Friday, May 8, 2009

What’s a Nice Liberal Like Me Doing in a Place Like This?

Note to readers: Continued job losses in the hundreds of thousands each month remind me of what my co-workers and I went through a couple of years ago during a massive corporate downsizing. In the post below I reflect on lessons learned from that life-changing experience.

Cross-posted at the Widdershins

The local regional office of one of the world’s largest insurance companies looks out over the interstate where an endless stream of cars, trucks, and buses pours down the ramp and loops westward.

The building’s redbrick walls seal out the whine of freeway traffic. Rows of green-tinted windows allow occupants to look out, but prevent passersby from looking in. Uniformed security guards patrol the hulking, foursquare building and the well-tended acreage surrounding it.

Located in an upscale suburb of a large city, the state-of-the-art facility was built in the 90s to replace an older building in a less affluent neighborhood. The CEO and chairman of the board appeared with the lieutenant governor and other dignitaries at opening day ceremonies, complete with rousing music by a local band.

During my several years’ employment in the regional office, dubbed “the palace” by visiting agents, I occasionally looked around at my well-furnished workplace, provided by a company long known for its conservatism and powerful family culture and wondered, “What’s a nice liberal like me doing in a place like this?”

The answer eluded me until a couple of years ago when I took early retirement, prompted by a tsunami of consolidation and downsizing across our Fortune 500 Company. The powerful wave of change was unleashed by advances in computer technology that resulted in fewer employees required to do work that was no longer geographically constrained.

In the beginning, I’d considered my first job in the corporate world a temporary stopover; I planned to continue looking for employment where I could better use my skills in a more compatible environment.

My internal gyroscope of liberal values was fashioned by painful experience, clarified through study and reflection, and then dismantled and put back together again several times — before, during, and after three years of study at a progressive seminary. Mine was a thoroughly examined life.

Having grown up in a displaced Appalachian family, outsiders in the flatlands of northwestern Ohio, I easily empathized with others forced to overcome negative stereotypes.

Like many with roots in the mountains, I held in balance respect for the integrity of the individual and the importance of community. And I knew no other way to be in the world than to be myself.

Yet, I — after long decrying the harm wrought by stereotypes — committed the sin of stereotyping others. Through my liberal lens, I saw my fellow employees as hundreds of gray flannel clones. Men strode affably about in suits and ties. Women, wearing their version of the suit, darted down corridors on high heels, power walking to fit exercise into busy schedules.

Members of several minority groups appeared to be fully assimilated by the dominant culture, and I saw them, too, going about their business in monochrome.

I concluded the regional office housed a predominantly conservative population, devoted primarily to the god of capitalism. Corporate America was clearly not the place for me.

Nevertheless, perhaps unconsciously lulled into complacency by an ethos of benign paternalism (do your job, and we’ll take care of you), I stayed on. Eventually, I moved into the public affairs department as a writer and photographer for the regional employees’ magazine and Web site.

My new responsibilities gave me access to employees at all levels of the hierarchy. As I started seeing people as individuals, they emerged one by one from their previous gray anonymity. (The change to a more relaxed dress code helped.)

An American Indian explained how he juggled working full-time as an underwriter; serving as a member of the diversity council while participating in other company-sponsored volunteer activities; and pursuing his master’s degree.

An African-American manager taught me how to do the “pow,” a popular handshake in his culture. I knew I’d gotten it right the day he grinned and said, “You’re a mess.”

A Vietnamese employee, wearing his security badge on a lanyard with yin and yang symbolism, provided instruction in using meditation as a means to detach myself from difficult situations. I didn’t always succeed, but I learned to value this thoughtful man’s insights.

Two young claim reps, fresh out of college, contributed their zany sense of humor to my work life. A brief encounter with them in the hallway was usually enough to turn my day around.

One afternoon, a middle-aged vice president came in to get his photo updated. Afterward, he put his feet up on an open file drawer and talked about growing up in an orphanage in New York City. He was sincerely surprised by the success he had achieved and at the same time humbled by the experience. And speaking of shattered stereotypes, this insurance executive happened to be a Harley rider, who led an annual bikers’ run for charity.

A claims manager who knew the insurance business inside and out was readily available to review my stories. Noted for plain speaking, she had a knack for jolting me out of creeping corporate-speak. On one occasion, she told me, “Quoting a bunch of high profile managers doesn’t improve the quality of this article.”

Her point was well taken. It prompted me to paraphrase familiar biblical words of wisdom: If we say we are without spin, we deceive ourselves. My straightforward informal mentor and consultant, a high profile manager herself, also proved to be a kind, thoughtful, and faithful friend.

Over the passing months, many other employees revealed deeper aspects of themselves:

A mother shared what it was like to lose her son.

I witnessed the depth of feeling of a father whose six-year-old daughter was undergoing treatment for cancer.

A single woman talked about her escape from an abusive marriage and the struggle to bring up her children alone.

Basic connections transcended our differences. As trust developed, our conversations ventured into philosophy, ethics, politics, art, and even the risky terrain of religion. A mystical spirituality began swirling in and around the electronic hum of computers and everyday business discourse. It was a spirituality that affirmed our common humanity; revealed the power of our dreams, imagination, and vision; and hinted at mysteries none of us could adequately explain. It was an inclusive spirituality, unconfined by rigid dogma or particular religion.

Like employees in most workplaces, we reinforced bonds of community by celebrating birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, new babies, and promotions. We offered support when an employee’s life was touched by the death of a loved one. And when someone left, we gathered to bid farewell.

