Friday, October 8, 2010

Let's Start with the Big Picture

It is stressful being a cubicle dweller today because employees feel – more than ever before – that they have no power. Why do we feel this way? Because we’re right – we don’t have any power. We’re not stupid, or so we thought. We went to school and studied hard and did well. We honed our skills sets with great intelligence and diligence. Every day we arrive for work on time and get along well with our colleagues. But, deep down, we wonder why the hell we’re so afraid of losing jobs we no longer enjoy, jobs that require more of us with diminishing returns (both financial and spiritual), while wildly arrogant investment bankers and unhinged asset managers are getting bailed out to the tune of billions – by us – the same people who cower at the thought of being caught printing out a hotel reservation or meatloaf recipe while at work. We don’t say it’s not fair because we’re better than that: We know life isn’t fair. In fact, it’s damn tragic. But we never thought we’d feel so stupid. We believed that we were the good people, the ones who sucked it up and never complained, and that those who led lives of self entitlement and recklessness got what they deserved. Boy were we wrong.

And that should worry everyone working in a cubicle culture. Life on the cubicle farm is stressful enough, but when every semblance of fairness and justice unravels, so do people. It’s human nature. And for years now cubicle dwellers have had to live with that feeling of being had by Wall Street, of losing their faith in the rules, and it may lead many to question their own commitment to ethical boundaries. It is an ancient question that has led to the collapse of entire empires: Hey, what about me? The daughter of your colleague, Andy Miller, has a term paper due on Monday; why shouldn’t Andy walk out of the office with a ream of paper? After all, he lost $230,000 in the stock market two years ago. Why shouldn’t he start looking after himself for once, and his family? No one else is. Judy Nesbitt just got a divorce, but Judy and her ex-husband live in the same home because no one will buy it. Who is going to miss the handful of Splenda she dumps in her purse every morning? Her unstable ex-husband demands they keep Equal in the house. And poor Thomas Cox. He’s had to take a second job house sitting for his cousin, a hedge fund manager golfing in Hilton Head with his mistress for a week. Why should he tell himself he doesn’t deserve that unmarked piece of cake that’s been in the fridge for two days?

Bad behavior, of course, is part of human nature – and cubicle farms are all about human nature. So in times like these, when people are feeling particularly under siege, desperate, and more prone to unprofessional behavior, what can CEOs, office managers, and human resources people do to ensure their work environments don’t fall prey to a general deterioration in peoples’ faith in the rules, fairness, and justice? What can they do, if anything, about the big picture?

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