Friday, 3 June 2011

Fear Of Putting A Foot Wrong In A New Job

As noted in my last posting, after 12 months of unemployment I have finally found work.  Whilst that has lifted a great deal of burden off me and lifted the threat of losing my house and never being able to own one again, it has opened up new fears, which in my weariness after joblessness, weigh heavily on me. 

One key fear is that I will not be able to do the job.  Much of the feedback I received from interviews over the past year has been incredibly negative.  One company sent me three pages of criticisms of my performance in the interview and another accused me of having lied on my application form because when they met me they felt I was incompetent and could not have been the man who appied.  When I was a teenager you were told that if you saw a vacancy for which you could match 4 out of 5 of the requirements you should apply for it.  That principle has long gone.  These days not only do you have to match 25 out of 25 of the listed requirements but also show evidence of what you have done.  I think this may be one reason why youth unemployment has reached a level even higher than in the 1980s even though overall unemployment has yet to reach that decade's peak.  Recruitment has become 'mechanised' and so the young without vast experience now do not even get the chance to show their potential because they are filtered out at stage one for not being able to say they have 3 years' experience using every piece of industry software listed on the job specification.  The increase in industry-specific qualifications which I have also noted on this blog, is an additional factor in this too.  By the time I applied for recent jobs, I was stretching every crumb of experience so as to match the specifications.  I was scrupulous in never lying, not even exaggerating, but now fear that I am simply not as confident or as skilled in the wide range of activities my job expects me to undertake as the interviewers believed as a result of my desperation to get interviews.

Other fears stem from coming into a new office and company environment.  I made a huge mistake in going to work for my last employer.  I had not checked what kind of working culture they had and so was really caught out when I found that it was a culture from the 1950s.  The snobbery and social class division at the company was incredible.  I was told that I should not be at the level that I as at, not because I could not do the job (I actually did it far better than my predecessor), but because of my social background.  I was told this blatantly by my line manager.  Bizarre things such as me being unable to say what my favourite recipe cooked on an Aga (a range oven burning wood or coal costing around £6000) was used to show how unsuited I was for the post.  I do not anticipate this in my new job, but it has made me very cautious of 'not fitting in'. 

In two of my last three jobs I have been bullied.  In my last full-time post a manager took a personal dislike to me from the start and taking individual words from emails portrayed me as setting up a 'resistance group' within the company.  She went around eliciting any negative comment or even neutral comment, that she could use to compile a list of complaints against me.  None of the complaints had substance and the word were taken out of context and blown up into some fantasy.  It made me phobic of saying or doing anything, knowing that even good work could be twisted some way to appear as a flaw.  The trade union representative found it incredible that she could do such things.  However, like me he recognised that these days you have little ability to fight back when someone even in a slightly more senior position decides to use the system against you.  Her behaviour cost the company thousands of pounds but they seem to have taken no steps to head off something like that happening again.  Procedures are wonderful for helping run a company smoothly, but too often in the hands of someone with a personal grudge, as I have seen happening too often to colleagues of mine, they can easily be used as a method of bullying.

Two jobs back from that I was bullied for a year by a colleague on the same level as me.  He was incredibly arrogant believing that anything that came out of our office had to have been influenced by his ideas and so should have his name on it rather than mine.  He was terribly impatient and assumed that if he sent an email it would be received instantly and in turn he would expect an instant response.  As anyone who has worked in a large company knows, this does not always happen.  I have had emails arrive between 4 and 14 days after they have beens sent and internal mail has arrived up to 2 months late.  In addition, I had other work to do other than that which involved him, often on behalf of more senior staff or with a greater urgency.  On aspect on which I was employed was my ability to time manage and prioritise, which I did.  Yet, of course, that often meant his work involving me had to wait in a queue, something he could not accept.  He was also critical of me for not being married or having children and so felt it meant I was immoral.  In fact I led a quiet, celibate life free from drugs and alcohol abuse.  This was not enough, the simple fact that I was unmarried implied to him that I must be a reprobate and unsuitable for work alongside him.  Both these bullies were 'nice people' liked by those they were not bullying and in both cases it proved impossible to make more than a handful of people understand how much I was suffering from working with them.  Bullying in 2 out of 3 jobs make me fear it will happen again, to the long-term detriment of my career.

