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Insight | TIMES BOARD OF ADVISORS

Cloud of Job Uncertainty Has a Silver Lining

June 08, 1997|JUDY B. ROSENER | JUDY B. ROSENER is a professor in the Graduate School of Management at UC Irvine. She is the author of "America's Competitive Secret: Utilizing Women as a Management Strategy."

As I travel around the country speaking at various corporations, associations and universities, I learn a great deal about managerial issues. While they differ depending on the size, age or nature of an organization or profession, there are some concerns that virtually all organizations share.

One of the most pervasive issues I have heard discussed by employers and employees is the uncertainty that characterizes the workplace and how this has affected attitudes and behavior associated with personnel decisions and career planning.

Granted, there has always been uncertainty in the workplace. No organization has been spared unanticipated events that mandate firings, layoffs and job changes. However, what makes today different is that uncertainty is no longer a sometime thing.

Today, it's a fact of life. Because of changes in technology, international competitiveness and work-life concerns, employers no longer can guarantee employees the jobs they desire, and employees no longer can guarantee employers the loyalty they would like.

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It's conventional wisdom that the loosening of the bonds of loyalty between employer and employee is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. I'm not sure this is the case. My conversations with men and women who feel less loyal to employers as a result of having been laid off or fired because of mergers, buyouts and downsizing suggest otherwise.

For example, I met a young engineer who, feeling he was laid off for reasons other than lack of competence, sued his employer, claiming wrongful termination.

During the course of working with attorneys in developing his case, he got so interested in the law, he decided to change professions and become a lawyer. He said that losing his job led him to a new career that suits him better, and that he feels no required loyalty to his employer or profession.

Similarly, a highly trained young woman who spent six years working in a software-development firm was laid off when her company was purchased. The parent firm had eliminated a product line and all the employees associated with it, including her. Initially, she was shocked because her performance evaluations had been exemplary, and she had assumed she would have a long career with the firm even though it was purchased.

However, being laid off, she said, gave her time to think about what she wanted out of life. It made her realize that the software-development field was a pressure cooker and that what she really wanted to do was be a schoolteacher. It would mean less income for sure, she acknowledged, but more free time and a feeling of social worth.

"If I had not been laid off, I would probably have continued working long hours, being loyal to my firm and expecting somehow that the pressure would someday cease. I would never have considered doing what I really want to do." Like the engineer-turned-attorney, she took a career risk, but she feels that uncertainty is turning out to be a friend.

One of the clear manifestations of workplace uncertainty is the way in which people today who are looking for work prepare their resumes. They tend to focus on technical and interpersonal skills and general abilities, rather than places worked and length of employment. In other words, they point to attributes that convey adaptability and a variety of expertise and experience, rather than the more traditional straight-line career moves. Subliminally, they showcase preparedness for uncertainty and change.

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Uncertainty has turned out to be a plus for employers as well because it forces a close look at the use of human resources and ways of utilizing their talents more effectively. This often requires hiring new kinds of employees and firing longtime ones. Historically, loyalty was a major consideration in layoffs and firings, thus the loosening of loyalty bonds frees employers somewhat when they must make painful personnel decisions. It provides an easy way to justify an escape hatch when trapped in the loyalty box.

Uncertainty is here to stay, though this is not to imply that attempts to limit uncertainty should be avoided, or that employer-employee loyalty should not be encouraged and rewarded. They should be. However, it is important to note that uncertainty and the loosening of employer-employee bonds are not necessarily injurious. In fact, they may be a blessing in disguise. Why? Because they appear to generate the kind of behaviors needed in today's workplace--adaptability, flexibility, risk taking and comfort with change.

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Rosener may be reached by e-mail at jbrosene@uci.edu

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