Sunday, September 13, 2009

My MS Story Chapter 8 – Unemployment

Free 3D Business Men Marching ConceptImage by lumaxart via Flickr
During the summer of 2003 I had plenty of spare time to think about how things had become so completely screwed up. I had sensed that a layoff was imminent for weeks, and had privately put my odds of survival at 50/50. But when I was handed the envelope with my modest severance package (the bad news was actually printed on white paper, not pink) it nevertheless felt like I had been punched in the gut, sucker punched. I thought I had prepared myself for this possibility, but I hadn’t. There was really no way I could have.

As my situation slowly came into focus over those first few days, I wondered to myself, “Was I really a poor worker; was I simply a victim of circumstances beyond my control; or can I blame it all on MS?”

In my completely unbiased opinion, job performance was not the issue. Heck, I was given a special bonus and was publicly recognized for my contributions only a few months earlier, and I’m quite sure that I made no major missteps after that time. So if it was not performance based, then that left the other two options. It was either circumstances out of my control, or it was the MS.

“OK, I’d like to make a guess now. MS, uh, I mean Miss Scarlet did it…in the library…with a candlestick. Do I win?”

So was there anything to this MS angle? When any company becomes aware of an employee’s MS diagnosis, there are at least three ways that they can proceed:

Option 1: Look for the first opportunity to get rid of this person, without getting sued, because even though he may still be productive today, he is only going to ask for more and more special accommodations over time; he will increase the company’s medical premiums; and his work output is bound to decrease as the disease progresses. Let some other company, maybe a bigger company, shoulder this burden. Or if it becomes bad enough, that’s what Social Security is for. This is a business, with fiduciary responsibilities to its stockholders, not a charity.

When a company follows this course of action there certainly is no written evidence to support the strategy, and there would be few if any explicit conversations along these lines. In cases like this the true motivation is disguised by some plausible explanation that is not, well, illegal.

Option 2: Go the extra mile to keep this person on the payroll, because of genuine compassion or in order to create the perception of compassion (different motivations, same result). After all, it would be heartless to put a person like this out on the streets.

Option 3: Treat the MS employee just like any other employee. Disregard the fact that he has MS, other than providing what is required to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act, and any other applicable laws. If he performs, keep him. If he can’t perform even with reasonable accommodations, then he’ll have to eventually go.

When you have idle hands like I did during the period of my unemployment, your mind begins to wander, and you imagine conspiracy theories and/or worst-case scenarios, Option 1 scenarios. On bad days I recalled my last 18 months on the job something like this (but only to myself):

“I was completely honest with this company. I told them when I was diagnosed, and I shared with them each time my progression limited certain activities. I became creative in order to maintain my productivity. Only three months removed from a performance award, and only two weeks removed from a field assignment that I had difficulty with due to the walking requirements, how was I treated? They took advantage of the opportunity to get me out the door by including me in a broad layoff. The bastards!”

On better days I considered my termination more like an Option 3 situation:

“The only value I could add to this company was as a manager of large projects, but there were no more large projects left to manage. They spent a couple of months trying to find other work for me, so that I’d be available when and if the large projects returned, but nothing materialized. Simple economics demanded that they let me go. The best solution for all parties was for me to secure employment elsewhere- someplace where my skills were in demand. Assuming anything other than sincere motives by the decision makers in my former company is playing the disability card, and is a copout.”

I understand that the design of most modern corporations puts executives and managers in difficult positions, where they are required to make unpopular short term decisions that may or may not be in the company's best long term interest.  In recent years I’ve found myself in the same position as my former bosses more than once, due to downsizing pressures (well, not with any of my employees having recently been diagnosed with something like MS). During these times I always thought back to the trying experience I had in 2003. This rendered me a compassionate executioner, but did that make the experience any more palatable for those I laid off? Probably not.

Blaming MS at least partially for my job loss was disconcerting enough, because I suspected that my MS wasn’t going to get any better down the line, only worse. But next I had to consider how to re-enter the workforce when I was unsure of exactly what my capabilities were, how fast my disease would progress, and precisely what my moral and ethical obligations were as I marketed myself to prospective new employers? That was the more thorny issue.

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