I have certainly learnt not to say anything of my private life; not to have a photograph of my girlfriend or her child on my desk, because I have found these would be things used against me.  At my last job so many characteristics of my girlfriend (being from abroad originally, coming from a 'low' social class [daughter of a police officer], being a single parent, running her own business) were criticised and these criticisms were added to those of me, even though she had never even been within 120 Km of the company site while I was working there.  From now on I am going to keep all mention of my life outside work a complete secret.  Conversely, though, I do worry that I will be charged with being 'distant' or 'cold' because I cannot bring a wife along to work social events.  It seems ironic in an age when you have to complete extensive 'equal opportunities' forms every time you apply for a job, outlining your nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, marital status and any disabilities, to then find that even minor elements of these will, in fact, be used as a basis on which to criticise you.

Another thing I have learnt in the past 2-3 years is not to hold too tightly to the truth.  I think that I feel a real discomfort when lies are spoken partly because of Asperger's tendencies (and going for a proper diagnosis of that, I have now been persuaded, would be best put back if I want to keep my job).  However, as I have noted before, we are in an era of management culture which again smacks of the 1950s, with bosses feeling freer to say 'my way or the highway', to compel workers, no matter what their level to 'put up and shut up' rather than raising concerns about what is planned.  Of course, this is a trend which is prevalent in Chinese companies and government so I guess we should not be surprised to see it so common here in the UK.  In addition, the 'whip of unemployment' is back in full effect just as many employers were crying out for in the mid-2000s.  I am certainly cowed by it and know that in the coming year I am going to have to bite my lip and not speak out even when I see a plan which is bound for disaster.  It is ironic given that I have been employed for my expertise in 17 areas and have reached office manager level, that my views are not only not solicited but even raising concerns risks me losing my job.  You can term this the 'Titanic mentality' but it seems increasingly prevalent in British business and as a consequence projects are going to be driven through without sufficient discussion or reflection, based on the enthusiasm of one or two individuals rather than drawing on the knowledge of a range of staff.

Related to having to remain silent about any potential flaws in proposals is the need to check word-for-word everything that I write or say.  In my last post, emails would be checked literally word-by-word by my line manager and single 'offending' words were used as the basis for complaint. It was not about the overall content or the thrust of an argument, simply about the vocabulary used.

I speak plainly and clearly, but now need to learn how to discuss issues, no matter how controversial they may be, in language as circumspect as that used in the court of the Japanese emperor.  When a single word in a set of minutes or a report can be used to suggest you are trying to undermine the company, you have to check and check again.  Not only that, you have to quickly understand what your managers and colleagues understand by certain phrases, even if that understanding is out of step with the rest of the industry.  In the age of desktops and laptops we are all our own secretaries, but from now on, I am going to get as much written by other staff as possible so at least to put a 'fire gap' between me and the readers of the minutes or reports, knowing that so much will be 'lost in translation' as we battle to know what the readers (not only those who the material is intended for, but anyone who may stumble across it later too) understand by individual words.

Another challenge for me is length of communications.  As I have noted before, there is a demand for everything to be very brief as if Twitter has become the baseline for our communications.  Again I have been criticised for the simple length of what I write, not the content.  I have failed to learn the unstated acceptable length for an email, which of course varies depending on the particular recipient and the subject being discussed on that occasion.  The length dismisses any discussion of the actual content and so makes it pointless for me to even bother communicating.  I have no idea what the acceptable length of communication is in my new job, but you can guarantee that I will be sending lots of single sentence emails filled with abbreviations; with separate emails to cover different aspects of a single case, rather than risking putting them into a single email or report.

My experiences make me feel as if I have become an outsider in the workplace and that, despite all my years of expertise, have missed out on the training on what seems to so many employers to be the 'standard' and only acceptable approach to working in an office.  Ironically it ignores things which on paper should be basics of office work, such as clear communication and avoiding discrimination on any basis.  I am certainly going into the workplace fearful of saying or writing anything wrong.  This has effectively castrated me as an employee, not willing to risk making comments on any proposals, let alone taking any initiative or leading an activity for fear that even minor differences from the 'norm' will be used to attack me.

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