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Saturday, May 24, 2014

My Perspective on Brain Drain

By Andy

It has been a year since I left my last job. It wasn't an easy decision since I had been with the company for 12 years, and to put an end to the chapter was a shock to the individual and collective conscience. However, this decision was a necessary one because of a downward spiral in a department and company that had so much potential yet to be met. On the surface, I hated my job, but in reality I ended up hating the majority of my co-workers and management who "chased me off" with their hostility, poor conduct and perpetual bad decisions. The resulting negative atmosphere and defeatist mentality caused me and other top performers to leave and take our talents elsewhere; this mass exodus more popularly known as brain drain.

Basically, brain drain is what happens when the best and brightest leave a department, company, city, town or country for improved pay, living or working conditions. They become disenchanted with the leadership, or lack thereof, economies and limited opportunities of where they live and work, and move on to greener pastures. The result is "leftovers" and a lack of a qualified workforce that remain. At best, in this scenario there is still top talent left, but their days are numbered, and those numbers are already dwindling as they cannot tolerate an atmosphere of deteriorating morale and decreasing productivity. They are unable to function in a hodge-podge unit, they do not want to be surrounded by rotten people and idiots.

Up until last year, I had been on the receiving end of brain drain. I had always wondered why people with whom I cherished working, left their jobs at the company. I had good working relationships with them and even had good developing friendships with them outside of work. Over time I realized that a common theme had emerged with each departing employee: disagreements with management, bad leadership and co-workers that drove them to the brink of going postal. If there were more people like that and they left all at once, I would have noticed the problem a lot sooner, and probably would have left town a lot sooner, too. 

But, when it was one person quitting every few months and things seemed on the up and up, it was easy to just brush off such an incident. Also, when things look like they are on the up and up, things get closer to reaching their potential and I myself think that my hard work and consistency are paying off towards supposed progress. There exists the illusion that there is room to grow. There was tremendous potential yet to be met, but because of the wrong people leaving, an ultra-conservative mentality and stubbornness impeding progress, it would not be met anytime soon. It was time for a change, and in this case, the only way to make that change happen, was for me to leave.

I have since moved forward in my life, but I still occasionally wonder why management didn't make any effort to retain me, upon me giving my notice. The company and region in which it was located had been suffering from brain drain for many, many years. They damn well knew I was going to be very difficult to replace, and they openly admitted that fact. They knew there was a plethora of problems in the company that required the work of myself and other all-stars. But, considering their history of bad hires and their hiding behind a "limited recruiting budget", they just wanted to fill the position as quickly as possible; they perceived me as expendable. 

What did I get for my 12 years of service to the company? A coffee mug with the company's logo on it. That was how "appreciated" I was there. Why didn't they value my work? My guess is they were either too proud and condescending to admit their faults or were just plain stupid to see what they were letting slip away. 

Despite the trending in disastrous hires, bad management and declining morale, I consistently bent over backwards, jumped through hoops, went above and beyond, and even made my blood pressure skyrocket to improve the situation with bad apples and problems plaguing the company. I didn't go out without a fight, that is not my style. My efforts to re-train struggling employees, address problems head-on, sit on committees and make things better, were for naught as there was no desire for change or improvement. When there was a rare job posting, I even applied for a lateral move within the department just to get away from my despised subgroup and work area. I didn't get the job and the only reason I didn't get it was because my subgroup and work area were struggling so much and I was the only one doing any work around there, my departure would have caused that structure to collapse.

To continue to be surrounded by people that only brought out the worst in me and never had anything good to say about me, regardless of what I did, wasn't fair to me, and I was angry beyond belief. Because the wind had been taken out of my sails, I knew that this was the nail in the coffin and it was time to leave. The only problem was that I still had half a year left on my apartment lease, so I couldn't quit just yet. The good news was that I had a lot of time to search for another job, and prepare for my last day and the big moving day. The bad news was that the next six months were going to be the worst of my life, and they were.

I don't even want to think about how I survived those last months. When that last day finally came, I was filled with relief, not happiness. One day longer and I would have lost my mind. I breathed a big sigh of relief to have survived a toxic atmosphere and to have left without incident. I was the second of five employees that quit in five months, each of us A+ players.

Since that day, per the very few friends from there whom I still keep in touch with, things have gotten worse.  It was later revealed to me that during my vacation right before my last week on the job, otherwise known as a Fuck-You Trip, management had asked my few friends if they knew anything in advance about my notice. All they said was that I had asked them for references upon learning I didn't get the job for the lateral move within the department, and that I told them I would be looking for another job. Then they vehemently asked why the best and brightest kept leaving, and why the worst, the ones who should have been given the boot a long time ago, were still employed. Nobody could answer that question.

Brain drain is usually attributed to a desire for better pay. If the company cannot or will not pay "all-stars" what they are worth, it's adios. But the thing that I think really gets overlooked in the brain brain dilemma is common sense, maturity, professionalism and most of all, respect. Whether it's corporate or small business, one wants to be around people that they enjoy working with, that lift them up and make them better. It is impossible to improve or thrive by being surrounded by cretins. It is the people that make a company what it is.

