a person on this doomed and miserable rock that hates Christmas more than I do. Every time someone says 'Merry Christmas' to me, I involuntarily respond with a "Fuck you". I spend a week every year holed up in my room because I'm making an active effort to be less of a misanthropic douche.

I hate Christmas, I hate the specific subset of Christians who can't even be bothered to read the damn book for themselves and yet insist on shoving it in my face, and I hate the imaginary savior they strive relentlessly to project into other people's lives. That said, this is a predominantly Christian country with longstanding Christian heritage and traditions. Irrespective of my or anyone else's feelings towards these traditions, they shouldn't have to hide the true nature of these celebrations because it might make a small minority unhappy. "But what about the Jews and their celebration of Chaka Khan!?!" My imaginary straw man asks. Well, fuck the Jews. Relax, I mean that in this specific context, not in general. Bear in mind, I'm saying 'Fuck Me' in equal measure, here. Chaunakkanahhkana isn't even one of their 'high holidays'. Contrary to popular belief, Hanukkah is not Jewish Christmas. It's more like the Jewish version of Passover. If they want to live in a country where their holidays are publicly venerated, they can go to Israel. And if I want to go to a place where I won't have to hear about god, I can kill myself.

But I digress. When you're at this company Christmas party, there will inevitably be booze - usually of the free variety. Make no mistake, this is a test. "I'll just not drink anything, and I'll have the edge all night," you might be thinking. A good guess, but the wrong answer. By not drinking, you will put everyone around you on edge and develop a reputation of being lame. Worse still, people might assume that you can't drink - probably due to extreme alcoholism. If you can't drink, your best bet is not to go. You'll lose some credibility, but it's not irrecoverable.

On the other hand, you might be thinking "free hooch? I'd better soak up as much of that shit as I can!" I like the way you think, but you're still wrong. Work would be infinitely more bearable if you could establish some kind of common ground with the other people in your department. How much more effective could you be at work if you were able to drop pretense and relate to your coworkers, even your boss, as equals? And nothing levels the playing field like 98 shots and several gallons of cheap domestic lager shared between 14 people. Unfortunately, this approach doesn't work because nearly everyone is there to take advantage of an opportunity to kiss upper level ass outside of work.

The correct amount of alcohol to drink is exactly 1 drink, every 2 hours. This shows that you are the office casual version of cool, without establishing yourself as the office rummy. The correct time to leave is an hour early, or after two hours - whichever comes first. This establishes the impression that you participated despite pressing demands on your time outside of work.

Above all - never ever answer questions about your personal life in any detail. Here's an example:

"How are your kids?"

Wrong Answer: "My eldest is in jail for assault, and the younger child is pregnant."

Better Answer: "My eldest child is out of school now, and the younger one is growing so fast."

Best Answer: "They're doing great! How are your kids?"

It's an unfortunate reality, but no one really wants to hear how you are doing. They'll keep asking, and if you are prone to honesty, you'll want to answer. The question, 'How's it going?' really means 'How can I navigate this social interaction with as little time and effort as possible, without coming off like the disinterested prick I am?' The only correct answer is a one word affirmative (e.g. 'Fine', 'Marvelous', 'Fantastic', et cetera), followed by the same question in return. It isn't necessary to break stride in order to catch the answer. Similarly, 'Any plans for the weekend?' really means 'There's a weekend coming up, and I'm trying to gauge how many people are going to cut out early. Also, I'd like to navigate this social interaction with as little time and effort as possible without coming off like the disinterested prick I really am.' Correct answers to this inquiry are a bit more subtle - invariably some form of productivity (e.g. "Painting the study", "Yard work all weekend", "I've got to meet up with Doctors Without Borders in order to schedule my deployment"). The last impression you should ever give is that you use your days off in any recreational capacity. Of course, in reality nearly everyone is going to go home, sleep most of Saturday, and vegetate in front of the television on Sunday.

If three or more people above you in your department leave all at once, you're being hung out to dry

It doesn't matter if they are laid off, fired, transferred or if they quit, when the rats in management jump ship it's because they know something that you do not know. And when they leave without warning or explanation - and I'm not talking about that perfunctory email wishing them luck in their future endeavors - It's bad news all around.

First of all, there's a good chance that the department has had its funding scaled back, and middle management is jumping to safer shores while leaving you holding the bag of shit. In this case, whoever comes in to replace them will be tasked with whittling down the department to the minimum required skeleton crew, as understood by some jackhole in upper management who has no idea what your department does, what the company does, or what you or any one of your colleagues does. Even if you survive the cuts, you are now working for a rookie manager with no concept of your group's minimum operational requirements in an understaffed department juggling a workload that hasn't been scaled back to compensate. Even if you are doing the work of three people at the pace of two people, your annual review will take a hit for letting a third of your work fall behind. The fact that management has failed to allocate sufficient resources to perform the workload in the timeframe they require will be strangely absent from the notes in your review.