Our population was greater than many small towns, and we had similar amenities: a company store, medical department, mailroom, credit union, and ATM. We could also meet in the dining room to share a meal with friends.

Sheltered as we were within those solid brick walls, the storm that struck in early spring took most of us by surprise — even though we had worked virtually with our sister regional office for months and knew that one of our offices was slated to close.

We had heard a rumor the senior vice president of our recently merged, six-state territory would be in the office selected for closing on the day of the final announcement. Early that morning, a co-worker reported seeing him and other VIPs enter the building.

At the appointed hour we gathered in assigned rooms where the visiting VIPs recited prepared statements confirming our fears. It was a dizzying descent from being among the company’s “most valued assets” to suddenly discovering we were expendable.

We reacted with disbelief, pain, and anger as we began a prolonged process of grieving, not just for the likelihood of losing our jobs, but also for the certain incremental destruction of the unique community we had created.

The grief of those who had worked there the longest was infected by a sense of betrayal. One older employee observed, “When I was growing up, our parents advised us to find jobs in the insurance or banking industries — you could count on lifetime security.”

Members of various minority groups also felt betrayed. Employees were given the option to compete for job offers at the other site. This meant relocating westward from the outskirts of a multicultural, urban environment to a smaller, less diverse city. An African-American man illustrated well how much the dominant culture takes for granted. He said, “I don’t doubt the sincerity of our leadership, but they just don’t get it. How can I explain to them that I don’t want to live in a place where I have to drive 50 miles to find someone who knows how to cut my hair?”

The night following the announcement that our office would be closing, I dreamed I saw in the darkness a black limousine crawl slowly across a wooden bridge and then pull over to the side of the road. The occupants, our VIP visitors that day, got out of their car and walked over to look at a sign posted near the bridge. The sign read: “Danger — Ice.”

In Jungian thought, only gods may cross over a bridge in the realm of dreams; mortals must walk below. I interpreted my dream accordingly: business leaders are ill advised to play god with the lives of their employees.

Regrettably, even before the storm, some looting had already occurred. As the overall number of jobs dwindled at both locations, the occasional supervisor, prone to favoritism, and a few employees, too insecure to compete solely on merit, resorted to robbing others of their rightful opportunities; to my knowledge, they were never held accountable for their wrongdoing.

In the storm’s aftermath, the once lively dining room became quieter each day with muted conversation now seldom interrupted by bursts of laughter. I was having lunch alone on one occasion, when I heard a familiar voice: “You can keep reading your paper if you want to,” she said, as she sat down across from me. I folded my paper and put it aside.

Visibly tired from dealing with our tumultuous transition, this particular vice president spoke with passionate concern for the many employees whose lives were being drastically changed. “No one,” she said, “can take your skills away from you; they belong to you. Your security has to come from within yourself. No company can provide that for you.”

Even as she spoke, the old bureaucratic structure, already weakened, shuddered and collapsed around us. So ends the era of benign paternalism, I mentally noted, and all the false expectations it creates. Through the dust of falling rubble, however, I glimpsed the dawning of a new era in which employees would thereafter take their lives in their own hands and chart their own futures.

Eventually, our conversations turned from debating why our office was closing and not the other one to discussing what we were going to do next. Like a true community, neighbors began helping one another with resumes, networking, and moral support.

Good-byes became more frequent as employees left for jobs with other companies and a few accepted offers in our sister office. Those left behind experienced the early departures — at first a trickle — as an uninterrupted stream of loss.

The plan was to close the office in stages and when more specific announcements were made, I learned I would be leaving sooner than anticipated. I was among those over 55 who were offered early retirement; we were given three months’ notice and had to scramble to make critical decisions and complete necessary paperwork.

My retirement party was held the afternoon of my final day. Arriving a few minutes early, I watched guests crowd into the private dining room reserved for the occasion. I recognized representatives of different age groups, national origin, races, faith traditions, political affiliation, degrees of education, and job levels – from support personnel to the executive ranks.

There were no clones in gray flannel suits.

Of the gifts I received that day, my favorite was an official hooded, zip-front, logo-emblazoned Harley-Davidson jacket presented to me by the Harley-riding VP.

A few days later, seated at my kitchen table, I opened the bound collection of letters from my diverse group of friends. Their comments awakened me to a role I had unwittingly played while making my rounds with notepad and camera.

One employee wrote: “You’ve never been afraid to bring your whole self to work: ethics, religion, and politics. You forced us to bring our whole selves to work, too — just in case you challenged us. Well, it’s an odd thing and a pleasure to have an office full of whole people walking around. What an office you stirred up!”

That’s when I knew just what a nice liberal like me had been doing in a place like that.

I also knew something else: in today’s corporate world, too often governed solely by the bottom line, communities will continue to form and in time, dissolve. But the friendships forged during good times and bad, the truths shared, and the lessons learned will long endure — well past the inevitable day when that company name has faded into oblivion.


  1. Great post! Keep up the excellent work!!


  2. This is beautiful, Virginia. And it mirrors my own thoughts last evening... as I was dining at an Applebees near the Toyota Plant in Lexington, KY.

    I saw all these diverse individuals. Dressed alike. Sharing drinks and appetizers. Just after the plant had let out for Friday evening....

  3. Hi commoncents,

    Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your kind words.

  4. Hi SYD,

    Wow! That was quite a coincidence. Thank you for sharing it.