A PROSPEROUS WORKPLACE: Loyalty, Professionalism, and Freedom

 

            The opportunities and stability of the commercial workplace have become, in practice, a major liberty interest.  Yet there are apparently many numerous paradoxes in effective career management strategy today, and they are not easy to organize into a structured, syllogistic discussion. As a topic, career planning and execution is a topic that reminds one of chess middle-game theory.

            The media has focused on economic instability: the volatility of the stock market, and subsequently on the job market,  previously in normal business cycles of boom and recession, and more recently as an inevitable process as corporations, motivated by global competition and technology changes, consolidate, restructure and downsize.

            In the past, labor was seen as an adversarial topic.  The work world was divided into management and labor, with labor cherishing its legally granted (not fundamental in a constitutional sense) right to organize and to bargain collectively.  All of this seems well justified by the history of industrial society, with the middle classes going through terrible working conditions in coal mines, factories, agriculture, etc. 

            In a technological and stock-owning society labor itself has become even more mobile and volatile.  Layoffs and expansion happen at the same time, sometimes in the same company.  Older workers balance the value of their stock portfolios against the time they spend at work: the incentive for some older workers to “retire” and then have two incomes may be a more important motive for layoffs than has been reported. More recently, the practice of investing so much in owning an employer’s stock has been questioned, as with the collapse of Enron in late 2001. 

            The divisions of labor into categories—like manager, salaried-exempt, hourly, and independent contractor—is not keeping up cleanly with today’s workplace.  In the past, there was a sense that a white-collar job (especially one in management) was a reward of meritocracy. Management and professional status “deserved” its perks.  But this tended to break down a bit under cost-cutting pressures, as less motivated professionals (especially those less inclined to make themselves technically indispensable and to handle problems by themselves) found themselves looking down at people with the same basic skills making much less.  At the same time, the tension over disparity in incomes, working conditions and professional mobility, especially in many fields involving personal service to others, seems to grow. 

            So, people felt compelled to take control of their own careers.  Loyalty is a two way street, and particularly in a salaried or management position, a company is supposed to own complete rights to all of a person’s labor potential.  But with the job market so volatile even in relatively prosperous fields like IT, employers no longer expected this “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” kind of loyalty, at least with regard to outside activities.  The idea of venturing out on one’s own with entrepreneurial ideas came into great favor in the early 1990s, particularly with the growth of the Internet.

            Ultimately, the wild pendulum would swing as far as it could.  Troublesome questions began to surface.  Moonlighting could still create legitimate conflicts of interest.  Writing and publishing as a free-lancer or self-publisher attracted me, but ultimately I could see all kinds of issues ranging from professionalism to fair competition (and a professional conflict of interest over the way I was making a name for myself with writing editorial content) as possible legal issues down the road.

            A fashionable piece of advice was to be loyal to what you do, not to a company.  This makes a lot of sense up to a point.  A 25-year-old software developer may find it in his best interests to spend 60 hours a week on crash projects with meticulous technical skills and fire-fighting. A 55-year-old will be concerned with what his or her life says and may well reject most corporate goals developed by others. 

