Emergency Exit

North Shore Magazine

By Jane Leder

A North Shore woman I know (let’s call her “J.”) says that when she accepted a job in a small public-relations agency, she just “knew” deep in her gut that she shouldn’t have – in the same way she “knew” she shouldn’t have married her first husband or spent thousands of dollars on a politically incorrect fur-lined winter coat. Each time, there was this voice. A persistent voice like a nagging cough that kept warning, “Don’t do it” But she didn’t listen.

That would have made sense. Instead, my friend convinced herself that the marriage and job would last and that she could handle her political incorrectness. Wrong on all counts. She sold the coat — for a loss. Divorced her husband, and bailed out of the PR job after just 10 days.

My friend suffered from what has become an American epidemic. Job remorse. To know it is to loathe it, and chances are, you — or people close to you — know it well. Maybe you took a job that didn’t feel right from the get go, worked with a boss who was clueless, constantly did battle with highly competitive co-workers or just plain gave up after being passed over once again for a well-deserved promotion. And while such experiences certainly lend a renewed appreciation for corporate parodies like “The Office” and parodies of the parodies on “Saturday Night Live,” they also mean we are spending the majority of our waking hours in situations that just aren’t good for us.

According to a survey released earlier this year by The Conference Board — the world’s preeminent business membership and research organization, which is best known for its Consumer Confidence Index and Leading Economic Indicators — Americans hate their jobs more now than they have in the past 20 years. But Bob Sutton, author of the best-selling book “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t,” didn’t need a survey to tell him that millions of Americans find themselves in uncivilized jobs.

Sutton, a psychologist in the Department of Management Service and Engineering at Stanford University, has churned out scholarly articles and books for managers over the years, but he says nothing was as fun or revealing as writing this book.

“It was the easiest book I ever wrote because people provided me with stories and evidence everywhere I went,” Sutton says. He only had to mention the work job, and tales form the front spewed forth like venom from an angry snake.

Sutton says that Americans are working longer hours and being subjected to what are called “forced rankings,” in which employees are labeled from “best” to “worst.” The rankings stir up even more competitiveness between employees and translate into a smaller percentage of people getting a larger piece of the pie. “These well-documented trends make more folks unhappy and tend to make some people feel that they’re smarter than everyone else,” Sutton says. “Thus, the asshole problem in the workplace.”

When You’re Just an Employee

For a 32-year-old Vernon Hills human resources specialist who holds a master’s degree in adult education and an MBA, the promise of a new job with one of “Fortune” magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” raised all kinds of expectations. The money was good, he had a ridiculously short three-mile commute, and the company’s reputation was glowing. Yet within three months, not even the free doughnuts or rousing parties with expensive raffle prizes would be enough to keep him happy.

“The managers and directors were viewed as the only people who had ideas, “he says.”The rest of us were there to simply implement… and the way were treated — I have never been talked down to like that… I was shocked!” When a new VP encouraged each staff member to schedule a “meet and greet” appointment, our now disgruntled worker followed suit. His immediate director quickly cancelled that meeting without his consent, saying that she did not want him — mere mortal — talking to the vice president. She obviously feared that he’d spill the beans about what was really going on within the ranks.

After that blow, this father of a new baby boy steeled himself to soldier on, to look ahead and keep his eyes on what he could do to make the situation better.

“It was initially based on hope that things would change. I liked the company. Call it ‘dumb optimism.’” But then he was blatantly passed over for a new position that he knew inside and out. He asked why and was told, “You’re not what we want.” End of discussion. The next day, someone called him about setting up a training practice for a start-up IT consulting firm. The job at one of the supposed top companies to work for was toast.

Jobs can be like an abusive relationship,” says Maxine Topper, supervisor of the Jewish Vocational Service’s career development services in Skokie. “One has to learn how to respond politically. And if it doesn’t’t work, move on. The last thing you can do is change somebody else; either you can make changes, or it’s time to find a new job.”

In other words, make up or break up.

Topper stresses that it is always important to understand why you are unhappy and whether you have any control to change things. If you decide to find something new, it’s crucial that you do your “due diligence” (see sidebar on page 51). Otherwise you risk landing in another unhappy job — or even worse.

The Boss From Hell

A boss from hell is one of the major reasons for job angst, and the descriptions of the people in charge range from incompetent to unethical — or misleading at best.