Even if your department's funding is intact, when your boss and his boss are replaced simultaneously, that means you're facing two levels of incompetence from above. There's going to be a lot of fucking up on their end, and shit rolls downhill. Bring an umbrella.


The point of all of this is to illustrate the factors that have killed loyalty in the workplace. Managers can't understand the needs of their employees because they never did front line work within their own departments. The lack of true upwards mobility within an organization encourages a nomadic lifestyle in order to find advancement opportunity, while actively penalizing employees who are loyal. Additionally, since a publicly traded company is only valuable as a commodity in times of growth, upper management has come to rely on mass layoffs, site closures, and outsourcing to artificially juice the value of a company's stock in the short term. Moving from organization to organization prevents the development of meaningful long-term professional relationships within the office and inhibits the development of a long standing team dynamic, sowing the seeds of distrust between front line employees and greatly reducing the long-term effectiveness of the business. By fomenting an environment of competitive distrust, efficiency is further reduced since employees are effectively required to dedicate a considerable portion of their time to playing the 'cover your ass' game.

I'm not saying that there's some sinister agenda at work creating this environment. I think the establishment of a mercenary workforce is a symptom of rational decisions made by rational people who are rewarded and penalized based on a system that is focused almost entirely on the short term. However, I contend that in the long term, the relentless pursuit of growth (as opposed to homeostatic sustained profit) to the exclusion of all other factors has unavoidable and deleterious effects on the economy.  In other words, rational behavior can differ based on timescale

As more jobs are shipped overseas in order to meet the demand for constant stock growth, there are even fewer people who are able to afford the goods and services produced, requiring further cost cutting (inevitably in the form of off-shoring more jobs). It is a negative feedback loop that left unchecked will eventually consume the economy as consumer confidence continues in its inevitable freefall.

Don't get me wrong, though. I'm not trying to fix the problem here - My ego isn't that big.  Besides, if we can manage to fuck this shitty economy all the way to absolute collapse, I won't have to put up with your stupid Christmas parties anymore.

Don't listen to cynical, burnt out dickheads like me

The world will be a better place if you ignore everything I've said so far. Refuse to play the game.

Stop treating the people you work with like opponents. Speak and act in earnest. Don't engage in schemes or malicious plotting. Don't participate - even passively - in spiteful gossip. Strive to hold the highest moral ground without being obnoxious about it. Work to develop a tight-knit relationship with your team. Don't be afraid to fail - and if you're going to fail, do so quickly. Don't let 'it's not my job' stop you from doing something great. Accept challenging assignments that force you to learn. Encourage people to bring a little weirdness to their work. Practice creative collaboration, and give collaborative credit. Ask questions. Answer questions. Look for opportunities to do more than the minimum. Take pride in your work, and try to enjoy yourself in the office. Approach your work with alacrity. Don't waste time filling a seat when there's no work to be done. Looking busy never accomplished anything. Either find more work, or go home. Take regular vacations, and actually go somewhere. Help others succeed. Celebrate achievements as a team. Don't waste time assigning blame: meetings dedicated to identifying blame cost money and solve nothing - a waste of money at any cost. If someone is constantly the cause of the problem, help them learn. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of your team, and be willing to trade off tasks to improve efficiency - but don't use that as an excuse to duck unsavory tasks. Be honest, but also nice. Where possible, speak highly of those in your team. Act as an agent of positive change, and encourage others to do the same.

Being a decent human being at work won't go unpunished. You will be treated like dog shit by those who are playing the angles. On the other hand, acting like a persistent cockstain all the time is its own punishment. Almost everyone is playing the game, so you'll probably be a loner if you try this. What I am suggesting here is an act of subversion from the ground up, and it probably won't work.

On the other hand, if you can convince your coworkers to stop wasting time on the game, If you can convince your peers to strive together to make work more livable, and if as a result your team is able to go balls deep on work, you just might get the VP to take credit for these results in the company newsletter.


  1. I friggin like it! Its without the usual Dr. Avery obnoxious and perverse rants and comments (which I LOVE!!!) but instead focuses on making a damn solid point on an important issue. After reading this I think if you get in depth and break this into a bunch of chapters you'd have the makings of a great book just waiting to be penned!


Say something, dammit!