THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Dickensian Slavery: The Real Expense of the Recession

About 18 months ago I got the appointment notice to meet on a Friday morning with the president of our small company. No 'early warning' sign went up that it was a Friday morning meeting with no 'subject' line and it had come via email, not personally. We worked closely together, I was the Chief Training Officer and previously General Manager, and I didn't even think it odd when the Human Resources Director sat in on the meeting as the three of us had many overlapping projects on our lists.

What followed that morning was the 'we're eliminating your position' speech which is basically the 'pack your bags' speech. There was no surprise in it, really, as we'd just been sold to a multinational and they'd been back and forth meeting with senior executives but not inviting me to the meetings. "We're not ready for you yet", they'd said.

In fact, I'd been pretty eager to leave for a while since I'd already started my own coaching and consulting business on the 'outside' and was even given incentive to stay on through the sale. Through negotiation with the former owner I was admittedly expensive to the new owners with one month of vacation a year and 65 paid leave days, plus the usual sick and holiday days; I might have just painted a target on my back!

I knew there was no problem with my performance; in fact my reputation and reviews were excellent and I was held in high regard by all employees. I'd just outlived my era. I had heard a remark the new owners had made about my responsibilities: they understood that I was in charge of 'training', but what the heck was "cultural development." Cultural development, by the way, was one of the things we did so well at that company and one of the main reasons that we grew 500% in less than 9 years, growing from a small regional player to unchallenged industry leader. Surveys conducted amongst our employees, in fact, always cited 'culture' as one of our strengths and the reason employees were loyal to and passionate about our company.

In a kind of out of body way I listened to two of my friends 'handle' my termination using a script that I myself had written for such purposes to make sure that exiting employees were treated with care and respect. I watched the events and my internal dialogue said, "Great! Now when I'm coaching other laid off execs I'll be able to speak from experience!' But along with my 'distance' came the realization that I was only the first of many to go. The realization came that we had, despite our best efforts, let the foxes into the hen house.

A year and a half later I still hear from former employees of this company, mostly to provide references as they search for work or to ask for coaching as they begin to re-start their careers. I do what I can for them and I do it for free out of loyalty to people whom I considered family. We had created something rare, including a volunteer committee that held major events monthly. We went from a thriving community of people with a goal, identity and pride to a skeleton crew of 'survivors', managed like machines, stripped of their individuality and certainly not encouraged to bring their creativity to the workplace.

We were the example of a company built on honoring the employee, embracing change, staying flexible no matter what, where the owner would forgo her own salary if we ever had a slump in revenue rather than lay off even a single employee, to being one of the many companies where "profit is king." No complaint against profit, by the way, but at what 'expense'?

Following me out the door were the COO and the Executive VP in charge of Sales and what followed in 18 months was that the workforce has been cut by more than half. The result in this company, as in so many others, is that in the face of the highest rate of employment since Michael Jackson released Thriller, employees are now facing the same fear that Bob Cratchit faced every time he asked Mr. Scrooge for a Christmas day off: "You're lucky to have a job at all".

The real result of this recession is that the employee has become afraid, has become dis-empowered and, in the words of so many who contact me about their work woes, "I just keep my head down and hope not to get fired." We've headed back to the workhouse atmosphere of Dickensian England and the view of employee as dispensable 'tool' has returned.

I have created a website to offer free coaching, including a basic model that anyone can use to 'self coach' themselves out of any situation and it even has a community where people can create discussions in forums, topics and network for jobs or just challenge others in groups to "get up to something good." Check it out at www.doityourselflifecoach.com.

If you're in the Chicagoland area on November 17, you can join the live workshop at the Lake County Prosperity Forum and network with entrepreneurs and meet small business owners looking for talented new people, or compare notes with others 'in transition.' Find out more about that event at http://vision-2020.net/next-conference. There is a charge for the event but it includes lunch, power networking and I'm giving away a free e-copy of my book, The Hamlet Secret: a self-directed (Shakespearean) Workbook for living a passionate, joy-filled life, to all registrants.

The transformation that Scrooge had, to a caring, respecting and munificent business owner was the fiction; the transformation of millions of Americans into fearful, exploited Bob Cratchit is the fact. The pendulum needn't swing too far either way: the employee can't hold their production 'hostage' any more than the employer should hold the 10.2% unemployment rate as their mandate to turn workers into gerbils in a cage.

I'd like to hear from more of you, on either side of the matter, and I'd love especially to hear about those who are working in environments where the front line employees are honored and rewarded for their efforts. My thanks to all of you who have contacted me about the fears and concerns you have in this urgent matter; there's work to be done about "work."