THE KING WITH NO CLOTHES AND NO EMPLOYMENT

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU IGNORE THE WARNING SIGNS AND STAY TRAPPED IN A CAREER VACUUM

 

One of life’s most difficult tasks is self-evaluation.

 

Looking in the mirror can be a shockingly unpleasant experience if you’ve misplaced your rose colored glasses. The same thing is true about organizations. A company or organization can get caught up in a false self-analysis and spend a lot of time patting themselves on the back because of a perceived cultural superiority or uniqueness.

 

MUCH LIKE ANY OBJECTIVE PERSON WOULD ASK OF THE CHILDREN OF LAKE WOEBEGONE, A RATIONAL PERSON WOULD ASK A SIMILAR QUESTION ABOUT EMPLOYERS – WHY IS EVERY COMPANY A “BEST PLACE TO WORK”?  WHERE ARE THE “WORST PLACES TO WORK”?

 

Over the last ten years many companies have done a great job of creating what is basically an internal propaganda department reinforcing the uniqueness of their workplace. The result of that messaging is a constant flow of signals to employees about how fortunate they are to work in such a unique and wonderful culture. This makes executives and HR departments feel good. It often creates a self-congratulatory cycle that, when examined, is based on the flimsiest of fabrics. It is the corporate version of the king who wears no clothes.

 

For those of you who didn’t grow up with this fable as a bedtime story, the tale goes something like this:

 

A self-important king concerned only about his appearance commissions an expensive suit made by two very crafty tailors. The suit is said to be made out of the finest fabric, and it is invisible to anyone unfit for their position, stupid or incompetent. When the clothes are done, the tailors make a big display of helping the king into the suit and ensuring every detail is perfect. When he looks in the mirror, the king is shocked to see that he is in fact not wearing a stitch of clothing, and instead of questioning the honesty of the tailors, he is convinced he has not been deemed worthy enough to be able to see the exquisite outfit.

Unwilling to admit his weakness, the king takes to the street and marches in a procession amongst his subjects. Like the king, no one in the crowd is willing to speak up and admit they see royalty walking down the street stark naked for fear of admitting their own incompetency.

It’s a cruel to make your subjects— and your employees—feel forced to ignore their own intuition. They can feel obligated to stay in line with popular opinion, because who wants to be the first (or only) one to speak out?

 

Your best bet is to stand on the weight of your own reasoning, and learn to recognize the warning signs the world outside your employment bubble is sending you.

 

So How Do You Even Out the Scales Between Reality and Perception?

 

Working in an environment like that can be confusing at best, destructive at worst.  There is a phrase in economics called asymmetrical information. Basically it means that in a transaction, one party may have a lot more info than the other. When that occurs, one party creates the reality in which the other party lives. Employment is a transaction.

 

Basically, employees don’t have a lot of information about companies and industries outside of their specific employment world. Their info comes from two sources. One is the media. I think we can all agree that is usually useless. The second would be fellow employees. That second information source is flawed because it is basically information filtered through another’s prism. Sure, a guy may tell you that Acme Company is a lousy place to work but he won’t tell you they fired him for incompetence 5 years ago.

 

You are in an information wasteland when it comes to your company and how it stacks up against other firms. You have no frame of reference and no obviously reliable information. Your employer tells you that you work in a fantastic place. The problem is, if you believe that and you are wrong, it can be harmful to you in two ways:

  1. Simply, you are more miserable than you need to be. I used to work at a recruiting firm in which everyone grew up as children together but me. They all thought it was a great place to work. I never understood why I did not share their enthusiasm but, because I was the outlier, I assumed it was me, not them. It wasn’t till I left that I truly realized how poorly run the place was.
  2. The longer you stay in a bad place and bad job, the more unemployable you become. You pick up bad habits and attitudes. Not only does your resume degrade, so does you employability should something go wrong. As I have said before, it can be shocking to someone how quickly their marketability can diminish over a few years. Too many years on the wrong career trajectory can have profoundly negative ramifications if you are suddenly thrust onto the market.

Now comes the solution part of the White Paper. I will give you three signs of a bad employer. I would say that if 2 of the 3 point in the wrong direction upgrade your employer ASAP.

 

DEMOGRAPHICS

 

A company with a reverse demographic bell curve is a career killer. By that I mean too many people below 25 years old and too many people above 50 years old.  That is a very, very bad sign. Here is what it means and here is why it is bad.

 

It means that you have a lot of people who are holding on for dear life and who have known each other for 20 years. They’ve golfed every Sunday and their wives know each other socially. They are, by definition, a good old boy network. If you are interviewing at a company like that or are only 2 years out of school working at a company like that, leave now. Here are the two bad things that may happen.

