Dilbert is one of the most popular comic strips in the country, and I suspect that is not an accident.
Like most good comedy, Dilbert is funny because it is built on uncomfortable truths. It illustrates the soul-sucking nature of the modern workplace in hilarious ways.
And Dilbert expertly skewers the people who are primarily responsible for the soul-sucking nature of work--managers.
From the day I graduated from the University of Missouri in May 1978 till the day I was "terminated" at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), I was consistently employed. That's exactly 30 years of work, without much of a break until I was forced to take a break over the past nine months or so.
Has this experience afforded me any deep insights? Well, I don't know how deep it is, but I've decided that there is nothing inherently soul-sucking about work. In fact, it's an honorable pursuit, and with a blog to write, a legal case to prepare, and a job hunt to conduct, I've been just as busy as I was when I worked at UAB.
Also, I think the vast majority of people in the workplace are gem-dandy folks. One of the worst parts of losing my job is that I miss many of my coworkers at UAB--particularly the people who actually do work. I call them "worker bees." That's opposed to "queen bees," who mostly run things--or should I say, run things into the ground.
Do I miss managers and people connected to management? Not on your life. And I ask myself, "Why is that? What happens to people when they go to the dark side of management?"
These thoughts came to the forefront a while back when I wrote about the possibility that at least seven people at UAB have violated Alabama ethics laws, particularly Code of Alabama 36-25-24(c), regarding my termination.
At the risk of sounding like I can read minds, I'm going to guess that all seven of these people know that I was wrongfully terminated. And I'm guessing that at least three or four of them know exactly why I was cheated out of my job--and who is behind it. (Word about that kind of thing tends to travel, which probably is why UAB does not want me to return to my old job. I imagine a number of "worker bees" have a pretty good idea what went down, and they don't want those folks dropping specifics to me.)
Five of the seven people on my "dishonor roll" are what I would call workplace acquaintances. I've gotten along fine with all of them, but there has been no personal connection there. And I don't know that helping to cheat me out of my job would cause them any particular qualms.
But I know two of the people pretty darned well. They know both me and my wife. They know about our lives, and I've shared quite a bit of personal information with them--and they've shared quite a bit with me.
So I wonder: How do these people sleep at night?
The first such person is Janice Ward, our departmental personnel officer and HR representative. Before April 2008, I would have described Janice Ward as one of my all-time favorite coworkers. Janice is an African-American from Birmingham who, in many ways, represents the best of UAB. She has two degrees from the university and teaches part-time there. She serves on a number of university boards, and I've interviewed her several times for stories in our various alumni publications.
Her son, Torrey Ward, played basketball for UAB and now is an assistant coach at the University of Mississippi. In fact, here is a cover story I wrote for UAB Magazine featuring Torrey Ward.
Knowing Janice Ward has taught me at least one important lesson. I used to hold the view that single parenthood was generally a bad thing, that kids were almost always better off with two parents. Well, Janice Ward raised her son as a single mom, and from everything I can see, she did a pretty darn good job. Meanwhile, in my neighborhood, I see numerous two-parent households where the parents do an utterly crappy job. Thanks to Janice, I've decided a child is probably better off with one really good parent than with two sorry ones.
Janice and I share common political views, and a love for UAB athletics, so we spent a lot of time in her office discussing those important subjects. And how's this for irony? If I was going to be disciplined for non work-related activity, it should have been for talking to Janice Ward. I spent far more time doing that than I ever did reading articles about Don Siegelman.
But on April 15 of this year, Janice was at a meeting in which my supervisor, Pam Powell, wrongly accused me of violating university and departmental policy regarding vacation requests and timekeeping. When I stood up for myself, and the truth, Pam proceeded to concoct a letter alleging that I had acted in a "hostile" and "threatening" manner in the meeting. The letter was copied to Janice, and she indicated that she agreed with the descriptions in the letter.
When a grievance hearing was held some two months later, after I had been terminated, committee members grilled Janice about what transpired in the meeting. Richard Pilgreen, the lone male on the committee, particularly pushed Janice for answers. And what did she say under questioning? She backtracked in a major way, saying she was "uncomfortable" in the meeting. And she didn't even say that I had caused her to be uncomfortable.
So why did Janice Ward earlier agree with the contents of a letter that she knew were not true? I don't have the answer, but it does make me wonder what happens to people when they come under the "management" banner.
