On Release and Fallow Fields
The Elephant in the Room: The Main Reason You're Still Unemployed

Disposable Worker Syndrome is Killing Us



For the past several months, I've been doing more work than usual with people who have been laid off from their jobs. I've listened to their stories of how the lay-offs occurred--usually in a brutally swift and cruel fashion--and been witness to their pain at having done all the right things, only to be told their services are no longer needed. It's heart-breaking, really, to see how they try to recover from this assault, accepting their disposability as inevitable in some ways. 

I contrast this with the marketing messages we receive from companies and other organizations about the need to re-use and recycle. Inherent in this is the idea that we can be more responsible stewards of the earth's resources, finding ways to renew and re-use things, rather than throwing them away. 

While this spirit seems to be alive and well when it comes to material goods, I don't see the same spirit animating our approach to people. But in my mind, "renewable and sustainable" isn't just about re-filling water bottles or recycling paper. I think it starts with seeing people as renewable resources, rather than as objects we use up and then throw away. 

I cannot tell you the damage this is doing to workers, this idea that you are only as good as the last thing you did for the company. I see people who have poured their hearts and souls into doing what they were asked to do, into "doing the right thing," only to be told that this wasn't enough. And we remove them from our institutions just as efficiently as we take out the trash, with little regard for the fact that these are human beings, many of whom have tied up much of their sense of self-worth in the work we are now telling them we no longer need them to do. 

In the past, through this blog, I've focused on how we as individuals need to keep renewing and recycling ourselves through a process of lifelong learning and adapting to change. I still believe this is true. But I also believe that, through our institutions, we are doing great spiritual and emotional damage to ourselves by consistently communicating to people that they are disposable and that they are on their own in the process of recycling and renewing.  

To torture my metaphor, we are treating people like garbage--throwing them into landfills and just letting them waste away there. We are doing nothing to provide them with the structures and resources and emotional supports that would help them go through that renewal process. 

I've come to realize that part of the reason for my absence here has been that I'm grappling with what it means for me to support people in their careers when they are operating in an environment that so regularly communicates with them about their disposability. Yes, I can talk about positive professional development, but for most people, this is used to develop their capacities in service to organizations and institutions that are essentially sucking them dry. Once they've been used up, they are cast aside.

Somehow it feels almost immoral to me to advise people on how to play the game when the game is so clearly rigged against them. 

I understand all the reasons for companies shedding jobs, including globalization and the impact that technology is having on work. But that doesn't excuse us from treating people decently. In fact, I would argue that it REQUIRES us to come up with better, more humane ways to treat people who are caught up in the winds of these changes.

I'm only beginning to grapple with where all of this leads me. I'm not sure that there are easy answers. But I do know that it is only in the calling out of what's really going on that we can start to find better ways to handle the changes we are dealing with.

For now, many of us can pretend like it won't happen to us, so it's easy for us to hide our heads in the sand. But I promise you, every person I've spoken with who's been laid off (many of them repeatedly) thought the same way you did. Like unplanned pregnancies or car accidents, a layoff is something that is going to happen to someone else. But increasingly, my friend, that is not true.

We owe it to ourselves and to each other to begin talking about what we need to do to bring humanity back into these transitions, to find ways to support all of us in being able to manage the renewal process. We can't treat people as disposable, as garbage for someone else to take care of. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to others to find better ways to help each other through these upheavals. 


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There’s a short conversation in the movie, “You’ve Got Mail” that is appropriate here (bear with me). Behind the quirky romance, the movie is about the big box super bookstore driving the neighborhood bookstore out of business. At one point the big box manager (he) and the small bookstore owner (she) are having a heated discussion about the situation and he says to her (as many people in this situation do), “it’s not personal, it’s just business.” She finally snaps back “What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All it means is it's not personal to you, but it's personal to me, it's personal to a lot of people.” She then continues, “What's wrong with personal anyway? I mean, whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.” It ought to begin by being personal.

That’s what we have lost, I think: the idea that it might be possible to run successful businesses with an equal (or greater!?) weight given over to the personal. We have instead made it okay that business decisions be made without consideration for who is impacted and how. I worry a lot about this from the perspective of HRD professionals – we’re in the people advocacy business in a lot of ways, but we have been urged to take on a business mindset and to hold performance as the ultimate end game. I worry that this approach places people advocacy in the back seat. If we question the human impact or try to steer decisions down a path that is more people-friendly, we are too often dismissed as being idealistic or out of touch with the realities of the business world. It’s hard to advocate for putting people first when our own positions and job security is at risk if we do.

I fear that change will only be possible when organizational leaders truly hold themselves accountable for a triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) – at the moment, it would seem that profit is first, planet is trendy, and people are still expendable and interchangeable.

So, so true, Catherine and I love the reference to that scene in You've Got Mail. It completely captures what we're talking about here and what is really bothering me about all of this.

To the extent that I see anything that's related to bringing the personal into work, it's as a marketing ploy. We need to be "authentic" and "bring the whole person to work" so we can make more money. And, as you point out, anything that isn't focused on the bottom line is seen as idealistic or being "out of touch."

As always, you give me further food for thought!

This is yet another way to clearly see that corporations are not people. And if they are, they are too often heartless, calculating, money-grubbing, inhumane people.

Somehow it's become ok for corporations to exhibit behaviors that we would detest in our fellow human beings, yet hide behind the it's only business veil as if that makes it all right. It's not.

Thanks for the article.

Eric--Agreed 100% that corporations are not people. What I find particularly disturbing though is that they are made up of people and it's not a company that's behaving without humanity. It's PEOPLE who are making that choice. We have to stop giving the "it's only business" thing a pass. It's not just business. It's people. Plain and simple.

Here's an antidote to disposablity. Not being allowed to fire people would also make you more inclined to help them find roles which take advantage of their gifts. A mutual responsibility rather than on the employee only. Just a thought.

Wow, Catherine--this is pretty amazing! I love the idea of hiring as a sort of "adoption," with all the responsibilities to each other that that means. This is the kind of pledge I wish more companies would take on. Thanks for sharing this!

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