The Way Out of The Coffin That is Nailed Shut

I recently wrote a blog, rather unlike my usual blogs in that I told the true story of fellow worker; in this case he had no way out of his current negative job except unwanted retirement or quitting, or death.

It was called simply, Finding the Way Out of a Coffin That is Nailed Shut, a bit of a take-off from one of Tom’s quotes in Tennessee Williams’ THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Tom is placed in a situation with no way out other than abandoning his family and whatever dreams he has. He remarks that he saw a magician get himself out of a coffin “without removing one nail.”

No one will deny that life is filled with such dilemmas and for our purposes here, we’ll focus on the work environment because that is where, believe it or not, life and death situations may happen as well; we may just not be aware of them totally.

The situation:

  • The employee placed in a situation where he or she thinks “what a wonderful opportunity” to learn something new or another side of the business.
  • He or she has an employer who likes to hire people just like him or her and sees the job as totally removed from the place the new employee came from even though his or her level is equivalent to those in the same job, different location.
  • The employer is brash or frank enough to make statements to the employee that he or she will never be able to accomplish the work that is needed because “he (or she) was miss-classified in Central Office and is not the type of person she (or he) hires for work in the Region.

That should be the end of the situation, but it’s not. The employee can’t go anywhere, but he is encouraged to look for work elsewhere and offered support. In the other blog, Phil is the employee so let’s continue with that here. Phil is “advised” by his supervisor to see the Regional administrator and ask if there were any options available in the Region for a change. Naturally a flag goes up that an employee is asking for a job elsewhere because he cannot get along with his new boss, or can’t do the work. That employee now bears watching. And, is no longer, to be in charge of anything. Sometimes that is a good thing; no way to get in trouble.

Discussions were scheduled and occurred without the input of the employee. Managers prerogative. Management decides to offer a lesser job, lesser pay, lesser rank, but one definitely more suited to the employee.

Painful as it is, it is viable option. At least it will be a job his supervisor feels he is competent to handle and is worth the loss of pay and rank, even though he held that rank for six years. But it is worse than that–because then he is asked to sign papers, which pretty much say he asked for it and to admit he was incompetent in the previous job. A nice big scar on his personnel record for trying personally trying to rectify a personnel problem early and did what he was supposed to do according to the book.

You see the supervisor didn’t like the job as described and said over and over again that this employee would not succeed at it either and it would affect everyone up the line. Only the incompetency part was in stone, the rest confidential (but not really). The rumors were out. Everyone wasn’t out to get him, but he was isolated, alienated and maligned. The union would stand in the office when he spoke to his boss, but that would only make matters worse. Anything to make the “boss” look bad, or work harder was bad. Just ask her.

It is obvious to the employee everyone in the office is aware of the situation from the unwillingness to help with work-related situation. Alienation–not persecuted–except by one person who was going to let the system do him in.

So, what to do?

This shouldn’t happen when people are involved; however, work the system needs to make it right. With laws that run our country, judges have enough flexibility to make them appropriate to the situation–not that judges don’t make mistakes. In this case supervisor upon supervisor decided to leave it alone. Let the “troublesome” employee quit or retire; he has the age. Then, hire who you want. The supervisor even had the gall to tell the employee “if you can get me a slot to replace you that I can hire from outside (there was a freeze on at the time) I’ll support any move for you–even an intergovernmental move.” In my last blog, I spoke about the employee’s qualifications that were quite sound and while he rewarded while at the Central Office level, the opposite situation was to be found at the Regional level. It would seem to me, that alone would make a difference to any outsider looking at this. Room for investigation of some sort. No, never happened. Let time and isolation take it’s course.

This is not the way to run a system. The people running the system were blind to the obvious–especially when no one told them the obvious. An employee playing by the rules and doing as instructed with the hope that something will be done to alleviate this problem should be able to rest easy and expect relief. Leaders and managers higher up the chain should take all mentions of unprofessional misconduct or suspicious behavior that marks a leader as working the system for his or her own ends serious.

In this situation, there were many ways out without “saddling a new supervisor” with an incompetent or troublesome employee. One ego was determined it would not happen. Several other egos made sure it didn’t happen on their watch. Better safe than sorry.

Except for Phil who ended up depressed, sick often, and eventually glad his day to retire finally came–even though he wasn’t ready for it financially; he needed it to protect his sanity.

Others could have helped but were worried about their own skins. Here’s where a training counselor or career counselor with some power to do more than tell people what their options are could have come in handy to Phil, who didn’t survive six months after his retirement, and the others involved at work who did. There was a need for many a call especially for a much-needed character lesson or two. It’s a shame; it shouldn’t have happened. It’s not just too bad the system failed him, it’s appalling.

For the younger folks, it may not happen quite the same way. Age discrimination was probably one real factor in Phil’s case, although we know it shouldn’t be. Just as potential employers should know a hatchet job when they hear it. The reality is no one wants it to happen on their watch. That’s the real shame of it all.

People wonder why they are perceived in a negative way, especially when they work for the Federal or State government or for other big organizations that don’t seem to have time for people. This is it. Like customer service. People talk. Some not much, but just enough. Others pick up on it see it as a truth. It may be only part of the story. As people who work with others, it is our job to know the whole story–especially if it affects the organization.

Personally, I don’t want selfish people in my life, work or otherwise. I want caring people, people who will risk for me as I am willing to risk for them. Help me reach my goals and I’ll stand beside you when you need my help achieving yours. Instead of always looking for ways to improve our careers, why not look for ways to preserve them and help others not fall out of the sky hoping for a parachute. Sometimes they aren’t available.

End of lesson. Like teachers who teach people not courses, trainers who train people not skills, supervisors should care about the people they supervise as more than a producer of products. I never have liked the term “managers” because it is too easy to say managers manage programs not people. We should all be leaders, helping others lead and leading ourselves. It almost sounds like a proverb because I’m sure it is in so many words.

For more resources about training, see the Training library.

My time is done. Check out my website and my new book, The Cave Man Guide To Training and Development.

Happy Training.

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