Skip to content

Chronicle of a sinking ship, A company in decline.

The skies are getting darker with each passing day; each new work shift brings its fresh load of despair. Schedules and milestones, used to motivate the troops to surpass themselves through past challenges are now merely markers of time’s slow passage. How did the company find itself in such a pitiful state?

The authors measure the repercussions which a failing company can have on the daily lives of its employees.

Without delving deeply into the causes which might have led to such an event, their analysis will be limited to the human aspect of a company in decline.

It may be that a store chain is bought by foreign investors or it could be due to external circumstances which escape the managers’ previsions. It could also be the simple erosion and exhaustion of a company which was unable to renew itself in response to the evolving market. The truth is that the reasons which lead to failure are most often understood after the fact, as a result of postmortem exercises. The duration of this decline will vary across companies and be dependent of the time frame chosen to conduct the analysis. A company may implode overnight but may also prolong its descent into bankruptcy for years on end. When we shift our focus to how employees react to such situations, however, a much more tangible reality emerges.

One wave, then another…

The first ones to leave will be those “lucky” enough to be fired as a preventive measure. In that case, the workers find themselves without a job, their notice period magically transformed into a check so as to avoid running the risk of further poisoning the work climate usually surrounding an employee knowing that they are condemned.

This first wave will inevitably divide the remaining employees. Some will chalk up these terminations as a simple reality of the business world. In other words: no need to panic, it happens all the time!

Others will read the situation very differently: multiple and questionable terminations will only serve to raise suspicion. Their doubts will rapidly dissipate however if management decides to officially address the situation with an honest approach. Choosing transparency at this junction is one of the best ways to retain the loyalty of employees who remain with the company. Acting in more subtle, slightly indirect ways will instead foster an environment where doubt will reign supreme, triggering a wave of voluntary departures shortly after the initial round of terminations, adding momentum to the company’s descent from success.

Under such circumstances, the ambience in the company can quickly become tainted. Managers tasked with keeping morale high at all costs will start making promises they will not be able to keep and will attempt to calm the situation, in vain.

Once these mechanisms of last resort are employed, the countdown is already well under way, the erosion of the company will continue occurring, wave after wave. A company in such a position, operating with reduced means of production can survive, but for how long?

An experienced crew

The attitude of employees will vary according to the years they’ve spent on the job market.

Among the younger workers, some will believe the management’s rallying cries and will naively defend the righteousness of the truth which they were fed. The younger employees who have faced similar situations before will not wait before sending their CV to a maximum number of employers  and will not hesitate handing in their resignation, even in the middle of a work shift. The reasons for this gall might seem egotistical at first; knowing that the employer lacks the resources necessary to enforce its own policies pertaining to departures, the departee will decide to cut their losses and take their chances. For others, the situation will be interpreted as the result of a lack of respect and diligence from the employer, which in their eyes justifies their sudden abandon of professionalism.

More experienced employees will also divide into two clans. The precariousness of the job market is a reality with which any experienced worker should be extremely familiar with. A calmer and more calculated attitude will be favoured by those who know that future employers will pay attention to how they’ve handled this critical situation. By respecting the established rules and prescribed delays, they will tend to keep their attitude in check despite the reigning chaos and attempt to prepare their exit in a noble way.

Others of a more pessimistic nature will see this failure as a sign of fate, a reflection of a sad coincidence between events which upset their working environment and events from their personal life. From those adopting , some will swallow their pride and deploy every effort to try and bring order back to the company despite their subconscious acknowledgement that the path is already traced. This devotion, without chance of success, will eventually lead to professional exhaustion.

Unfortunately, some of these pessimists will be unable to resist and will unknowingly transform themselves in agents of chaos. They will not hesitate to demonstrate their discontent in every manner possible, making their colleague’s working days even harder. A macabre dance is then initiated, where the employee with a completely demolished morale will adopt a position between insubordination and sabotage, without fully committing to either side. This is the call for help of an individual who feels abandoned by their employer. Knowing that at this stage, the best results one can hope for will be mired in compromise, the human resources services will need to apply great tact and finesse in order to control the explosive situation.

The survivors

One by one, they abandon ship, leaving the employer hard-pressed to replace the deserters. The tasks which were once accomplished by those who left will be either forgotten or re-attributed to other employees, often unable to correctly tackle the additional work. To complicate matters even further, all of those redistributed tasks will exist in addition to the workers’ usual routine.

Thus are created “catch-all” positions which often go beyond the acceptable limits defined by pay equity principles. The once functional positions become bloated with the additional tasks and it becomes a matter of time before the employee’s will completely shatters under the added weight.

The hierarchy which remains will be transformed as well as on one end, some executives will pick up the unassigned responsibilities just to maintain the ship afloat while others will rather choose to hide behind the prestige of their title to effectively become parasites, latching onto the company structure without bringing any solution to the situation.

Conclusion

Despite the challenges which can emerge from such a situation, let us remain clear : in lieu of a maintained and transparent effort from the deciders (with a little help from lady luck), no one emerges as the winner in this story. The overworked employee will sooner or later succumb to the pressure, which usually translates to disastrous consequences in their personal life and their future careers. Managers harbouring the very best intentions will be forced to take position against the principles which they personally believe in. As is the case with all crises, everyone’s character will be put to the test. Some heroes will emerge from this process yet even they could be denied their glory.

Putting aside the fatalism of such scenarios, it is through such experiences that humans learn from their mistakes and acquire a level of maturity required for the next steps of their journey.

As depressing as the situation might appear, there is always something to learn from catastrophic situations. Those who are unable to learn will be condemned to repeat the same mistakes until the lesson is properly understood.