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March 10, 2009

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I'm eyeing Joan's keyboard with a growing appetite, wondering if I should take it or not.

But I fear it may be cursed. Her desk has been undisturbed since the day she was escorted out of the building two months ago. Everything is just as it was, like she's just stepped away for a moment.

Joan sat three desks away from me in our open-floor-plan office. Her keyboard is ergonomic, and I've been interested in trying one for about a year now. I don't have a typing or repetitive-stress injury problem, but I've worn out the left elbow of seven Brooks Brothers noniron shirts because of how I position my arm on my desk as I type. I'll be at work and notice that, all of a sudden, the elbow has exploded, the fabric shredded. I can't afford this much longer. I'm thinking that perhaps an ergonomic keyboard will help.

Possibly out of some kind of respect for Joan, I didn't think of taking her keyboard until yesterday. Now, suddenly, I'm obsessed by this thought. It dares me to take Joan's keyboard. Yet I don't, just like I don't touch her desk. No one does because of the memory of that day and the bad spirits that linger there.

But that was just the appetizer. Joan's dismissal on a Friday (an awful day to fire employees; they have all weekend to be depressed) was followed by more bloodshed the following Monday, when four additional managers were terminated. The downsizing is ostensibly because of a financial crisis: A considerable shortfall for the current fiscal year was just discovered. No one -- including the chief executive officer -- is sure if the crisis has been fixed with these layoffs, so a sense of unease persists.

On the days immediately following the layoffs, you could see the relief among those whose jobs were spared. Small groups huddled to speculate about the future and to lament the passing of the departed. Everyone was a little bit kinder and more respectful. We were, after all, "in this together."

Listening to the Smokers

About a week after Bloody Monday, I stepped outside the front door of our office building one afternoon to watch the lightning during a spring thunderstorm. I found myself standing near the only sanctioned smoking area, and listened to the small crowd huddled around the ashtray as they talked about the recent events.

"Did you see the look on his face?" one guy asked. "There's no way he saw it coming." He paused for a second. No one spoke. "Hmmm," he grunted. And then, a slight smile crossed his face. I knew the feeling. He felt slightly superior because he'd been spared; he was too valuable to cut. The relief and pity many had initially felt had now morphed into a kind of nasty pleasure. I felt it, too.

A few more weeks passed. As work was redistributed to make up for the loss in labor, the charity and camaraderie of the first weeks were supplanted by resentment. Many in the rank and file seemed to feel increasingly demoralized. I decided to check the pulse: What were the smokers saying?

"He was a good man. They never gave him a chance. But, you know? F--- it. I'm just here, doing my job." "Hey," another chimed, "it's a paycheck."

Who's Better Off Now?

The fleeting pleasure was now replaced with resentment, as The Chosen People started to feel like The Ones Left Behind. With more work to do, increasing unease setting in and an uncertain future, many remaining employees started wondering if they got a worse deal.

At about this same time, as if to rub salt into the wounds, e-mails began to circulate reporting the good fortune of the dear departed.

-- "Melissa wants everyone to know that she lost 20 pounds and is now running her own successful business out of her home. There is life after this place!"

-- "Bob says he's making three times more at his great new job than he ever made here."

-- "I just learned that Mike is now [insert your dream job here]."

Some of my trusted inner circle approached me about starting a business. Consulting! We were excited for two minutes until we realized that no one needs more consultants. These messages of a better life had people so stirred up that you could almost hear them working on their resumes. Every time a member of my staff approaches me, I'm sure they're going to give me their notice.

Assessing My Next Move

So what had begun as gratitude is now full-blown resentment and envy. While I've watched this transformation, I've wondered what my move should be. I'm disenchanted by some poor management decisions and what seems like an unwillingness to change in response to shifting market conditions, which is what caused the budget shortfall. The sagging morale is bringing me down. Usually, I'm able to boost my own spirits and those of the people around me, but I'm feeling tired. While a lot of what I hear seems like whining, people I respect are wondering if it's time to leave. On the other hand, I'm making steady progress toward my personal and business goals. I'm not ready to move on, because I'm not done here yet. How do I assess this situation?

For comparison, I look back at some of the worst jobs I've ever held. When I was in college, I spent a summer working in a rundown building that had been a penicillin factory during World War II. I made printing ink by pouring carcinogenic solvents from 50-gallon drums and mixing it with pigment I hefted in 100-pound bags, while my 18-year-old boss sat around reading Soldier of Fortune magazine and talking about guns. What I do now is better than that. But is that sufficient reason for me to stay?

I also try to put these recent events into the context of the company's 40-year history. I'm a relative newcomer, so I piece together details from conversations with old-timers and add these details to what I know from the current corporate culture. As I mentally review the history, I detect a pattern. Much like forest fires in the West, thinning and regrowth seems to recur here every few years here with some regularity. People come and go. Sometimes, the greatest agents of change at this company have whipped everyone into a fevered pitch and then burst into flame -- they quit in a self-destructive rage, or they've been fired. And then new ideas and people emerge from the ash like seedlings in the forest. Why, it's almost organic, I tell myself.

Seedlings are already sprouting. Some new people with fresh energy and ideas have arrived (like most big organizations, we're always hiring, even amid cutbacks). And contributions of the recently departed have taken root in their absence. A few of my co-workers may soon choose to go out in a blaze of glory. Perhaps they'll tell their boss what a jerk he is, or how screwed up the place is. Others might leave quietly. This place will go on with business as usual.

Part of me wants to leave, but I'm also fascinated with the cycle of life here. Maybe I'll just lose 20 pounds. And try an ergonomic keyboard.

-- Jack Thomas is the pen name of a 40-something C-level executive.

How do you manage to hold it together? Join Jack and other readers on CareerJournal's discussion board.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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