Disturbing Defeatism

Let me acknowledge at the outset that I have never been laid off, so I don't pretend to be able to genuinely identify with the pain of that experience. That said, in last week's issue, Thomas Hoffman's feature "Discarded and Demoralized" -- and the reader feedback it generated -- struck a chord with me. And it's still reverberating.

What struck me more than anything is the defeatist attitude the experience of being laid off all too often seems to spawn, and the work ethic that attitude tends to yield. In his story, Hoffman recounts the tales of several IT workers who have been laid off, including one who said it changed her professional outlook. "I don't try as hard as I used to," she said. "I used to work 60-to-70-hour weeks and then do work on top of that. Now, I'll do my 50 and not make myself sick."

While it's obvious that no one should work at the expense of her health, that "I don't try as hard as I used to" comment still really jumped out at me. And I was subsequently blown away by the extent to which that attitude was reflected in the reader feedback we've received from this story (www.computerworld.com/blogs/careerforum).

"Now I keep my distance from the job and avoid putting my soul into it," noted one reader, who said he had a "near-layoff experience" a couple of years ago but found another position in the same company. "I work with people who'd seen what I (and others who've been laid off) went through [and who] also keep their distance from the job and no longer put [in] 100% effort."

"I won't make the same mistake again by being dedicated," another reader echoed. "It isn't worth it."

A reader who said he's "been laid off a few times" proclaimed that he's now loyal only to himself and those who need him. "I am more mercenary and don't readily associate [with] workmates," he said. Another said he could identify with the "isolationist survival attitude in IT professionals." And from another: "I just need to look out for myself and work until I reach retirement age."

I can't help but contrast this self-pitying, defeatist attitude with some of the feedback we received from other readers who responded far differently to having been laid off. One said the experience taught her to be self-reliant. "These past couple of years I've been learning how to fish so that I can eat for a lifetime," she said. "I have several businesses on the Internet now." Another was similarly motivated. Being laid off twice in less than a year, he said, made him "work that much harder to avoid being a casualty again."

And contrast the "mercenary" comments with those from this reader: "When I was let go, I told the layoff team to do whatever it took to make sure they kept the remaining people," he said, praising the "true team atmosphere" of his department. "The head of HR was so impressed by my concern for my fellow employees that she called the other heads of HR she knew in other companies in the area and lined up eight job interviews for me within the next week. I say this to remind everyone to always remain positive even in the face of what may seem like insurmountable obstacles, because it will benefit you in the end."

No, I don't know what it's like to be laid off. But I do know that if I was hiring for my IT department, I'd go with somebody in the second group every time.

Don Tennant is editor in chief of Computerworld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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