Thursday, October 11, 2012

Reflections on a retrenchment exercise

So, my company went through a restructuring this week. As part of the restructuring, 16 people were let go. 

Given that most of my working experience up until last year had been in the public sector, the retrenchment process was something new to me.

A senior manager in my own department was let go, not 2 weeks after she had given birth. It was an interesting juxtaposition of fates: here was someone who was my own age, but had chosen right from the beginning of her career to work in the industry, and as a result had climbed very high. Her salary was easily more than 3 times my own, and she managed a team of more than 10 people, all of whom were probably paid more than me.

In contrast, little old me who had to take a pay-cut to start anew in the corporate world remained employed, albeit in an unenviable position. I’m low on the food chain, and manage a small team of two aunties who, between the 2 of them, have remained in the company for more than 50 years, doing mundane but essential work.

This isn’t a post where I gloat with schadenfreude. Indeed, the retrenched manager was well-liked in the department and was known to be a high performer. However, in the words of the CEO, it is “an unfortunate reality of corporate life” that sometimes positions get made redundant.

A well-meaning colleague contacted the retrenched manager at home while she was recovering from childbirth. Despite the generous severance package and the reassurance that the retrenchment in no way had to do with her performance, she admitted feeling sad.

That got me thinking.

Here was clearly someone who was a confident and successful businesswoman. Yet, in the aftermath of being made redundant, even she took a hit to her emotional state.

Today, most people invest considerably of themselves in their careers, and derive not just money, but also a sense of identity from the work they do. It is telling that a standard question that we often ask within the first few minutes of meeting someone new is, “What do you do?” And perhaps more tellingly, nobody in this age thinks that this is strange or unusual.

In contrast to how we view our own careers, corporations largely view employees today as independent business partners who are contracted to render services under conditional terms. It is not natural for most of us to view ourselves this way, but given workplace realities, perhaps it would be wise to.

As an aside, it has not been lost on me the irony that in many job descriptions today, “passion” is often listed as a required quality. I reserve a special hatred for how that word has been co-opted by the modern corporation and how it has been cheapened and degraded beyond all recognition. Christ had passions, the suffering artist has passion, the toiling scientist at the bench has passion, the community organizer and political activist has passion…passion should not be demanded of your average corporate drone; instead, it should be unambiguously described as enthusiasm to perform unpaid overtime.

But I digress.

Because I suffered setbacks very early on in my own career, I learnt early to sever the relationship between my job and my sense of self-worth. The experience of the retrenched senior manager validates this decision I made so long ago.

Here was someone who was a noted performer and had invested much of herself in her career, and as a result of being retrenched, felt keenly the psychological impact of being let go.

This is not to say that we should not strive in our chosen career, but that it would be wise to, as I have stated in a previous post, to diversify one’s own identity.

Understand that you are more than the person who takes the MRT to your office, sits at your desk in front of the computer, and answers emails and works on spreadsheets and Powerpoint slides 10 hours a day (or more).

You can derive much satisfaction and a sense of achievement and competence from your work, but do not allow yourself to be defined by this. From a humanistic perspective, you are more than this. From a pragmatic perspective, not everyone has the unerring single-mindedness, talent, opportunity and good fortune to become a Steve Jobs or a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, people who have reaped the enormous psychological rewards of investing substantially all of themselves in their work and been successful.

In Singapore, I wonder how the lack of appreciable work-life balance exacerbates the already formidable effect of involuntary unemployment on self-worth. Perhaps the reason why the Japanese salaryman pretends to go to work for months after retrenchment, for fear of breaking the news to his wife, is precisely because he is Japanese and a salaryman. Could not the same be said for the Singaporean salaryman?

We already know the lack of substantial safety nets in this country for the unemployed and how it affects families and individuals. But in a country with admirably low unemployment but terrible work-life balance, the impact of any economic crisis could be especially debilitating on the nation’s collective mental health. Who knows how that might pan out in a true crisis?


bluexpresso said...

Thanks. Your posts always make for good reading.

Tommy S. W. Wong said...

Yes, one way to be less affected by entrenchment is to identify ourselves as human beings. With or without a job, we are still human beings.

weeleeum said...

i'd like to suggest you share your post with this website :

it's a local support website set up to cater to those unemployed, retrenched or just generally between jobs. i believe your words would be fitting on that site as an encouragement and needed perspective.

Hoan Thanh Nguyen said...

Quietly a fan of your stuff... good writing! Especially the point around the word "passion" being thrown around... it's the new "love".

Keep it up man!

Hoan Thanh Nguyen said...

Quietly a fan of your stuff... good writing! Especially the point around the word "passion" being thrown around... it's the new "love".

Keep it up man!