Stages: Circling the Drain

If you’ve worked in a corporate environment, you’ve no doubt had the opportunity to watch one of your coworkers go through the progress of becoming ever more disenchanted and eventually leaving.

Things are pretty wacky around my own employer these days. Times are strange since the merger, so we’re seeing a lot of bad behavior.

There is the coworker who, on Friday, was in the employee directory, and on Monday, wasn’t. No one knows what happened. After sixteen years at this company, he was just…gone.

There was also the senior manager guy with a whole set of direct reports who suddenly no longer has direct reports. He is listed as a peer to the people he once managed.


Right now, I have a good friend, mentor and coworker who is going through the “stages”…he’s on the path toward “I’ve had enough!”

So with that in mind, here’s my unofficial, opinion oriented, based on experience, stages of the descent of a corporate minion.

Stage One: Grumbling.

“This place is so strange, I don’t understand why (boss) has to manage like that.” This stage is characterized by a slight uptick in the complaining about the job. I mean, we ALL complain about the job, but this is taking it to a new, higher level, with some unconvincing, “I should find a new job” statements thrown in.

Basically, the disenchanted is still in the game, still meeting deadlines, still doing the work, but is starting to think about doing something different. This is like picking at the edge of a scab, really. Just picking and picking but not serious about it. The grumbling stage includes a lot of thinking, “Can I make this work?” and “I’ve been here a long time” and “Maybe things will improve.”

Stage Two: Misbehaving.

If the grumbling progress continues, things ratchet up and become tinged with a bit more emotion. Anger, frustration and acting out become obvious. Could be an, “I can’t believe he said that” comment from a meeting where the disgruntled shot their mouth off on something, could be missing a “mandatory” all hands event, could be missing a deadline. Enough to get noticed, but not enough to get fired.

At this stage, the disgruntled begins thinking seriously about looking for another job. They usually start by looking at other open jobs within the same company. May even go so far as to navigate over to and Craig’s List to see if there is even anything interesting outside the company.

At this stage, the disgruntled usually stops just short of actually updating their resume and, usually, aren’t happy with job opportunities found elsewhere, so they decide to hang in there a bit longer to see if things improve.

Stage Three: Actively acting out.

Characterized by coming in late consistently, leaving early, disappearing for large parts of the day, distracted in meetings, more impassioned discussion of looking for another job, and complaints about “this place,” followed by mentions of actual job openings at other companies.

Resume has been pulled up in Word, updates are being made, daily searching the job sites. Asking friends for leads. Making rumblings among close coworkers that he’s looking. Trying to find allies that are also looking, or trying to convince others to join him in the job search.

Pretty serious, but yet, could be convinced to stay with a little management intervention, a little love, a little promise of something more.

This is usually where the disgruntled invites a trusted friend to lunch offsite and runs down a list of grievances and confesses they have had it. They are looking for a job. The case is laid out, discussed, asked “do you think it will get better?” Lots of “this is ridiculous” statements issued.

Sometimes, this is where the disgruntled will receive a surprise bonus or promotion or similar, and this puts them back at state one or less…at least for a while.

So this is the stage where my friend is hovering. Actively looking, actively disgruntled, been to several offsite lunches, discussing the merits of job opportunities at other companies. Then again, we are actually due for a mid-year review and bonus, so we’ll see…..

Stage Four: Stealth.

The disgruntled is not only actively looking, he’s got a few leads. Maybe even calling in sick here and so they can go interview. Something may be happening, so it’s time to pipe down. Many people (especially boss-type people) often confuse stealth with a move back to stage one. Easily confused, certainly.

The disenchanted person may be coming in on time again, but if you look close, they aren’t really working that hard, aren’t volunteering to take on new projects, may be handing off work to coworkers. They want to leave on a good note and are feeling optimistic that something is about to change. Mood has improved. Complaining a bit less. Laughing at all the boss’ jokes.

Stage Five: Poking the Tiger.

Not everyone gets to stage five. Many people get to stage four, find another job, and leave. They leave on good terms, shake hands with the boss and go off to a new gig with a fresh look of optimism in their eyes.

Those that can’t find another job or aren’t motivated enough to find another job move into the phase where they start stirring the sh*t. Oh yes, they are too timid to actually *do* something themselves, they want someone to do it for them. Passive aggressive.

So they start actively missing deadlines and meetings and coming in late and not even pretending like they care about the work. They may even speak insultingly or say stuff that’s not cool. They openly challenge people to say something. They aren’t just picking away at the scab, they are making new wounds.

At this point, the boss may actually realize they have a performance problem on their hands, and put the disgruntled on a performance action plan. This either spurs the disgruntled to find another job…or, bad attitude continues until the end of the performance plan and the inevitable happens.

Or, some powerless bosses still won’t take action, and they let the employee keep flailing away.

Often the employee will finally just up and quit. Sometimes in a blaze of glory “this is part of company folklore” kind of way.

Sometimes, the disgruntled poking-the-tiger guy gets weary, still lacking any self-starting behavior, becomes stuck in place, and they just pipe down and keep doing the job. These people become the “retired in place” completely useless employee, the guy who just can’t get fired and just won’t quit, so he sucks down company resources until retirement.

We’ve all known one of those, haven’t we?

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  • Natalie

    I totally know these people. The company I currently work for was acquired about 4-5 years ago. The transition has been slow but it's now coming to a head. People have been actively resistant to the change and have either left or are still resisting. It's all I know so trying to "enforce" the changes is difficult, at best, and require a lot of performance management. It's tiring as hell.

    I'm currently at the, "Either get with the program or leave." place with many. I'm wondering if that's why they hired me. We'll get through it but I see a huge (second, third, whatever they are on now) wave of turnover.

    Lots of turmoil. Makes it hard to go in to the environment. Also makes me wonder if this is where I really want to be.

    I'm feelin' ya. Keep your eyes open and your head down!

  • Anonymous

    Corporations are like the military – you can only be in charge of what you are in charge of – but failure to drink the Koolaid is pointless.

    But excellent job of breaking out the stages!


  • Karen Fayeth

    Hmm, I may be flirting with moving up a stage…stay tuned.

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