#19 The Company You Keep (1998)

rat All Rights Reserved © 1998 Thomas W. Day

One of "the rules to live by" that my Midwestern background ground into me is "you are known by the company you keep." What my parents wanted me to get out of that concept was that hanging out with musicians and motorcycle riff-raff would limit my chances of ever getting a college degree, becoming an certified public accountant, and ending up in middle management. They were right and they were wrong. These days, the consequence of violating that code has taken on slightly different meanings for many of us.

Our associations come in a lot of flavors. On a large scale, the company we keep is the company we work for, the corporation, even the industry. Military-Industrial complex ex-employees carried a "government work" stigma throughout the seventies and eighties. Of course, federal and state government employees carved out well-earned reputations for inability and inactivity (except for postal workers who are occasionally dangerously active) that has been established since the first civil servant sneered at the first civilian victim. Higher education is the refuge of the overpaid, under-worked, and irrelevant aristocracy. My home territory, the medical industry, is earning a wonderful reputation for gouging the sick and dying, but paying, public and doing everything possible to avoid social responsibility. Your mileage may vary, depending on your perspective and source of income.

Companies can carry a certain stigma or identity. There are tales of mythical companies that allow their employees a mind-boggling sense of pride in both the work and their contribution to communities. People often include unicorns and magic crystals in the same conversations, so this could all be a load of rancid rabbit kidneys. Still, I can imagine that it's possible. Remember, I'm a sixties guy and flashbacks are our middle name.

Most companies make you feel like you are an unwilling step-sibling in Chuck Manson's family. Between the executives with four shining rows of regenerating teeth and products that are flung from assembly lines with critical parts scattered around the floor, it's tough to feel like one of the good guys. It's hard to imagine that you've ever known a good guy; or saw one once in a movie When the few people who actually accomplish work are the first thing to go, when economic times turn inconvenient, it's pretty tough to believe in company loyalty. So no one does, except the extremely gullible.

But some companies are a lot worse than the average awful sweaty shop. Xerox, for instance, will go down in history as being as well managed as an overflowing cat litter box. These execs stumbled into the computer technology of the future, way back in the late 70's, tripped over their own incompetence, and flushed away the most incredible inventions since Og discovered barbecue sauce. We can thank them for Apple's Macintosh, Windows, networks, the Internet and the Web, mice (not the squeaky kind), laptops, palmtops, and more cool stuff than Jeff Beck owns. We can also laugh at them for not making a cent on most of that stuff. What a bunch of maroons!

IBM, Bell Telephone, Braniff Airlines, Apple, the long-dead CP/M computer companies, General Dynamics, and a zillion others all had (or have) brain-dead corporate attitudes that led to lost customers, dumb products, overpaid-useless executives, and monster crashes that forever screwed up lives and reputations. Admitting that you work/worked for one of those companies is about the same as admitting that you occasionally wet your pants while sucking your thumb.

Finally, sometimes the nastiest "company you keep" is the sector of the company you hang with. Executives have always been looked at as "the enemy" by labor, at least since the first feudal system. The Robber Barons had to spend their time with other Robber Barons, or by themselves, because they didn't make human friends easily. Like FBI or IRS agents, the Bill Gateses of history have had to make their friends at work or not at all. Funky Bill was not the first bazillionare to buy a life and a wife and still end up looking like a refuge from the intro to "Revenge of the Nerds."

An awful lot of people who would make excellent managers do their best to avoid management, simply to avoid being stuck in rooms with manager type ilk. The quality of conversation in executive meetings is several steps below good soap opera dialog. The quality of thought and ethical behavior doesn't even register on a scale created for politicians. If you get caught doing a good job or allowing anyone who works for you to do a good job, it's back to the MBA factory, yuppie-boy. Competence? We don't need no stinking competence.

Or you could be a proud member of one of the many self-preserving unions. You could be an electrician or a plumber whose union bought off politicians so that you are banned by law from "donating" your labor for anything but the full hourly union wage. Even if you were weird enough to want to do a little work for Habitat for Humanity or your own church, you can proudly decline the urge ("I'd like to help, but that's against the law.") because your union dues have made it so. After all, it's tough to keep the Mafia in zoot suits and still have time for other worthy causes, isn't it?

When you think about it, there's a reason why the vast majority of workers hang out in the low-to-mid-income territory. It's safe. it's where all the most interesting people live. And you don't have to feel guilty about who you're seen with.

May 1998

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