Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Aunty Christ and the American nightmare

Every now and then—more frequently lately, for obvious reasons—when I hear about large, national corporations declaring bankruptcy or otherwise going tits up, as those people on BBC America say, I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to actually work for said moribund company. I think we can say with some degree of certainty that the CEOs and VPs of those poorly managed entities—the ones who’ve actually run their wards into the ground—do not feel guilty about whatever incredible waste of time, money, energy and talent they engineered. Or, if they do feel a twinge of conscience, their multimillion-dollar severance packages do much to assuage their nasty, pitch-black souls.

But what of the foot soldiers? What must it be like, I’ve wondered, to play a bit part in some other man’s poorly conceived plan of battle on the field of capitalism? Is it hard, driving to the office listening to stories of your company’s demise on your favorite news station? Would you, as a low-level employee, feel you had contributed to your company’s non-success with your accumulated hours of answering Craigslist ads? Would you have known about the behemoth’s failure before the rest of us did? Did you have an inkling? Or was it just as much of a shock to you as it was to Jim Cramer? Does walking into the office of your failed company, its name now on every newscaster’s lips as The Example of Failure, of Corporate Greed, of The Very Worst That Can Happen When Reality and Facts and Prior Lessons of History Are Ignored, eat away at your dignity and your humanity as much as one would expect it would?

And lucky, lucky me, now I get to find out.

The company I’ve worked for over the past 15 months or so, formerly one of the largest in its industry, in a day has become a penny stock, junk-bond-rated debt, a joke. In a single day, its shares lost almost 90 percent of their worth, although the stock’s about 99 percent off its high for the year. I think I saw it coming. I saw something coming, anyway. In my industry, as a manager you can decide to pay someone like me an extra $5 to do a good job on a file and save yourself a potential $100,000 in claims, or you can beat it into your employees’ heads that they need to get files out in a hurry and risk the $100,000—or more. From where I sat, it seemed like my company was making an obvious mistake in choosing the latter option. Not just sometimes, not just when it makes sense, or when someone has assessed the risk and determined that it’s worthwhile. All the fucking time. Given the choice of losing a million or giving a client a few minutes’ extra work, we were encouraged—strongly encouraged—to get the file out and not worry about the future expense.

Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all alike, but unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. From my experience, unhappy companies all make the same unhappy mistakes. They start expensive projects with the idea that This Revolutionary Advancement will be just the thing to drive future sales. Of course, these projects are never completed and are in fact soon abandoned due to lack of money, lack of interest, or lack of earth-changing significance. Employees are poorly trained and frequently reminded of how easily they could be replaced by a temp or an Indian, who wouldn’t require a 401K and health insurance, overtime pay or a heated office. At the same time that devoted, competent employees are let go, money is poured into establishing new worker pools, which are then replaced once those new workers gain any competence.

All of the above is true of my current employer, but it doesn’t even come close to describing how fucking stupid my company is.

Last summer, my coworkers and I were made to celebrate Failing Corporation Day, in honor of the anniversary of my employer’s conglomeration. The celebratory events included a Power Point presentation of the history of the industry, capped off by the illustrious history of the company, and a second Power Point show, on the glorious future of both industry and company. Our office was missing either the technical expertise or the actual technology (or both, most likely) needed to effectuate a complete Power Point presentation that would make any kind of sense in the large cafeteria we were sitting in. The sound came tinnily over the speakers of a laptop and reached maybe the first of 20 rows. Instead of a soundtrack, we were treated to a monotone reading by our uncharismatic boss.

The basic theme of the presentation was that we at the Failing Corporation help people achieve the American dream. Ah yes, I thought: Helping people reach that age-old dream of home foreclosure. Which of us didn’t grow up with the dream of receiving a notice of default by certified mail? Knowing that I can help someone, maybe you, reach that goal gives me a little bit of a tingle. Really.

I kept looking around the room at my coworkers, trying to gauge from their faces who was in my tribe. I found the presentation amusing as hell. We are helping people achieve their dreams, I wanted to scream, and for this we are paid a salary that will never allow us to achieve ours, no matter how base or insignificant our dreams may be. It’s fucking hilarious. Why wasn’t anyone getting it?

A picture of a run-down house came up on screen, captioned with the words, “We help turn real property”—and then the picture morphed. Instead of the run-down house, we were now presented with an image of the same house, similarly decrepit, but now with a dirty couch installed in the front yard, and the text: “into real people’s homes.” I again looked around the room, not even sorta trying to hide my amusement, and found myself looking into the dull, heavy-lidded eyes of my coworkers.

You did this, America. But I helped. No, no thanks necessary. It was my pleasure.

As each piece of our unhappy story has fallen into place over the past few weeks, I find myself similarly giddy over new inanities unearthed. It’s like one of those “dumb criminals” columns: They did what? What were they thinking! Ha, ha, now I feel superior. There are a few other components to it, too. There’s the satisfaction of witnessing the punishment of those who deserve to be punished, either because of how they’ve treated you or because of all the mistakes they’ve made. Mostly, though, I guess I feel like every day at my company is like a day in an absurdist novel. I am Gogo and Didi, waiting for hope or change in some guise.

I am the audience too. I don’t know how this will end, but I’m in on the joke, at least.


David Rochester said...

Knowing the industry you work in, and how closely it is tied with my industry, I confess myself desperately curious as to which rank of the Light Brigade you're serving with. But I'm far too polite to ask, of course.

Aunty Christ said...

Ha ha ha. I could email you, but it will probably become clear to you soon enough. We'll be the ones who are no longer in business...