 

The best thing of the two is that there will be layoffs. Now, you might think that since you are the least paid you will be safe. Probably not. Good old boy networks exist for a reason and are self-perpetuating over decades. VP Joe’s wife’s best friend is the wife of Sr. Accountant Sam. Who is getting laid off, you or Sam???

 

Ironically, that would be the best of the two scenarios because it will get you out the door when you are the most marketable.  The worst scenario is if you wait a few years till a new executive team comes in and lays off a lot of the good old boy network above you. Most people think this might be a good thing. After all, doesn’t it open up positions and opportunities above you?  Probably not, unfortunately.

 

The new executive team does not have time to get to know you. They want their own people with fresh eyes and energy. Very, very bad for you. Now, instead of reporting to a 60 year old tired Director who left you alone, you now at the age of 30, report to a 40 year old brought in to clean house. At best, he or she will keep you on board but block your path to promotion for 20 years. At worst, you will be considered a legacy employee and ignored while others are brought in around you.  You are the proverbial baby with the bath water.

 

If the drones above you are laid off, don’t expect to be promoted from a staff job to a Director job because you have been kept through the layoffs. Someone with more experience will be brought in above you, blocking your path forever.

 

REFUGE FOR THE UNEMPLOYED

 

This is really obvious but often overlooked. If you have worked at a company for a few years look for a pattern in new hires. If every person brought into the company was out of work when hired or a fresh grad that is a very bad sign. Basically, it means that no one is willing to quit a current job to work with you and the only people who will join your employer are those with limited options.

 

The phrase people vote with their feet has meaning in this context. Good employers are destination employers. Bad employers are refuges from the unemployment line. If the professional world outside your firm does not see your workplace as a destination, that should tell you more than all of the “best places to work” awards combined. If instead you see more and more fresh grads working next to you, that can be a sign that, sadly, your current employer is not paying enough. The default position when salary becomes a problem in employment is to hire a more junior person. Hence, all the fresh grads. Rather than raising salaries the choice has been made to lower the experience bar.

 

TURNOVER

 

This is a little counter-intuitive and tough to explain. If no one ever quits your company it is probably a lousy place to work. Yes, I know that sounds crazy but here are the things you should consider.

 

The first point I would make goes back to demographics. How do you think a good old boy network gets started in the first place? Too many people working together for too long in the same place means no new ideas and no new thoughts. Working in a static environment can be a very bad thing. Inevitably you become static too.

 

More importantly, though, is that you should want to work with the best. Like an athlete, you should want to surround yourself with the best people.  No matter how good a place might be, if they employ good people some will leave or get recruited out because of personal ambition coupled with a high level of talent. If no one ever leaves it means that no one wants to hire them. Please keep in mind that when you send a resume to a company they evaluate you based upon what they know about your employer too. If, over the last 5 years, they have interviewed and rejected 10 people from your organization for various jobs, they will not interview you. They will assume that you are no better than the others they have seen. You are tainted.

 

In a White Paper years ago, I told an anecdote about a conversation I had with an Engineering Manager in Delaware. He was bragging about never needing to hire someone because he never had any departmental turnover. Unknown to him was the inconvenient fact that every person in the department was answering any ad they could find and kept getting rejected by employers due to lack of skills. Yes he had no turnover. No he did not have a good department.

 

I hate sports analogies but this one may apply – no one recruits the worst guy on the team and no one recruits from the worst team. A player who stays on a bad team for too long becomes tainted. Don’t be that guy.

 

WHERE YOU WORK IS ALMOST AS IMPORTANT AS WHAT YOU DO. EMPLOYERS GIVE YOU CULTURAL AND WORK HABITS THAT FILTER THROUGH THE REST OF YOUR LIFE AND CAREER. BE A BIT CYNICAL WHEN YOU ARE CONSTANTLY TOLD A MESSAGE WHICH MAY BE HARD TO VALIDATE. YOU NOW HAVE 3 TOOLS, LISTED ABOVE, THAT MAY ALLOW YOU TO OBJECTIVELY QUESTION THE REALITY THAT HAS BEEN PAINTED FOR YOU BY OTHERS.

 

If you yourself are a manager, HR professional or owner, sometimes it is good to question your own message. Be realistic. No doubt you believe the message that you have created a great place to work and that you are a destination employer. But is it true? You too, like your staff, work in a place where feedback is not reliable. Don’t expect the truth from those whom you employ. They have their own agenda and it would indeed be a brave and foolhardy citizen who told the king he was wearing no clothes. The tools above are available for you as well.

 

As ever, thanks for getting this far and please remember Right Recruiting for all of your recruitment needs.

Jeff Zinser
jeffzinzer@rightrecruiting.com

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