Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Dismissed

I've been distracted and a little depressed about the most recent firing in my work place last week. First, there was the terse email announcement from management that, as of that day, our colleague of the past several years was no longer affiliated with the organization.  A few minutes later, an email was received from the colleague, confirming that he was gone, telling us he'd enjoyed working with us, and wishing us well.

Though our connecting has fallen off quite a lot in the last year, due to the usual demands of life, the dismissed colleague was one of the people in my workplace whom I considered a friend, with whom I socialized away from the job, with whom I discussed some of the bigger questions of life in a deep way. I will miss his presence, his intelligence, his sensitivity.

What has followed me like a cloud these last days is frustration not only at my colleague's treatment, but at the state of "human resource management" in this day and age, and in this culture, that his treatment reflects. I'm saddened by the mechanical and legalistic way of dealing with human beings that has become so commonplace. The workplace has become so liability sensitive that normal, human-to-human communication is constrained or prohibited outright in just those situations where it's most needed.

There are methods of managing firings that have become standard and accepted practice:
- management cannot/will not discuss any aspects of a dismissal or what brought it about, often not even with the dismissed employee.
- the dismissed employee is cut off immediately from the workplace and colleagues. Most often, the individual is never again seen on the premises, and if so, only under the watchful eye of security, to insure that only personal items are removed, and that no unfortunate interactions take place.

I'm not advocating against all dismissals. Employees don't always meet expectations. They may lack the skill, the work ethic, or the motivation to do a job well. Sometimes a bad employment situation comes down to a bad fit, and all parties concerned will benefit from a separation. My grievance is with the manner in which these separations take place. How is it that a person can be a colleague and part of a team one day, and an afterthought the next? The dismissed are treated like worn parts, easily replaced and forgotten, as though their struggles and contributions had no meaning and are not worth mentioning. The way they are dismissed without a backward glance calls to mind the practice of revisionist history under repressive regimes: controversial individuals and events are simply deleted from the text books and aren't to be mentioned, as though they never existed, never occurred?

It's a heartless system, but also something of a mindless system. Because it ignores the possibilities for individual and systemic growth and learning. It ignores (or at least fails to profit from) the reality that all learning and success comes from trial and error, from being aware of what goes wrong and trying to understand why. If a person has been part of an organization's development, has participated in the cycles of trial and error, experimentation and analysis, failure and success, and a time comes when the relationship is no longer working, is simply deleting the relationship really the way to go? Is there no more favorable way to acknowledge and respect the accumulated individual and organizational experience?

Yet, we've all been conditioned to believe that the formalities of this current process are absolutely necessary, the only way. The possibility of appeals and law suits seems to have overridden common sense and basic sensitivity, as well as the desirability of simple, honest talk, good-byes, acknowledgements, well wishes. All of this saddens me.

But it angers me too. Particularly because I work in social services for the city of Toronto. Fundamental to the work of my program is a progressive and compassionate approach to dealing with human beings. We aim to be client-centered, thereby basing our activity on our clients' well-being, on their autonomy and choice, and in full recognition of their strengths, assets, and their inherent value as human beings. This approach stems from an underlying respect for people, and the assumptions that they desire good, can make a contribution, are more and better than their shortcomings, and are good to have around. When we have occasion to end a relationship with a client, we make ourselves accountable for doing so in the least harmful and disruptive manner possible.

But the approach to dealing with the service providers of the enterprise is very different. It's more of a business model. Employees are treated as commodities with uncertain shelf life and usage value - any one of them might go bad at any moment. Therefore, when an employee's level of performance slips to an undesirable level, or when other factors emerge that corrupt the quality of performance, the solution can be abrupt dismissal. It's very true that, short of dismissal, there are many provisions for employee health and support. But, when dismissal occurs, it is generally sudden and brutal. There is little consideration of the employee's life circumstances, their social and psychological issues and needs. It seems that no thought is given to the effect that a sudden (and often unexplained) dismissal can have on an individual's self-esteem, sense of security and health. And what of those left behind, who experience such sudden loss and disruption, and sometimes confusion and stress?

What distresses me most is the drastic difference, conflict even, between the values by which clients are treated, and those by which staff are treated. Can a work environment encompassing such a schism be healthy? Can clients be served optimally, when those delivering the service see the values they operate by undermined within the very workplace? I don't think so.

I don't see this as a problem caused by individual managers. We have a fine group of them in my workplace. The just discharged employee was one of them. They are neither unkind, nor insensitive. But we all operate in an environment in which this way of doing business is accepted as the norm. Not so long ago, discrimination against racial or gender minorities, excluding women from positions of authority, and sexual harassment were all considered workplace norms. While unfortunate, they reflected "human nature" or "the way things are". The burden was on victims to adjust, be tough, go along with the program, in order to survive and get ahead. And, in truth, individuals have rarely if ever been able to change such accepted modes of behavior. Only when it is understood that these systemic patterns have broad repercussions that compromise the integrity of entire organizations and communities do we begin to take note.

I believe that this is such a case. The way that employees are dismissed deeply affects the way that other employees view an organization and their role in it. It affects their sense of trust, and of being trusted and valued. It affects the degree to which they are willing to give of themselves to their work. It affects the precarious balance they maintain between taking chances and playing it safe, between going the extra mile and covering one's own ass.

When I initially applied to work for the city, I was attracted by the slogan, then being displayed on job postings, "Work for the City that you Love". It was a phrase that might have easily been dismissed as, well, propaganda. But it came to life for me because it was true. It concisely expressed an ideal that most of us aspire to: to do work that is personally meaningful, because to do so elevates the activity beyond mere work. But the dispiriting manner in which employees can so suddenly have their service dismissed - as though it were less valuable than mere work - influences one to pay scrupulous attention to the letter of one's job description, and little attention to its spirit.

I know there are some who applaud a straightforward adherence to tasks and technicalities. But ultimately, our work is Service - provided face to face, person to person. I sincerely believe that in our work, the service of "being with" others in their most difficult times - listening, sharing, caring, understanding - is as valuable as linking them to tangible services like housing, counseling and case management. And that work of "being with" requires an ethic to support it. And for such an ethic - in this case, a valuing of human beings - to hold sway, it must be applied with some consistency.

Otherwise, we lose faith, the spirit is diminished and grows cold, our clients - and we ourselves - begin to feel that we are in the grip of programs and processes and policies, and that our value is determined by some bottom line. What we want and need to feel, I believe, in that we are engaged with our fellows in improving lives - all of our lives - and that we are jointly building and sustaining a City that Loves us Back!