Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Update: a moment of silence (and outrage) for (former) MIT employees

I was given to believe that my employer, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, would do its best to ride out the recession with its staff intact. After all, MIT's human resources page make the argument that "MIT is a great place to work." Today, though, I received the news from a colleague working in a different department of MIT that a dozen of her coworkers had received layoff notices. These layoffs came after a department-wide meeting announcing that cuts would be made and hinting at the possibility of staffing cuts; this meeting was followed by weeks of general silence about who would be laid off, and when, and under what terms.

I had thought MIT was better than this.

Admittedly, a recent letter from MIT President Susan Hockfield does not state unequivocally that employees would be protected from layoffs; indeed, a closer look at this letter, which all employees received in their email inboxes in mid-February, actually omits altogether—glaringly, given what I know now—the issue of layoffs. Dr. Hockfield writes, under the heading of "Controlling Hiring":
To preserve flexibility, we have chosen not to impose a blanket hiring freeze across the Institute. However, we will sharply slow hiring and will reserve it for core Institute needs. Some units have already decided to suspend hiring. Going forward, all hiring that impacts the General Institute Budget will require approval by the Provost, for academic units, or the EVP, for administrative units.

In the letter, Hockfield also explains that she has graciously chosen to forgo her annual raise this year and next. (I'm sure this is a comfort to those employees whose employment will cease altogether.)

One of the greatest ethical crimes in American labor history is the code of silence around terms of employment. Before I came to MIT, one of the three (simultaneous) part-time jobs I held was as an hourly billing associate at a veterinary hospital; the official policy there forbade any discussion of wages or benefits. If you told anybody how much you made, you were subject to immediate termination. For the record, I worked for VCA South Shore Animal Hospital and my hourly pay after nearly a year and a half was $12.35, a wage that I believe was not only incongruent with the wages of many of my coworkers but also incommensurate with the service I was providing to the company and its clients. In addition, and in direct opposition to Massachusetts' law mandating employer-subsidized health care coverage for all gainfully employed state residents, VCA steadfastly refused to pay a portion of my health insurance costs, declaring that since the corporate headquarters were based out of state, the company was not legally required to abide by state mandates.

In accepting a salaried position at MIT I believed I was leaving all the insanity of that culture of silence behind; but I have found a comparable—perhaps an even more intense—protection of silence around the terms of employment at MIT. I think the secret becomes even more important to keep because while my coworkers at VCA largely expected not to make a career of reception work, my coworkers at MIT are very often in what they consider to be their life's work, in a field that matters deeply to them. This means nobody tells anybody how much they make; nobody tells anybody what kind of raise they got or failed to get; nobody tells anybody what kinds of perks they have taken or been offered to continue in their position.

In addition to the thundering silence about terms of employment, I've found an incredible bubble of silence around the issue of layoffs. Though I suspect layoffs have occurred in other departments across the Institute, I have not heard of them; indeed, I would not have heard of the layoffs in my friend's department were I not a close confidant. Of course, the power of silence is just this: You can suspect all you want, but there's no way to know to what extent your suspicions are true, accurate, or fair.

I wonder, then, if I'm right to suspect a larger trend of layoffs and low morale. I wonder if I'm right to argue that there exists a code of secrecy around pay, benefits, and terms of employment. I wonder, too, if it's time for a more public conversation about these things. I wonder if it's time to tell you how much I make, what kind of benefits I receive, and what kind of raises I've secured. True to the privacy culture, though, I'm nervous about going first.

I would love to hear your thoughts. You can comment directly to this blog or, if you prefer complete and absolutely guaranteed anonymity, you can email me at jennamc_at_mit.edu and I'll post your comments for you.


Laura said...

Nice link. I'm so shaken up I can't even read this...

Graves said...

Yeah...today was rough.

To be perfectly honest, I don't even want to know what it'll be like if I survive the next three years worth of cuts.

Daniel Hickey said...

This is just the beginning! Some rather humorous accounts of people loosing their jobs at http://www.fmylife.com/

Anonymous said...

I suppose it‘s obvious to point out that knowledge is power. If you know how much your co-worker makes, and it's more than you, and unfairly/unreasonably so, you have a right to argue for equal pay. If you know you’re about to get laid off, what’s to stop you from finding a job before it happens? Then you have the power and your employer is left looking for someone last minute to fill a position that‘s about to be laid-off.

Codes of silence limit power, which limits independence. And we know that with independence comes sense of self; and with sense of self comes opinions. And opinions lead to headaches. So, with less headaches and unnecessary opinions floating around comes a work-force ready to follow directions without asking questions--or without knowing they should even be asking them to begin with.

Such codes of silence are representative of the lack of transparency spread foot-loose across industry and government, which has of late become most glaringly and most apparently irresponsible on the part of those who were entrusted with the power to make decisions. Near unforgivable.

MIT's current situation is a microcosm of what is happening and has been happening ideologically and economically all across this country. And all in order to avoid the truth, to avoid headaches, to cut corners, get rich fast, to treat symptoms and not causes. But with this irresponsibility so has come chaos--an unraveling. It represents a pragmatist philosophy; one that most arrogantly strikes down any idea containing a long-term solution if it seems the slightest at first uncomfortable or even close to leaving the policies of instant-gratification, such that our prior presidency so enjoyed.

Let me climb back down out of the clouds and be more specific. When I worked for a city government they told me they couldn't give me a raise due to budget cuts and that I’d have to start at $7.25 an hour because that’s all they could afford. Later I found out men hired on at the same time or even later than I were paid $1-2 more per hour for the same work (perhaps I should mention that I am a woman). I ended up quitting and getting a better job elsewhere, leaving their broken system behind (if only to move to another one). I suppose, in retrospect, there were avenues I could have taken for recourse. But they forbade us to discuss our wages with anyone, so if I were to complain it would be obvious I did so...a direct violation. It's like some Catch-22.

But what is the harm in knowing? What is the harm in transparency? Why can’t people just be open about what’s going on and face the subsequent consequences? Otherwise your system suffers from scurvy by lack of truth, and all the old lies open up and the system’s contents bleed out.

Laura said...

I hate the whole layoff thing at MIT. But the truth is employment is NOT one-sided. We serve at the pleasure of Susan Hockfield, or any number of supervisors and managers. In an ideal world cuts would somehow not involve people losing jobs.

We live in a far-from-ideal world.

On the subject of secrecy: I don't want to know what my coworkers make. It's an ego thing. I don't want to know if they're making more than I do and I don't want them to know if I'm making more. It's too late once I've accepted the job to negotiate, so it's just injury without redress. As far as I know, MIT doesn't have any specific rules about revealing salary information. We just don't do it because...well, it's just...uncomfortable.

Little Acorn Toys said...


Anonymous said...

No. Employment is not one-sided. Just as you don't just serve at the pleasure of your employer, your employer doesn't only serve you. The employer-employee relationship should be one of mutual respect and care--not one of non-communicative hierarchical bullshit. Nothing really positive ever happens in environments like that unless of course such an environment inspires people to step outside of the status quo. That's where new ideas come from. That's where progress occurs.

Sure when your employer is stealing you blind and reaking havoc on the system, they probably benefit in the short term with money and power. But it's not an intrinsically valuable benfit. In the end it causes the system to unravel. Intrinsic benefit comes from mutual respect and allowance.


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