            There is more controversy about what is meant by keeping skills current. The old paradigm was promotion to the point that one was “high above” the need for mundane skills and regimentation.  Should managers be able to do what their subordinates do?  The downsizings and rise of entrepreneurialism bring this idea back.  In the past, people could be comfortable by managing a personal work world that they could control.  In an age where there is more emphasis on fast-paced 24x7 interfacing with the external customer and where presentation means a much as the substance underneath, mental agility, in tandem with techniques like object-oriented systems and connectivity rather than sequential processes, becomes a premium.  People are expected to jump into situations and solve short-term problems reactively with less mental control on their own.  There is a certain superficiality to all of this (making the “geek squad” and giving up a certain self-direction), a curiosity for its own sake, a receptiveness to instreaming information that seems unrelated to the contents of one’s own mind.  It takes a certain psychological humility, to maintain a curiosity for knowledge that one will not have repeated personal gain from—until learning itself becomes a habit.  Curiously, many people find a kind of freedom—and relief from the expectation of any untoward political loyalty—in working this way (as if working pragmatically in minimum wage job). The modern workplace is not Socratic.  It used to be thought that information technology people could do anything that they wanted with their lives publicly, but now absolute political neutrality is coming to be viewed by some as necessary for integrity when having access to sensitive information in systems that one supports. In my own attitude, there has been a paradox:  I have found it difficult to get into curiosity over what seems like geekolator trivia just for the manipulative fun of it, until I have something “to do” (like write a book – there goes my ego) with it; but I criticize others on a different level for disinterest in political or social information that does not affect them or their families immediately.  

            Laws against discrimination on the basis of race and gender, for example, seem proper and necessary today but other areas are more complicated.  Take age.  You could argue that a person ought to plan his career well enough that he can do “what he wants” by 55, and that it is not reasonable to expect the company to pay top-dollar to seniors who have fallen behind younger competition on quick skills.  Or sexual orientation or family status.  In some areas, being single is an advantage.  Other career ladders don’t make a lot of psychological sense at the top of the ladder for people who don’t form families—although the availability of same-sex marriage could enrich this controversy.  For one, I don’t think that proving that a gay person or female breaks the glass ceiling just to get into upper management proves anything, unless the job is one that the person can do better than almost anyone else because of his or her unusual background. Nevertheless, the mainstream corporation seems to be pulling ahead of the government in its attitudes towards gays.

            Another idea would be for companies to identify pools of key person employees who are expected to be kept through mergers and downsizings, to be promotable into management, and in some ways remain more “loyal” (to the point of agreeing to engage in no outside commercial or publicity-seeking activities) in exchange for enhanced benefits.  To some extent, the “up or out” concept still can make sense.

            It’s important to put a perspective on the hours that so many professions require. Indeed, dedication and professionalism to some people seem to require that the profession monopolize one’s life. The most extreme examples may be the hours required by hospitals of medical interns and residents (especially surgical residents) as a way of “paying your dues” with a unifocal life. But it happens everywhere else to, from law firms (with the emphasis on billable hours) to information technology, with the heavy emphasis on pagers and on-call availability.  The idea that an upper middle-class life is a “privilege” with an underclass below, contributes to the notion. So do the way forces like health insurance and benefits work (it’s cheaper to demand overtime than hire more people, especially with salaried workers).  But, given the rise in productivity of the typical worker, it seems likely that American business would benefit from shorter work weeks, because with more time the average person would provide a better market as a consumer. Telecommuting and 4-day works help, and maybe should be expected as a way of reducing pollution and fuel consumption. Business should also recognize the burden placed on families by the modern workplace, and consider (by open contractural agreement) slightly shorter workweeks and on-call schedules for those with dependents. Finally, business may have to consider more careful screening of employees for criminal records and credit problems, and in some jobs requiring stamina or endurance of on-call responsibilities, medical screening.

An individual will confront a paradox in trying to diversify his skills. He or she may feel pressured to become a “professional geek” at the disposal of others, yet that very notion sounds like an oxymoron, a contradiction to professionalism. He may develop an expressive interest as (to follow an accountant’s view) a “capital investment” as an intended second career, but eventually reach the point where his intentions may be perceived as self-serving and unprofessional, or as representing a conflict of interest in the way he deploys his public reputation (no longer fully dedicated to his paying customers or to his proven “profession”).  If he then ventures out into what he wants to do full time and finds that it does not pay, he will feel pressured to return to a “commitment” to what others want, to being willing to surrender his own ideas and personal identity (if that identity is not rooted in a traditional way in links to family or faith) in order to provide for others, or even to “survive.”  This is somewhat the “artist’s dilemma.” The Internet and other related technology has created a double-blind: it enables people to establish themselves publicly with little investment (as I did with my books) but then also expects them to, so it can bring back an unexpected pressure towards “professionalism.” 