Money isn't everything, but it is a huge part of the equation. Nonetheless I have met several people that wanted to risk taking a pay cut by going back to their old jobs just so they could escape the stress and lunacy of their current jobs. That makes sense because the salary at my last job was actually pretty decent, but the increasingly unnecessary and undesirable nonsense that I had to endure made it not worth the trouble. I didn't always feel that way as I was once appreciated and felt as such. After leaving my job, there were times where I was unemployed, and it was enjoyable in the fact that I at least didn't have to put up with bullshit. 

If management and HR actually did their jobs and LISTENED to employees, especially their best and brightest, instead of ignoring them and punishing them for speaking up, brain drain likely wouldn't happen. If they weren't so shortsighted in their race to the bottom, by thinking they can save money by hiring an unqualified moron, who would be cheaper because they wouldn't get a raise from a bad evaluation, they would see the bigger picture. On the surface, it seems great, but the flip side is that that bad hire will cost more in the long run, and it will cost more than just money. It will lower morale and harm productivity. Yeah, they don’t have to pay the idiot as much as they would a well-qualified applicant, but that incompetent employee is going to do 90% less work.

It baffles me why some places, instead of improving and progressing, purposely keep themselves stuck in the past with outmoded ways, yet throw in some ass-backwards processes that create the illusion of "something new." Why are they so afraid of change? Why the passive-aggressive behavior of hiring and retaining the worst and unqualified? Is there a secret agenda or hidden desire to create animosity among co-workers as part of some game or experiment? Or are the lives of some employees and managers so boring and pathetic, they exert all their energy into pissing off the best and brightest so that their plight is entertainment, a satire?

It's obvious and understandable that there are companies and regions where job applicants are chomping at the bit to just get an interview, especially in the current economic climate and job market. But there are places that are struggling mightily for brain GAIN. This is obviously the result of brain drain, and from my experience, that brain drain is the result of a shitty atmosphere with shitty people. This is the result of piss-poor leadership, the inaction of management to tackle problems and refusal to get to the root of them, the moment they become apparent. This is what happens when management fails to discipline or fire the bad apples, they create a culture that the best and brightest won't tolerate.

In a situation like that, it doesn't matter how hard one works. Things become so dysfunctional, the antithesis of what has been taught and what one does is celebrated. In other words, if you won't screw up, if you have no desire to frequently call in sick, hate being late and lack laziness, you're not wanted. You're not wanted because you're making everybody else look bad. Places that suffer from brain drain hate the best and brightest, because they are jealous and waste time that could be spent working and improving, complaining and hoping that others fail.

Unless some fundamental changes are made at the top all the way down, this perpetual cycle of decay will continue. Poorly performing places will occasionally get some star players, but they won't last long if they are micromanaged and the interests of undeserving and unqualified weakest links are pandered to. Top performers don't need or deserve to be micromanaged or told what to do, they already know, day in and day out, what their expectations and duties are. To state the obvious to them is spiteful and a waste of time. To put more work on them because too many ass kissers that should have never been hired, slack off on company time, gets them closer to giving that two weeks notice. 

Now, if the best and brightest leave for offers they can't refuse, fine. That can mean a professional growth opportunity for the individual. But the companies, cities and countries that are on the receiving end of that need to step things up. I'm not just talking them going out of their way financially, because some places simply are not going to be able to match what the bigger cities and companies are offering. I'm talking about incentive to come aboard and incentive to stay in the long run, making it more difficult to leave, but in a good way.

I'm talking about eliminating the status quo and petty behavior. Ass kissing and popularity contests only perpetuate this and guarantee the those most deserving of positions, will get shut out. I have seen what happens when the least qualified get jobs they shouldn't even have because of social status, and let me tell you, it's not pretty. I'm talking about creating a culture built on appreciation, teamwork and trust. What needs to go away and die a horrible death is this "Everyone's a winner" mentality where problematic employees are recognized and rewarded for being incompetent. 

I think if company managers and city leaders can create a more inclusive atmosphere and a road map where knowledge workers can go, they will feel more important and there will be a greater sense of community. It makes no sense to have nothing but a ragtag group of people comprising the makeup of an organization. If cleaning house is what it takes, then so be it. Sometimes you just have to let go of those who won't let go of the old ways. When managers and employees alike become agents of change, there is change for the better.

I believe if more places stepped up to the plate for qualified workers, there would be more destinations to flock to. Actually, if some places made more of an effort to be better places to live, that would entice more job seekers to gradually migrate towards these places. Maybe that would mean less people moving to greener pastures or abroad and maybe one more better place to be a good home base between trips abroad, and maybe a better travel destination itself. I don't have a background in business or politics, and this all seems very idealistic, but change starts with one. When individuals change, they change the communities in which they are members. 

I like to believe that part of the reason why I travel is to take what I learn from my trips abroad and apply it to not only making my life better, but improving my surroundings any way that I can. I like to lead by example, and when there is leadership that others believe in and follow, that makes a big difference. As the old saying goes, leave something better than you found it. It is a rather tall order, but it is very important that there exists a desire for change and that first step towards a better way is taken. Otherwise if there is a concrete commitment to the same ol' same ol', the usual places that have continually suffered from brain drain, will continue to suffer by creating their own demise.

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