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The disappearing cohort

So where do they all go – those people in senior management positions in Budapest who arrive into work on Monday morning and set about doing a day’s work only to be given an hour to clear their desk and vacate the premises? Is there a club where they retire to? A stomping ground that’s reserved for those who in some way or another have posed a threat to the powers that be and in so doing have needed to be dismissed, without ceremony or fanfare?

And what does this do for the morale of those left behind? Are they then set on tenterhooks waiting for their turn to come?  Does each day bring with it the thought that this might be the day when they will be told in no uncertain terms that their years of service and loyalty have effectively amounted to nothing and they, too, must clear their desks and go? Is their productivity halved, or even quartered, because they are now preoccupied with what might happen to them? And does not knowing the day or the hour turn them into nervous wrecks or, worse still, overly ambitious survivors who would sell their grannies for a pay cheque and a pension?

In position yesterday…

Today I heard of another such disappearance in Budapest. And although I have collected enough of them now to fill a respectably sized book, they never seem to lose their impact. If anything, the increasing numbers of these once-isolated incidences make their impact stronger. It started for me a couple of years ago when the head guy in a research institute I did some work for vanished from one week to the next. Even a naïve innocent like me didn’t take long to join the dots between his departure and the arrival of a new government. In politics, I can see how currying favour part of staying gainfully employed (serving at the pleasure of the President and all that). But can this also work for business?

… phone number reassigned today

There’s a school of thought that says that top managers should be prepared for these sudden departures, particularly when a company has been taken over. New bosses want new blood. Football coaches are fired if their teams keep losing. CEOs are fired if their company’s share prices keep dropping. Journalists are fired if they push the truth beyond its limit. But all these would have been clearly signposted – had anyone been paying attention. Organisations are predictable. The early warning signs are there. When high-up executives start reminding everyone to watch their spending; when big deals are no longer celebrated in style; when personal expenses are reduced or cut altogether – all these signal that redundancies are on the way. That I can deal with. That’s part and parcel of being in business. The smart ones read the signs and start subtly clearing their desks of all important stuff while contacting head-hunters on the QT.

It’s not what I do ….

But when invites to critical policy meetings dry up; when my opinions are no longer sought; when it’s not about what I do or don’t do but all about who I am and what I stand for, that’s worrying.

That the human work environment has made great strides since the Industrial Revolution cannot be denied. That working conditions have vastly improved is a certainty. That our workforce is smarter, stronger, and seemingly more astute is a given. We’re better educated, better trained, better managed than probably at any other time in history and you would think that this would come wrapped up with a nice ribbon of security. But the opposite is the case. We appear to exist more and more at the whim of someone higher up the food chain. Our careers no longer stretch before us with any kind of certainty. Our tenure has become more tenuous and one has to wonder what this is doing for the quality of our performance. Is this really progress?

…it’s who I am

Apparently I was once the most dangerous employee a particular company had on its books. When I asked why, it was pointed out that I didn’t have a mortgage, a car loan, or kids in college. Having neither debts nor dependents made me dangerous. The worst the company could do was fire me – and give me two week’s severance pay, enough to buy a plane ticket. I had the freedom speak my mind without being overly concerned about the ramifications of saying something someone didn’t want to hear. Because I wasn’t in debt, I could afford to have an opinion. And to think that I used to take this for granted: this freedom to do my job properly without fear of being fired for voicing a contrary opinion. In today’s world, this would seem to be a luxury few people can afford. It makes me wonder how far we have really come since the cotton mills of 1733…
First published in the Budapest Times 26 October 2012

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