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What was the cruelest thing a company has ever done to you as an employee?

Well this one didn’t happen directly to me but it did leave a profound impact on me and how I saw my managers and the company from then on out.

I was working for a large oilfield services company in west Oklahoma. Its a desolate area of the country that wants to crush your soul. It looks something like this. (okay exactly like that, I took the picture from google streetview northwest of Elk City, Oklahoma where I lived)

I often thought about the dark irony that some pioneer had come out during the land rush. Something clearly went terribly wrong and caused them stop and settle in this most forsaken area. They worked the land their whole life, sacrificing just to produce the bare minimum required to survive and then died on that land. All that to have their grandchildren strike oil, get rich, and move away. The thought will have parallels to my story.

So some of you may have heard of this man:

This is Jack Welch. He is a business legend who headed GE at a time when it was actually successful. One of the things he became famous for, was the idea that you should purge under-performers from your company’s ranks. This was both a service to the business and to them. They would be happier someplace else that tolerated mediocrity or in a position better suited to them, and the business could replace them with a high performer. Functionally what this meant is that every year you rank your employees and fire the bottom x% of the list.

So my company thought this was a great idea and followed suit. I am not sure they understood all the nuances of the Welch philosophy but they are one of the biggest companies in the world, so what do I know.

The command came down to rank all the employees in my district. But my manager had a problem. We were growing quickly and very busy. Engineers took months to train and more than a year to really make worth something. Operators took time and effort to train as well we couldn’t be short handed. We couldn’t afford to be short-handed. What’s a manager to do?

There were a couple of quickly replaceable employees though. One, Pat, was a 20 year company employee. She had been loyal (and the oilfields are not known for loyalty). She was excellent at her job and well respected. She personally helped me many times and was always helpful beyond the call of duty. Another employee was brand new, probably less than a month or two in. He hard hardly been there long enough to assess his performance at all. Both of them were office administrators (secretaries).

So yes, my boss ranked both of them at the bottom of the list and they were fired before the holidays. I remember running into Pat that night and she was crying. “What had she done?”, she wondered. She had given her life to this company. It wasn’t the highest paying job, but what she did was important and she did it well. She was literally a pawn in someone else’s game. A sacrificial piece to protect the more “valuable” pieces.

It’s like the story I had imagined in my head about the land rush. She came, worked hard, and gave a huge percentage of her life to a company with relatively little reward, just for someone else to get rich off oil.

We had new administrators the next week. The company hadn’t saved any money but it had rid itself of those “under-performers” dragging the district down.

I was disillusioned with the company and the manager. You always expect to get laid off from an oilfield job. The market is too cyclical; layoffs happen all the time. But you also expect your effort to be rewarded. At least to matter. Its worse than the idea that companies don’t care about you. They don’t even care about how good you do your job. Its irrelevant whether you are the best in the world at it. You can be swept up in corporate actions that have nothing to do with you or the quality of your work.

I left less than a year after that. The manager left the company only a couple years later. The incident had made little impact on his life I suspect. He could move on. It was profoundly more impactful on Pat’s life. And on mine. The cruel part to Pat is obvious. The cruel part to me is I didn’t get to maintain the assumption my self or my work mattered to a company. I was just a cog in a giant machine that could do whatever it wanted. I had no control. That fortune 500 company and the one I work for now have greatly benefited my life. Its worked out well for me. But they could crush me at any time and it would have nothing to do with my performance. That’s a cruel notion to live with.

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