My earlier post on job security has been haunting me in the past few days as I get word from various friends of how their employers are screwing them. I'm tired of watching competent people with a desire to do good work get trampled under the boot heel of employers who seem oblivous to the dysfunctional ways in which they run their organizations. But I also recognize the economic realities of needing a paycheck. So how to make poor work environments bearable while you explore other options? I think the answer lies in shifting your understanding of yourself in relation to your employer.
Most conscientious people I know join an organization with the desire to do what's best for their employer. They recognize that they are being paid to help the company do it's work and they want to make their individual contribution to that process. The longer they work for the organization, the more deeply connected to its fortunes they feel and the more they pour themselves into their jobs and into doing work to get the company ahead.
When the company is treating you well--essentially holding up their end of the bargain--I think this is the right thing to do. But many people seem to operate in this mode long past the time that they should. It's like being in a bad romance, where you keep giving yourself for the good of the relationship without recognizing that your partner is not doing the same thing. It seems to be particularly true for those people who "live to work, " as opposed to the people who "work to live."
As I watch more and more organizations NOT holding up their end of the employment contract, creating workplaces that make it virtually impossible to feel successful and competent, I begin to believe that we need to start thinking of our employers in different ways. Rather than always thinking about how we can do well for them, I think we need to start considering what they can do for us. Not in the sense of salaries and benefits (although those are obvious baseline issues to be addressed as well), but in exploring how we can wring from them every last opportunity for learning and growth that we possibly can.
Several years ago I was working with an employment and training program where we were helping dislocated workers find new jobs. One company that we worked with had horrible working conditions, poor pay but great training. Another company (same industry) had great working conditions and great pay, but wouldn't hire anyone who didn't have the skills and 6 months of work experience. The first company, not surprisingly, had very high turnover. We tried for months to get them to see that the pay and work environment were killing them, but they didn't want to hear it. Eventually we began to advise workers to go to the first company for six months to get the training and work experience they needed and then when they had used up the learning opportunities at the first company, they should apply for a job with the second. We helped a lot of people that way.
This is something you can do for yourself, too, if you can shift your way of thinking about your employer. My rule of thumb has always been to pay attention to what I love doing and to my strengths and to use my employer as a way to develop my skills as much as possible. If you begin to see work as a learning opportunity and a way to make yourself more marketable, then you can sometimes make the unbearable bearable for a while. The key is to know what you want to build in yourself and then to figure out how you can use your current employer to make that happen. I think there's tremendous satisfaction in learning how to use them before they've used you up. And it positions you well for that day you can go in and say "Thanks, but I'm moving on, now."