Unemployment Diary: About suffering they were never wrong

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along

Mus&eaccute;e des Beaux Arts, W. H. Auden

March 10, 2009

I went back to the MIA with the Yashica and faster film; we’ll see if the results are any better. This time I focussed on the third floor galleries, particularly the 20th century American paintings. The MIA has just one Andrew Wyeth, and a nice N.C. Wyeth “Cream of Wheat” illustration, which I found particularly calming in a strange way. In the French room, I tried to sneak a couple shots of a woman copying one of the paintings, and a man sketching a statue; I find the people in the galleries to be just as interesting as the paintings on the walls, and enjoyed eavesdropping on a retired docent walking his friend around to show off his favorite pieces. With the recent cutbacks in the MIA staff, this may be the best kind of tour to take.

On the way home, I listened to a Talk of the Nation segment on layoffs and alternatives thereto. Maria Guidice, CEO of a web design company, Hot Studio, discussed her decision to try reduced hours, pay freezes and cuts, and other methods to avoid layoffs. I’m incredibly biased, of course, but this seemed like an eminently rational and humane approach.

Companies invest a huge amount of time and money in hiring, training, and developing their employees. After a few weeks or months on the job, people have an incredible amount of specialized knowledge that can’t be learned in school. When the company sees these employees as an expense rather than as an asset, they are jettisoning not just the salaries of their laid off former employees, they’re also releasing that specialized knowledge. If (when?) things turn around, and the company needs to increase their staff, they’ll have to incur the expense of hiring, training, and acculturating new people.

Companies also sacrifice goodwill through layoffs, not only among those who are laid off (whose goodwill they may not especially care to maintain), but also among those who keep their jobs. It’s hard to feel a lot of loyalty to a company that makes such abrupt and calculated decisions about its employees; based on my own experience of watching previous downsizings and outsourcings, that loyalty is impossible to win back.

Perhaps, though, we live in a post-loyalty economy. Indeed, we’ve probably lived in one for a long time, and it’s only dawning on me that my own loyalty (second point of the Scout Law) isn’t necessarily seen as an asset. Still, I’m not willing to surrender that impulse entirely; I believe that companies that cultivate loyalty (like Hot Studio) have an advantage: they can marshal their strengths when times are lean, and unleash the pent-up enthusiasm of loyal employees when the economy rebounds, while the job cutters scramble for people who would as soon work anyplace else, loyal only to themselves.

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3 thoughts on “Unemployment Diary: About suffering they were never wrong

  1. Laid off with an hour’s notice last May so I do understand. Friends report this started with big corporations about 1990, this scorched earth policy with employees; some kind of upper management paranoia-cum-style. It is too bad. They’re busy up there having fun with it. Local office heads are left holding the bag of guilt, but it’s not their fault. It’s equity cowboys having a grand time, trading companies, shearing off workers, selling to overseas bidders. So, I’m afraid it’s out of our hands. That does not mean a culture of thoughtfulness cannot surround the local event: that can be worked on. It will not have any affect on the layoffs, however, or the speed with which they are accomplished. There is damage there. Local bosses and coworkers could use some help knowing what to do with suddenly disappeared workers in same town. They don’t know what to do. Out here, we’re okay and busy learning rich human lessons. Painful, though.


  2. p.s. No comma in Auden poem after ‘how well’

    also should indent a few spaces before last line because Auden didn’t break the line there…


  3. Thanks for the thoughts, Kathy, and for catching my Auden errors (I lazily relied on Google for the poem rather than heading home to my bookshelf; there’s surprisingly little good Auden on the Internet). I hope you’ve managed to find some employment; I was out of work for six months, and am still only tentatively employed.

    Time out of work was a “rich human lesson” in many ways; finding how to apply the lesson is yet another lesson. I’ve been reading Ed Parks’ “Personal Days” and Joshua Ferris’ “Then We Came to the End,” which are probably truer barometers of the workplace mood than my summer reading of Carol Bly and Bill Holm (alas). There’s no solidarity up and down the Great Chain of Being, which I’ve come to expect, but also precious little within the same strata.

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