An attorney and North Shore native now living in Wilmette suddenly found himself out of a job when the large company in which he was a vice-president “fired” 60,000 employees in a major restructuring move.
Fortunately, one of his former supervisors, already with a telecommunications company, helped him network for a job where she served as general counsel — a job she planned to leave in the foreseeable future. A job that would be his.  But this cunning general counsel was quick to add that she would deny she’d made the promises if he ever tried to quote her. Such a threat should have raised the hair on an experienced attorney’s back, but desperate for work, he overlooked her comment, choosing instead to trust her sincerity.

That turned out to be a mistake.

Almost immediately after taking the job, it was clear that he was’t being groomed for her leadership position but, rather, being assigned work suited for a junior attorney with half his experience. His depression must have been palpable because she gave him a “dressing down” in which she basically told him he could leave if he didn’t like the way things were going. Not long after, she and the CEO departed, and the man she said would never become the general was given the job. “I then had to spend 18 months transitioning into working for someone who, at my former job, would have been working for me.”

With three sons to support, he did not have the option to just bail. So what could he do to help alleviate the “boss problem” and find some satisfaction in his job?

“I see people all the time who complain about a boss from hell and an environment that appears unchangeable,” says Sheila Nielsen, President of Nielsen Career Consulting Service. “Often, they are unsure whether it’s them or whether it’s others.” Nielsen recommends going through a work history, searching for an “allergic boss” issue. If there is a pattern, the client has to work on understanding why and on changing the pattern. On the other hand, if there is no pattern, it is likely a toxic boss.

Nielsen, like Topper, stresses the need to do your homework. “I would caution people how not to land in the same kind of place again,” Nielsen says. “It’s crucial to look very carefully at the next potential workplace and not make the same mistakes all over again.”

“He Sat Around Pontificating”

Bosses can be rude, overbearing and judgmental, but they can also be incompetent. For a 49-year-old ex-Glencoe resident now living in Evanston, it was an unqualified boss who made her work life miserable. “He simply did not have the business management, creative or organizational skill to do his job,” she says. “I just couldn’t stand working for him. He floated in and out of my office saying, ‘Everything OK?’ It was not OK.” Even though she was more than discouraged, she somehow lasted for three years and two months in that misery. Why did she stay that long? “I had lost a job prior to this one when the company closed. And it had taken me 10 months to find a new job. It’s hard to quit and face another long-term search.”

Here’s some good news: Incompetent bosses are known to blow their covers and, ultimately, pay the price. That’s what happened when an attorney and real estate agent from Evanston (let’s call her “E.”) ran into a boss who had trouble delegating. “I usually had to grab papers out of his hand,” she says. “But the sad truth was that I ended up doing almost nothing!” E. spent the bulk of her days toiling away at clerical work like reorganizing files and creating spreadsheets. She spent 40 hours a week for a good three weeks developing a spreadsheet for a 90-unit building the company was developing, calculating everything from the percentage of ownership to room sizes. It wasn’t an easy task. E. proudly walked into her boss’s office with the coveted spreadsheet in hand. He barely glanced at it. “Guess I forgot to tell you,” he said, without a note of apology. “We changed a lot of things in the building. “ Translation: All the work E. had done was totally unusable.

Not wanting to feel completely useless, E. lugged all of her financial records to work and got going on her income taxes for the year. The boss’s brother saw what she was doing — personal work on company time. A few days later E. was called into the boss’s office and told that things weren’t working out. Smart as a whip, she somehow managed to make him feel badly for firing her. E. left the job with a hefty severance package. “It was a blessing,” she says. “I used my intelligence and, yes my feminine wile to make this guy pay for his incompetence.”

The Job Was Killing Me

The woman who “suffered” the incompetent boss at the not-for-profit organization decided, after a summer of soul-searching and talking with her husband and family, to go back to school for a graduate degree. “It will give me far more ability to make a bigger impact,” she says. Of the projected 17.6 million students enrolled in the country’s colleges and universities, she will join a growing number of students over 25 who now make up 38 percent of the total student population. “I’m scared about the challenge,” she says, “but facing another terrible job…that was even worse. I had to do this. I had to bite the bullet and force myself to retool. The job was killing me psychically.” She is not alone: 40 percent of workers report that their job is extremely stressful. And according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, job stress is more strongly associated with a variety of health problems than any other life stressor, including family and finances.

There are lots of jerks in the work world who are more trouble than they’re worth. They leave an easy-to-follow trail of upset, demeaned and de-energized employees or co-workers in their wake. But until such time when those who pull a workplace down can be weeded out, comedian Drew Carey’s remedy may be spot on: “Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar.”