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September 29, 2009

Whistle While You Wear on Co-workers' Nerves

Blog cartoon 9-30-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

I feel happy for the Seven Dwarfs, but I'm glad I don't have to work with them. Aside from worrying about catching a cold from Sneezy, I don't know if I could handle the whistling. I also would wonder at their happiness in cynical ways. Is there something dark behind it, or are they just so at peace with themselves that they can't keep the songs in their hearts from escaping their lips as whistling?  Or is it more of a nervous whistle, like the compulsive way some people whistle when left alone on an elevator with a maniacal looking person?

I like to think the best of everyone (or at least force myself to try for the sake of my sanity), but I've noticed the happiest people in offices aren't always the nicest and/or smartest. Who could remain song-fully happy, after all, watching hard working co-workers laid-off while less-deserving and liked colleagues remain?  I can see still having hope and enjoying your work, but who walks around whistling and singing amidst all that? 

Part of the happiness of those who hold onto their ebullience in recessionary times can be attributed to a competitive spirit. They've survived, others haven't, so much the better. Instead of regretting a co-worker's unfortunate performance review or lay-off, they celebrate the opportunity to advance into that person's position, or enjoy some of the salary they leave behind. I've been guilty of those feelings before, but always restrained myself from whistling, humming, or stomping my feet over it. Such emotions are normal, and even healthy from a survivalist perspective, but isn't there something sinister about those who aren't sensitive enough to conceal them?

Since lay-offs and salary/position freeze-ups during a recession often seem arbitrary rather than a result of work performance, those who trot around the office like show horses in the winner's circle are a mystery. Are they dumb luck recipients, good manipulators, mean-spirited (just enjoy watching pain), or really stupid (and haven't noticed anything is wrong)?  The best thing we can hope for is stupidity—or is it?  What's worse? To work with mean-spirited, though efficient, manipulators or very dumb people who have dumb luck, do dumb things, and are too dumb to notice anything awry? Since "stupidity" carries such a negative connotation, I prefer to think of the always-whistling people at work as ignorant.

Let's say your company is near to crumbling apart, and Joe Ratsweeds is ambling around whistling and tapping rhythmically on all the cubicle walls he passes by on the way to his spacious office. Should a workforce manager wonder at his business acumen or his commitment to the company?  If I were you, observing a mid-level worker acting that way in the thick of a financial crisis would raise questions. No one should bring work troubles home with them, and it's essential to keep one's sense of humor and fun during hard times, but isn't the song-and-dance routine a bit much, and reminiscent of dancing on co-workers' professional graves?

With the sensitivity training we put workers through regarding ethnic and cultural differences, it's funny no one I've heard of has implemented recessionary (or recession recovery) sensitivity training. Some say the economy is turning the corner, but most agree layoffs won't lessen, and might even get worse, for another six months. With that in mind, how are you going to prepare your employees to emotionally support those you're forced to ax?  "Ax" may not seem like the most sensitive word for me to use, but it's the most accurate because it connotes the pain of what happens to a person who loses his job—he's cut off from an essential part of his life. I've spoken before of the importance of being good to those you lay-off for both the sake of the laid-off person as well as for the morale of remaining employees, but what about the importance of teaching employees how to support each other during the crisis?

Since hiring a workforce psychologist may be out of the question for a lot of you due to budgetary limitations, I would do research on my own if I were you about peer support during layoffs. I haven't checked it out yet, but knowing our post-Information Age, I bet there's a wealth of information out there on the topic. If you can't find any that suits your company's particular situation, take an educated leap of faith, and pen a few pages yourself for your corporate intranet or social networking site. This "educated leap" could consist of passing along examples of employees supporting each other in impressive ways, based on your own observations and stories shared with you by others. If you can't think of any, and you want to encourage inspiring acts of workplace empathy, ask in a company-wide memo, or in an announcement on your intranet's homepage, for such stories. As always, many will need an incentive to take the trouble to write down their tale, so offer a reward, such as a gift certificate or extra vacation time, for the most compelling (and provably true) story.

There's only so much you can do as a workforce manager during a difficult time at the office because there's only so much your workers and managers will tell you and the executive team. They'll never tell you as much of their woes and suffering as they'll tell a colleague, and out-going colleagues have a lot to say to those who laid them off that they're dying to express to someone who knows exactly what they're talking about. Your reaction to such "sharing" sessions may be fear. After all, you don't want bitter, out-going workers to poison those remaining, but there's no need to worry.

Employees worth keeping are smart enough to notice on their own that something's wrong, and kind enough not to gloss it over by whistling show tunes. Encouraging them to support co-workers who were "let go,"  will help them deal with their own feelings of sadness. Repressed emotion and denial, you'll find, are the most discordant tunes of all.

How do you encourage employees to support one another during rough financial times?  Do you have any inspiring stories of co-worker empathy and camaraderie to share?


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