#53 The Order of Escape (2001)

All Rights Reserved © 2001 Thomas W. Day

The old "the rat's are leaving the ship" story sort of implies that the rats are the first ones to abandon ship, when the ship is going down. If you've ever suffered through a company's death, you'll know that's not the case. The rats (lower-case) are usually the last to know that it's all over, which is no different than what happens on a real sinking ship.

For instance, when a company starts to fold the first reaction is, typically, a series of layoffs. In my experience, the layoffs usually start on the production floor and in customer support. The theory seems to be that the people who make the products are easily replaced. The people who support the products are little more than power-users and are, also, easily replaced. There are holes in those theories through which you could drive a 747. But mistaken speculation has never diverted an MBA thesis and it doesn't slow up mismanagement action, either.

Regardless of the usual mismanagement misconceptions, even minor layoffs begin a chain of activities that you can count on to be as predictable as an atomic clock. The first Rats (upper-case) to leave are those who can go painlessly. Those folks, who have managed their personal lives so that they don't have to put up with an unpredictable and depressing work environment fire up the job search process and make a fast and orderly exit. Commonly, technicians and engineers with high-demand skills and a few technically competent and well-connected salespeople are a big part of that early-exit group. This group is often plugged into to the industry and the company's information pipeline and will have their resumes polished and in route before the HR department knows a layoff is in the works. Between the first layoff and the first wave of the skill exodus, a floundering company will take a talent hit that will take years to repair.

Still talking about upper-case Rats, folks who aren't wired into the company's external problems get an immediate kick in the pants when the pink slips start to flow. They may not be bright enough to keep their fingers on the industry pulse, but they are able to read the handwriting on the wall, even if it's done in a physician's scrawl or written in an ex-fellow-employee's-gone-postal blood. Two things happen to this group: 1) they become aware of how precarious their employment position is and, 2) they lose faith in the company's management. In most cases, it was misplaced faith, but faith is like that. Once the management credibility gap is breached, the last of the Rats start planning their escape. Two things happen here, too. Some Rats plan for their own period of unemployment. They pare down personal expenses, eliminate personal debt, and collect resources (money, education and training, and contacts) for when they are out of work. Their working hours activities shift, from the job they are paid to do, to getting ready for a future where their current job is in their resume as past employment.

The other upper-case Rats' alternative is even less useful to the troubled employer. The Rats simply do the absolute minimum required to hang onto their current job while they spend every available moment looking for a new job. Either way, the Rats' activities are minimally productive as far as their current employer's concerned.

Finally, we come to the rats (lower-case). Using the sinking ship analogy, when these rats start leaving the ship there is a lot of water in the hold and the ship is really beginning to list. If it's a really big company, picture a corporate Titanic, the ship may have snapped in half and be an obvious goner to any outside observer. The only way the lower-case rats abandon ship is when freezing water looks safer than staying with the sinking hulk. In this group you'll find tenured middle and upper management, demoted managers with no technical skills who are now holding "engineering" positions, executive secretaries, and a variety of over-paid, under-educated hangers-on whose next career incarnation might be asking, "Do you want to super-size that?" These people will not leave their current position until an armed guard marches them out the door or when they have nothing to lose by leaving, because several paychecks have bounced.

Of course, there are also the incredibly, foolishly and loveably loyal types who will attempt to stay to the end. These ultimate products of the public education system seem to be incapable of understanding that they are edible residents of a dog-eat-dog world. Their dozen years of publicly financed worker-bee training appears to have permanently paralyzed them into mindlessly praying that someone will notice their loyalty. It didn't work in grade school, high school, college, or at any of their previous jobs, but they keep hoping.

And they are always disappointed.

The last rats to leave are often the HR department and the executives. Understanding this is beyond me, but some companies actually increase their HR staff when they are laying off. Only at the very end, when there are no human resources left to mismanage, do the HR wackos get the axe. Go figure.

Finally, the execs clean out their desks, accept their pensions and golden parachutes and bonuses for managing an orderly demise of the business. These are their rewards for a job done so poorly that it's hard to imagine anyone on earth doing so badly. Now we're talking rats with a subscripted "r."

The exit of the last four groups actually does resemble rats leaving a sinking ship. Visualize this: A tired, old ship with a hole punched through the rotted wood in the hull. It's not a huge hole, but it's big enough that the bilge pumps can't keep up with the rising water level.

The technical guys, in the hold and the engine room, see that the pumps will soon be swamped and fail and they head for the deck. They're also smart enough that they know just getting off of the ship isn't enough. The whirlpool created by a large ship going down will draw in everything near it. So they hit the deck with a purpose, manning and lowering the lifeboats and paddling like Yale oarsmen, to get as far from the disaster zone as possible. This isn't a passenger ship, there are no "women and children" to worry about, so it's every Rat and rat for himself.

When calls to the engine room go unanswered, the radio operator (VP in charge of being acquired) puts out a call to see if there are any rescue vessels in the vicinity. If there are, he gives them the coordinates and takes off to find his own seat on a lifeboat. A few of the deck officers have probably come up through the ranks and can recognize a dying vessel when they see one. They follow the radio operator, leaving nothing but the officers and the rats.

The rats work their way up the ship's compartments, from the hold to the main deck, where they mill around the captain and the officers' feet, hoping for a miracle. When the water continues to rise and the rat's are forced to accept the inevitable, they stream out of the ship in relatively orderly lines. If a rescue ship ties onto the sinking ship, one of the duties of the crew is to knock the rats off of the cables, as they try to cross from the failing ship to the rescuer.

Finally, the officers and the captain make their decision to go down with the ship or be rescued. In the old days, a lot of officers chose to follow their ship into oblivion. Today, that model has changed. For some odd reason, it's not that unusual to see the officers and captain not only abandon their old ship but, through amazing political acuity, taking over the controls of the rescuing ship. But that is a subject for a future Rat Rant.

June 2001

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