A Post Memorial Day Rerun of My Rant about “Volunteering” in the Workplace

In honor of Memorial Day, I thought I would reprint a post originally published on February 12, 2008. Hope you enjoy!

“Never Volunteer!” Words of Wisdom from a real Veteran

Eddie Thompson came to my office last Thursday about 5PM. Eddie’s a manager in charge of small accounting group that seems to be getting smaller and smaller. He was really frazzled and upset. I believe that Eddie was more upset with himself than anything else. You see Eddie had committed the latest blunder in modern corporate America. He had “volunteered” and would now pay the price. Eddie had allowed the “powers” to get their foot in the crack of the door. Before Eddie even realized what had happened, the door had blown wide open. Eddie’s heart was in the right place. He just wanted to help out a fellow manager whose staff was cut. Eddie got sucked in by the pleas of his boss and now he was stuck. Eddie and his team would have to take on a myriad of additional tasks. Additional resources? None except one – their time. Eddie had to explain to his department that they now had to start coming in on weekends to get everything done. Of course Eddie and his team are conveniently exempt from overtime pay.

I’m seeing it more and more. Jonesy’s a sharp financial analyst. She volunteered to “help out” and just run some preliminary numbers for a new acquisition. The financial analyst who worked for the acquired company had just resigned. They told Jonesy that it was nothing special and just a broad-brush look at the bottom line, “It shouldn’t take that long and it’s just an overview. C’mon Jonesy! We know you’re busy but just this once.” So Jonesy put her other work on hold and ran some prelims. True to form, they didn’t like the results and demanded a “deep dive” into the details. A week later, Jonesy’s still plowing through the data. Of course she’s now being screamed at to deliver all of the other tasks she put on hold. So much for your scheduled week of vacation Jonesy. PS She bought the whole enchilada on this one. Since she’s now the “expert” with the data, all of the future reporting is hers as well. Just think of the savings here! There’s no longer a need to hire a replacement financial analyst for the acquired company.

Hey, I’ve caught myself doing it as well. You know “giving one for the team” and all that. I did it a lot more when I was younger and more idealistic. I still put in over 60 hours a week at the office. Old habits are hard to break. I’ll even help out when necessary but am very cautious now about getting the staff and myself in a jam (as well as keeping others’ feet out of the door jamb). We’re supposed to work to live and not live to work.

Volunteering and helping others in one’s private life is a great thing to do. There are too many altruistic values and motivations for such behavior to mention here. The rewards for such volunteering are personal and spiritual. When it comes to the workplace, however, those same altruistic values and motivations are oftentimes manipulated to prey on the goodness of people in order to obtain some other desired “outcome” for the corporation. I’ve written gobs about the psychological gimmicks, threats and guilt trips thrown at employees who come to work really wanting to do a good job. It’s always in that ever-changing definition of what constitutes a “good job” where the manipulation comes in to play. Aiding a fellow employee through a hard task or helping out a department in a pinch is also a great thing to do but it is NOT the same as adding hours to a workweek, foregoing vacation, or working on a holiday or weekend to meet some arbitrary deadline, please a superior or save on cost. There’s no personal or spiritual reward here.

When I was a young man, I remember my Dad giving me some good advice that I, of course, ignored at the time and for many years to come. His two-word admonition came when I had returned from my first ROTC field exercise and proudly began the tale of one my “exploits.” Dad’s words came out both sharp and stern. It was as if something I had said triggered an automatic response. I must have mentioned some magic word because he never even let me finish my story before snapping, “NEVER VOLUNTEER!” That was that. I never got to finish my story.

“Never volunteer!” How strange? Those words coming from a decorated WWII veteran. Dad was an Army platoon sergeant who had spent three years in combat overseas in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany. It was not until many years later and after a lot of research that I realized how never volunteering was one of the main reasons he had survived the war at all. My Dad was very proud of his service. He also had the wisdom of harsh experience.

Now that I’m a lot older, I’ve gained that same type of wisdom myself. There are no medals awarded for valor in the lower levels of corporations and there is no glory. A “Make it Happen” certificate (suitable for framing) won’t compensate you for the loss of valuable time with your family or your health. There are only obscene bonuses and rewards for the corporate generals. Killing yourself for a company gets you only one reward – death.

I remember reading a survey a few years ago. The survey asked if people would be willing to “volunteer” to work an 80 hour workweek with no time off for three straight years if at the end of that period they would be guaranteed that the rest of their working lives would revert to a normal 40 hours per week schedule. If I recall the results of the survey, most respondants answered NO. I believe that these negative replies came from people like me. People who now know that there are no such guarantees and that once one commits to such a regimen, it never stops.

If this rant seems rather jaded, it’s meant to be. You’re visiting with The Corporate Cynic. I know that many young starry-eyed up-and-comers and corporate big shot wannabees will revile at this notion. So be it! You’ll learn.

At the end of my career, I want to be able to say the same thing that my Dad would say when asked about what he did during WWII, “I survived and served proudly.”

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