Over 25 years ears ago, when I worked at Xerox, I remember being a part of something that was very special. People who worked for Xerox seemed to work there for a long time and had no plans of leaving, nor did the corporation have any plans of asking them to leave. Perhaps Xerox was an unusual company, but I didn’t know one person who had a resume. Why would they? We weren’t just a corporation; we were a family.
When I say we were a family, I mean we were close. We cared about each other, and if you messed with one “Xeroid” – you messed with us all. Things weren’t always perfect, and like any family, there were pockets of dysfunction. At the end of the day, though, we were still a family. I didn’t just like the company I worked for; I loved the family I belonged to. Yes sir, I bled blue x’s.
It was early December of 1992 when things began to change. Xerox was announcing its first layoffs in decades. I suppose there’s never a good time to take someone’s job away from them, but the company chose to conduct these layoffs two weeks before the holidays. It seemed heartless, and the morale of those who worked for the corporation changed as did mine.
I was spared from these layoffs, but that’s a matter of opinion. As my friends disappeared from the company, I was left behind. My mood along with the mood of the company continued to change. I was angry, and hurt, and I wasn’t the only one. I just could not believe what my Xerox family had done.
Then, one day, everything changed. I was moping around the hallways when my manager spotted me. He asked me if I was okay, and I opened up. “I miss my friends, and I just don’t understand it. I thought we were a family.”
One thing I really liked about this manager is that he never minced his words, and would tell it like it is. He motioned for me to follow him into his office, and with my head down I followed. Once the door was shut he said some important words I didn’t like, but needed to hear. They went something like this:
“I don’t want to upset you, but I need you to know something. This is not a family. This is a corporation. When you work for a corporation, their job is to take as much from you as they can. In return the corporation compensates you. Once they feel they have taken all they can from you, and there is no more, you will be asked to leave. It’s not personal and no one is owed an apology; it’s what corporations do.”
I tried to break in and protest, but he put his hand up. He wasn’t finished.
“Your job it to take as much as you can from the corporation. There are no ethics issues here because while you are learning you are working for that corporation. Once you feel you have taken all the corporation can give, you should consider leaving. It’s not personal and you don’t owe anyone an apology; it’s what people do. The most important thing to remember is this is not a family. It’s a corporation”
I’ll bet that sounds rather heartless, doesn’t it? I’ll bet you’re thinking that Rob must be feeling rather cynical today. The truth is, this manager, John Bowlin, was one of the best managers I ever had the pleasure of working for because he said some things a wide-eyed, hopelessly naïve, young man didn’t want to hear. He spoke the truth.
Knowing the truth doesn’t necessarily make me happy, but it makes it much easier to understand the often difficult actions corporations need to take. Although the emotions of the moment may cloud our better judgment, rarely are these actions malicious. They are the actions of a corporation trying to protect the masses, not the individual, and it is not, I repeat, not personal. This means when you feel you are in a position that no longer allows you to grow in the direction you had aspired to, it’s okay to think of yourself first, and not the corporation. This doesn’t mean act unethically, harm the corporation, or seek revenge. It means take care of yourself, and your family, and do so in a dignified manner.
Upon his retirement, my father was given a gold watch in return for his 35 years of service to the same corporation. I look at that watch now and marvel at it, not because of what the watchmaker put into it, but because of what that watch represents. John Bowlin may have been right, but it doesn’t mean we can’t long for the days when a corporation was a family.