The other person I've been close to is Pam Powell. I've known her pretty much the entire 19 years I worked at UAB. I worked directly for her the last 12 years I was there. And before that, when we were in different departments, she sought me out to do free-lance work for UAB Magazine, which I did--for free.
Pam has always operated in her own peculiar orbit, but I've generally considered her to be a good boss and I've never received anything but positive performance reviews from her. I've learned a lot from her, and I think I've more than returned the favor by being a dependable, loyal, and effective employee.
I regret having done this now, but I told Pam quite a bit over the years about my life outside of work. She knew about the legal challenges my wife and I had faced. She knew my wife had applied for a job at UAB a few years back, and my wife appeared to be the front runner until, mysteriously, someone else was hired--after Pam found out about my wife's interest. I've often wondered if Pam took steps to make sure my wife wasn't hired. Perhaps we will follow that line of inquiry during the lawsuit that will be coming against her and other folks acting in their individual capacities under the banner of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees.
Pam even knew about my blog, shortly after I started it. That's because I told her about it. Does it make sense that I would tell my boss about my blog if I was going to turn around and misuse university equipment to write it?
On an even more personal note, Pam Powell knew that my father had died in late March of 2008. And yet, roughly three weeks after my father's death, Pam wrote a bogus warning letter that I now know was intended to lead to my termination. And in the grievance hearing, I don't recall her saying a single positive thing about me, even though I had 12 years worth of positive performance reviews under her direction.
Interestingly, Pam was repeatedly asked to provided documentation to support her claims that I should have been fired. She repeatedly replied that she had no such documentation. The grievance hearing was tape recorded, and those tapes should be available--if someone from UAB hasn't managed to "lose" them.
And here's the kicker about Pam: She is in her early 60s and has roughly 30 years in at UAB. (Employees with 25 years or more can retire with full benefits.) Her husband owns an engineering firm, and evidently makes pretty good money.
In other words, she doesn't "need" her job. I know Pam values her job, and I'm not suggesting she should retire until she decides she is good and ready. But if I were in her shoes and someone from above told me to wrongfully can one of my employees, I hope I would have the integrity to say, "No, I won't do it."
I like to think that's what I would say, even if I badly needed my job. I can't imagine intentionally participating in a scheme to cheat one of my coworkers out of his or her job.
But Pam Powell evidently went along with it. And I guess she sleeps just fine at night.
Again, what happens to people when they become managers? Are they sent somewhere for their souls to be snatched?
I was at a retirement party for a friend a few months ago, and he noted that he had worked 40-plus years for his organization, basically at the same level. "A lot of people took demotions over the years and went into management," he said. People laughed, and he meant it as a joke.
But I'm starting to think he had a serious point. I wonder if people lose a part of themselves when they become managers. And I wonder if they even realize what they've lost.
As I write this, I'm reminded of my former UAB coworkers. And just to pick three names from the 12 or so people in our group, let's think of Grant Martin, Cindy Cardwell, and Stanley Holditch.
Grant, Cindy, and Stanley are good people and good workers. I consider it an honor to have worked with them (and everyone else in our group, for that matter). I consider Grant, Cindy, and Stanley to be friends, and I know a fair amount about them. I know what they think about a lot of subjects, including politics, religion, and culture. I know the music and movies and television shows they tend to like--and the movies and music and television shows they tend to avoid. For all three, I know some of the people closest to them--and what those people mean to them. I know that two of them have lost loved ones under very difficult circumstances over the past two years.
But here's what's on my mind: What if I were in a position of authority, and someone came to me and said, "Roger, I want you to start the process that will result in Grant, Cindy, or Stanley being fired. I can't tell you exactly why you have to do this, but someone in the university hierarchy is unhappy with them, and one of them has to go. And you'll have to keep firing until you get the right one."
I've got a mortgage, a wife, two kitty kats, and no trust fund. Heck, I don't even have a savings account or a credit card at the moment. If I were in that position, and my job were at stake, it would be an awfully big deal for our little "family unit."
But I don't think I could possibly fire Grant, Cindy, or Stanley, knowing they didn't deserve it.
In fact, if I ever get to the point in life where I would even seriously consider caving in to such a demand, I hope someone takes me to the glue factory and puts me out of my misery.
I can't say that I'm a perfectly self-actualized person, but I think that's how my mind works. As for Pam Powell and Janice Ward--and the other people at UAB who intentionally cheated me out of my job--I no longer have any idea how their minds work.
And I don't think I want to know.