Fear of the boardroom rivals fear of the streets

April 07, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

If this were television, Calvin's image on the screen would be covered by a black box, and his voice electronically distorted, in order to conceal his identity. In fact, Calvin was as skittish as a fawn about "appearing" in this story, even though "Calvin" is not his real name and even though what he has to say seems inoffensive.

And what does he have to say? That he is worried about the future, worried about holding onto his job, worried about his ability to provide the kind of education and opportunities for his children that his parents gave him.

In these respects, Calvin is a lot like the majority of Americans, according to a national survey released yesterday by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. The survey, conducted in mid-March, found that most people believe the country remains in either an economic recession or depression and that most people are having trouble making ends meet.

Says the report: "Despite signs of an economic turnaround, Americans remain highly dissatisfied with the state of the nation, financially burdened, and fearful about their future."

Calvin agrees. Things are frightening all over, he says, convinced that public comment could cost him his job. "You don't know what tomorrow will bring. You don't know what kind of decisions are being made and under what criteria. That's the whole thing: You just don't know and there is no real way to find out."

Calvin is a 43-year-old chemical engineer with a long list of commendations and testimonials to attest to his competence. He is a department manager for a multinational corporation with offices in the area.

He says he has sweated through three waves of layoffs in the past two years as his company struggled to remain profitable during the lengthy recession by downsizing. The latest layoffs occurred just before the Christmas holidays.

"Your paper and the rest of the media reported that [his company] was cutting its work force by such-and-such a number," says Calvin. "But the numbers weren't the real story. The real story was who was getting cut. And how. And on what basis. Fact is, nobody knew. Seniority, competence, productivity, performance, profitability -- all the usual ways of measuring an employee's worth proved meaningless. If anything governed the decisions, it was expedience."

Calvin refers me to "Janet," a personnel manager at his company who was saddled four months ago with the task of informing senior employees of their fate. Janet seemed very distressed by it, reports Calvin.

"He doesn't know the half of it," says Janet. "Once, I went into the ladies lounge and just cried."

"Why?" I ask.

"It was the inhumanity of it," answers Janet, "and the randomness. We were releasing people who had been very loyal to the company, who had given their lives to us. It was all by the numbers. The one thing I kept thinking was, next time it could be me."

I believe people are worried most by this sense that they have no control over their fate -- that not even hard work or top performance guarantees security. Janet's words most describe the source of our fear: inhumanity and randomness.

Those factors are reflected in other portions of the recent national poll. For instance, close to a third of the people surveyed by Times Mirror listed crime as the nation's most important problem. Eighty percent of the respondents said they are worried about becoming a crime victim.

Not long ago, most crimes were committed by friends, relatives, or paramours of the victim. You could protect yourself simply by being careful about the people you associated with. But crime has grown increasingly random in recent years. Last week the FBI said carjackings -- random, unpredictable, and potentially deadly -- had become more common than fatal accidents.

All of these factors seem interconnected somehow: the feeling of powerlessness; the lack of control; the sense that decisions that could affect our lives are increasingly random and made by people who are increasingly callous.

Americans today find themselves filled with fear: of the thugs on the street; of the executives in the boardroom.

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