How much do I permit other people to control the quality of my experience? If I don’t have a lot of pull or push power at work, then chances are I feel controlled and talked down to and taken advantage of. The nature of work is that we work. So there will always be times of give more than take, but when is too much too much? And what is riding on the stand you are about to take – to ask for fair wages, time off, better benefits, a moment of down time? A weekend away from your smart device?
I worked in a mail sorting facility early on after college. It was a depressing place to work. Dim bulbs illuminated cardboard cut out stations. We stood on concrete and were monitored by the co-owners roaming the catwalk-like structure above us. We had quota, and they had to be assured that we were sorting with enough speed and accuracy. A co-worker who had been injured in a shooting, struggled to use both of her arms, keeping her from hitting that magic number. Another next to me, a full-time worker (I worked part-time), talked about his depression, his legs and feet ached, but there were bills to pay and children to feed.
It was early on in my community organizing career. But, I took up the cause right away. And soon after the full time workers aptly called me on it – You have nothing to lose. We can’t speak out. Keep us out of your cause. But, I caused anyway. I got union literature, I talked to people during breaks. Always the flair for drama, I pictured myself as Norma Rae walking up and down the aisles chanting union. Union.
Little did I know that the ill-conceived theatrics were being noticed. Unprepared for the important part of the game – and it is a game after all for those who hold the chips – they were watching. One evening I was called into the office and a manager pointed to a phone, the receiver dangling. On the other end was an owner – What are you demands? I was stunned. I had no idea what my demands were. I never thought it would work. Remembering it now reminds me of the Ask Her More Campaign for women actors on the red carpet. Don’t just ask her about her dress, ask her more. Unfortunately, the campaign initially hit a slight snafu when they actually didn’t have an answer for the “more” kind of questions. Not because they were or are incapable, but because they were unprepared, it would seem.
I stammered – I’m not sure. This was meant with deafening silence. I caved. He disconnected. I thought, did it happen? Did just the thought of a union cause this? I returned to my station and reported to co-workers what had transpired. The one depressed co-worker thanked me and took the union literature and vowed to carry on.
If you are someone who sees injustice and wants to speak out, have a plan. Have a good plan, and back it up with smart people who know the law. Be prepared for the playbook of doom that they will throw down on you. Practice by picturing your work family as your actual family. A very, very dysfunctional family. And then as if removed by magic, their ploys will be revealed to you – guilt, shame, anger, blame, diversion. No matter what they throw at you, you won’t fall for it. You’ll be tempted, but you won’t.
Remember – you are prepared. You have facts. They don’t like that. It’s not personal. It’s never really personal – even deeply entrenched isms are not personal. Of course they feel that way, and of course it does impact your life personally. But, if you can stay clear of that belief – if you can hold true to the bigger picture, you might just succeed.
A favorite of the ploys is the “what can we do to make it easier for you” approach. Stay frosty – It’s not just about me. It’s your policy. They respond – The others don’t seem to mind. You retort – I wouldn’t know.. Repeat. Broken record. Get support. Know your rights. I was once at YWCA and they thought it was cool to send random men in to do maintenance with a brief tap (there was no door – just an open space blocked with a brick wall like structure) before entering. I brought it to the staff’s attention They sent a woman manager to talk with me. What time do you work out? We will make sure not to send anyone in during that time.” I didn’t budge – This is a policy issue. Work should be done (with the exception of emergencies) when no one is working out. Period. That’s the end of that sentence and discussion. Eventually they changed the policy. Eventually. Not before maintenance men would enter while I was changing, showering, etc. I didn’t cave. They did. They will always try to make it about you. And if you have any sense of others and not wanting to be a burden, you will cave. Quickly. Don’t. Resist the urge to cave.
It may take days, even years, and you have to decide how much you have in you. But, eventually you will prevail. It may not be in the cards to fight every fight. Pick and choose your battles. Remember – Whoever speaks first, loses. You are a winner. You are already a winner, because you have realized that it isn’t o.k. to be mistreated. It’s not o.k. There are exceptions, there are concessions, but then there is abuse. Search you, your environment and learn the difference. They will not do it for you. Again, not personal. They will not commend you, or throw you a parade or give you employee of the month. That’s o.k. You will thank you for it. And that will be enough. The sadness, the longing for something more, the pit in your stomach, the raging migraine, all will dissipate when you tell yourself this – I am worth it. I am worth the change. My ask is enough. My ask is legitimate. If they don’t like it. They can just kiss it. You heard me, tell them to kiss your ask.