10/28/2012 05:22 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2012

The Employment Racket

"This is going to be my year," said Joseph, a guy I'd just met at a networking event. "How so?" I asked. I thought maybe he was expecting a baby in his family or something. "I'm next in line for a promotion, and all signs point to Yes," he said. "I never really understood that 'next in line' thing," I said. "Did someone tell you that you're getting promoted this year, or what's going on exactly?"

"Here's the story," he said. "My boss is either going to move up to a Division role or he's leaving. He already told me. He would bring me with him, but my path is better taking his old job when he moves out of the department. I've got more seniority than anyone else in the group, and the only other guy who could compete with me for the manager job has a kid with a disability that takes up a lot of his time, so they'd never give the job to him." I looked at Joseph and thought, How did we get to this place?

"Joseph," I said, "you don't look a minute over 35." "I'm 32," he said. "Perfect," I said. "You pretty much have your whole life in front of you, and there are all kinds of exciting things to do. What is so great about replacing your boss and competing with the guy whose kid is disabled -- what would it get you, to get that promotion?" Joe looked at me like I was crazy. "It gets me three huge things," he said. "For starters, it's more money. Secondly, I get leadership on my resume, which is a huge plus. The third thing is that I'd be in line for the Director job, and our Director is probably 55 years old. That means that in ten years..."

I couldn't take it any more. I spotted an imaginary friends across the room and darted off. What is happening to our country when smart people spend their mental energy plotting political moves against their colleagues and pining for Director jobs likely to open up 10 years in the future? (I didn't have the heart to tell Joseph that his fifty-five-year-old Director may well work into his seventies -- let the kid have his dream.) When did we become so weenified that we'd say about trading our brains and spark for a bump in pay and a Manager title, "This is going to be my year."?

We are in a bad place. Somehow, we've traded in our horse sense and desire to be ourselves, do cool things and use our talents for worthwhile purposes. In exchange for those things, we get better and better titles on our business cards, bumps in pay that don't warrant the sacrifices we make to get them, and less and less ability to tell the truth at work.

It's a racket. I used to blame employers (the evil, unnamed entity called Those Guys on Top) for this sad state of things, but I don't any more. I've had too many conversations with guys like Joseph to try to separate the population into Us and Them, good guys and bad guys. Everybody who buys into the system is part of the problem. Everybody who talks about it and brings him- or herself to work (anywhere - in a huge corporation or a one-person startup) is part of the solution.

HR people complain "My leadership team won't budge" while they take a paycheck to clamp their lips shut about dysfunction and abuse. Job-seekers say "I shouldn't have to give up my social security number and my references' phone numbers before I've even seen the whites of the interviewer's eyes, but I need a job, so I did it" and feel that they haven't contributed to the bad energy swirling around. Headhunters say "It's awful that my clients demand so much of their employees, but how can I fight with a huge corporation?" and they take their fees and keep silent. It's a racket, and you can tell who's in it by listening to what people say.

If they say things like "With luck they'll hire me for this promotion, over the guy with the disabled kid who misses work a lot" they are part of the problem, no matter what their business card says and no matter how much they tell you they're just pawns in somebody else's game. That's a lie. You don't have to play somebody else's game. Plenty of people opt out. They work for themselves, or they keep looking for healthier work environments no matter how long it takes and how cushy the benefits are at the see-no-evil joint down the road.

Here's how a racket works. You play the game, and you get a payoff. You can complain about it as loudly as you want, but you can't call yourself a warrior or a tiger in a cage while you're eating off the system. In the toxic-employer racket, employers get to complain that their bosses are evil and that there's nothing they can do. Bosses get to complain that employees are slackers and that their managers are the truly evil ones in the mix. They're all lying.

We don't have to quit our jobs en masse to break the logjam and get human energy moving at work. We only have to notice the albatross on the table and say something about it. We only have to bring ourselves to work, a little at a time, and acknowledge other people when they do the same.

We can pretend that Joe's Year is the year he beats out the guy with the disabled kid for a lame-ass manager job with a ten-year roadmap to a 50 percent chance at another lame promotion, or we can tell Joe that every year is his year when he's living his own life instead of the life of a corporate robot who looks and sounds like him. We can look in the mirror and decide who we want to be at work, ourselves or a version of us that says the things we think people at work want to hear. We get to make that decision every day.

Whatever we decide to do, we can't blame that decision on anyone. It's all ours. For some of the Joes among us, that's a liberating realization. For Joes whose guts have known all along what part in the racket they play, that realization might be terrifying -- but at least that fear reaction will remind a guy like Joe that he's alive.