Sunday, October 02, 2005

A Grave Disturbance in the Paycheck

SO ON THURSDAY, AMID my allergy war, I was trying to get out of the office by 5:00 so I could do some tidying up at home before the poker mutants showed up. At ten to five, my supervisor came over and showed me a list of newsletters. She wanted to know the page counts and onpress dates of all work that went out in September. Apparently, our department head got the impression that the workload across the four people in my group could be done by three people. (This is the sort of math that belongs in 1984 or Office Space.) Our boss had a meeting set for Friday morning to resolve this discrepancy with our department heads, so my supervisor needed these numbers ASAP.

Naturally I complied, but I made just a little noise about it, because I was pissed to be asked to do this at the very end of the day, when I had to get my ass home. My boss had no way of knowing I had a social commitment. I never would have used it as a reason to beg off until Friday morning. What really aggravated me — and why I complained to her — was that this sort of information can be culled and printed from our online database. Being Macintosh users in a sea of PCs, however, the software does not work optimally on our systems, so we are unable to exploit it to the fullest. This is tremendously inconvenient for my supervisor, who frequently has to prepare lists like this and must therefore do it manually.

(I imagine that firms where the Mac platform is dominant — graphic design shops, ad agencies, animation studios, and the like — either have Mac-optimized database software, or don't need such setups to begin with. I dream of being in an office where the tech support treats Mac users as equals instead of retarded cousins. I know they exist. Possibly adjacent to the Land of Chocolate.)

At any rate, the task of assembling the data was easier than I had thought — even while I was burning through tissues at a heroic rate — and when it was done I felt bad for getting flustered and apologized. I don't think she even really noticed it. She was more concerned about the potential of being dismissed. The company is paying for her graduate-school education, and a layoff would cripple her progress for lack of funds. To eliminate someone just before an impending fundamental shift in how we produce our newsletters — and also engage in hand-holding with our techno-scared editors — would spell delays across the board. Plus, my boss splits her newsletter-layout time with management tasks. So either to be laid off, or to survive a layoff, would send her gibbering into a corner with overwork.

We have had to circumvent this before. Two years ago, when the company was wallowing in a downturn and several departments had suffered layoffs, our boss deliberately loaded our desks up with extra work, to make us more busy than we were. This was ultimately to our benefit. Our schedules went straight into the shitter, but we had no layoffs, and my performance reviews didn't reflect the fact that I constantly had to pass work along to others who had free time while my 2-day turnaround job hogged my desk. So we all got a free pass on that.

Since then, however, one of the other divisions of the company took several titles out of our hands (including that tight-deadline title of mine). It stablilized our schedules and workflow, but my supervisor tweaked to the danger: With less to do, we might be perceived as having too many bodies. She is now looking prophetic. Near the beginning of the year, we discussed how we might take some design work back from freelancers, mostly book covers, to keep us busy and save money. I even made one of my last performance-review goals the task of assisting with this initiative. So far, this has not occurred. My supervisor is too overwhelmed with the shit our boss has passed along to her, and our boss herself is less accessible to us and thus can't give us key information to deal with emergencies or start new programs like . . . the book-cover design initiative.

It turns out that this whole page-count dilemma started when a trafficker in our department provided an estimate of how many pages we produced per month that was significantly lower than reality. I helped my supervisor add several hundred more pages to the total, which may or may not mollify our department head. She seemed relieved, though, so at least her stress level is going down . . . except for the part of her that's ripshit pissed at the guy who botched the count.

Yet through this entire process, I felt very calm from an employment standpoint. As I mentioned, I am bored with the position. Would being laid off at this moment be so bad? I spent what parts of Friday weren't taken up with the ongoing allergy attack by thinking about what I would do if I was the one axed.

Sure, nobody wants to be fired, even if it's cloaked under then name layoff — it's an involuntary departure that carries a definite stigma. Somebody didn't want you. Why should we? Better to leave on your own terms, either to a new position or out into the wonderful world of retirement. In my case, I decided I would try to determine why I was the one who was to be laid off, if only to find out from the people who made the decision what I could do in another position to prevent this from happening again. Not that I wouldn't keep things civil — I would also need to negotiate any compensation for unused vacation time, COBRA, use of facilities to research a new job, getting references, etc. I would just expect them to be evasive because it's a sensitive topic, and unlike a lot of bosses, they are not without sympathy. Strictly business, as the Mafia likes to say. Not that this would help me pay rent.

So we will find out how this information will be used next week, and whether it takes us back down to Layoff Terror Level Blue. I have designed a new form on which I can centralize all of this information that my boss sought, so when our managers spaz out and ask questions about this next time, we can shut them up faster. What I really need to work out, though, is whether I want to take the lead in determining my own destiny by setting my sights on another job. If part of me truly didn't care about being laid off, isn't that the sort of dissonance that is only going to make me miserable long term?

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