All of this bears particularly on the publicly apparent turmoil on information technology (“I.T.”) where popular myth has it that in the wake of the dot-com bust, the breakdown of Enron and Andersen, terrorism, and general over capacity there are now no jobs. Not true at all. But I.T. does have a certain constellation of problems related in the rapid way it grew and in the sudden shifts of technology recently. “Computer programming” started out as a job for introverted, detail-oriented nerds and chess players in the 1960s—in the days of desk-checking and twice-a-week turnarounds. But productivity improved quickly, as programmers worked at terminals and “let the computer do the dirty work.” The rapid and constant growth of core business applications in banking, insurance, manufacturing, etc. during the 1970s and 1980s made mainframe I.T. relatively recession proof, although not completely so. A certain superficiality in the market developed, though, as employers and headhunters looked first for IBM mainfame and then for the current hands-on skills in CICS and various databases. The field seemed to grow too rapidly even then for the idea of licensing and certification to become really critical as in other fields (financial planning, accounting, engineering,, teaching and of course medicine), and programmers could enjoy the succor of stable work without having to hucksterize themselves or live with too much workplace regimentation. (Even the strict format standards of structured programming—“good habits”¾ were often ignored outside of vendor-related employment.) One challenge, though, as absolute accountability—the dreaded nightcall—but one developed habits to deal with this and develop confidence in applications one had developed. In the 1990s, two things happened: the emphasis on working with purchased packages, and the “new” open systems technology to support the Internet (largely responsible to taking us out of the 1989-1992 downturn). The emphasis on a more manipulative and mechanical “geek” mentality grew, as younger programmers taught themselves quick turnaround skills by running web servers from home or tearing apart hardware. The more business-oriented or content-oriented professional found it impossible to keep up with the metamorphosis of hands-on myriad of skills (often related now to multiple node networking with java, XML, and .net, and customizing presentation to customers with technologies like “style sheets”) and at the same time larger companies began to consider expecting these more “generalist” older professionals to be willing to accept management responsibilities (come out of hiding) and become more publicly associated with their paying careers.

            The workplace of corporate will have a major role in helping balance freedom with stability and safety in light of the new war on terrorism.  Stable companies needing to reduce expenses should consider alternatives to layoffs, such as shorter work weeks and reduced executive compensation. The investment community needs to pay more attention to long term investment compared to short term earnings. This may well a good time for Congress to consider loosening labor rules and in some cases allow or even promote the “family wage.”  And a certain paradox about innovation compared to professionalism comes to a head.  Companies will, in the new landscape, pay even more attention to the backgrounds and career intentions of those professional employees they want to retain as “core staff” representing the company publicly.  Yet, the message of the past twenty years or so to individuals has been to branch out as much as possible, to be good at as many things as possible, and to try your own ideas, to toot your own horn, to speak up.   This self-promotion goes against the idea that senior leadership in most professions implies a willingness to appropriate oneself (one’s own “right of publicity”, increasingly important in the age of the Internet) to advocate the ideas developed by others in a competitive setting—an expectation that has been challenged subtly by the personal expression possible on the Internet.  To some extent there is a tension between this expressive independence and traditional professionalism that we must resolve now in an era of new concern over national security and public trust.  This becomes a subtle issue of great economic significance for long term growth and stability.

                        The war on terrorism will also make personal background investigations a much more important issue in employment in general.  Questions such as, why polygraphs may be allowed for certain positions but are not admissible in court, will be faced . Likewise medical fitness and monitoring may become a bigger issue, which will raise discrimination concerns, as well as privacy and dignity. Again, a high-paying job is not necessarily a “fundamental right.”     

 

ãCopyright 2001 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use

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Email me at JBoushka at aol.com