Musings on pigeonholes.

A recent forum post over on just inspired me to write a bit. The question is about owning features, and personal growth on larger teams.

I’ve worked at several businesses, but most have started out small. Some of them have grown quite a lot while I was there. I have been partially pigeonholed by one company where I was inside a single domain for two years. I was completely pigeonholed by another, where they kept dangling carrots about “when your domain increases we’ll reward you” but then the leaders refused to allow growth.

Ironically the  tightest grip was held by a small business, just 15 employees, where the bosses acted on a scarcity mentality. On the one hand the owners said they wanted growth. They wanted lots of new and amazing things. On the other hand, they tightly controlled exactly what every one of the 15 employees would do. You could only do the things you had already done before. The top producers were the ones who were always the top producers, and they always got the ideal growth assignments. The slower producers were the ones who were always the slower producers, and the only assignments they were given was the drudgery that the top producers didn’t want. The boss (foolishly, in my view) said that one of the rewards of being a top producer was that you got first pick of the new assignments. Obviously then, the top producers can choose the assignments that ensure they continue to be the top producers. Those further down the row take the best they can and continue in their middle tier, and those at the bottom circulated their résumés. Although I was in charge of a lot of things and had “Lead” on my business card, I spent a lot of time talking with vendors about career prospects elsewhere. It was my shortest stint at any company, and as I was hurting for being unemployed I missed some of the warning signs that were obvious in retrospect.

Getting back to pigeonholes…

When you are inside organizations, where the organizations feel small it is easy to move. You can simply state “I’m going to work on this area for an hour each day”. Start working on something, and over time you’ll be the expert of the domain. Other people will come to you for knowledge and experience on the broad domains and you will move up. There are often terms like “blue ocean” or “green pasture”, meaning there is much variety and room to expand.

Inside organizations where the organization feels large it becomes difficult to move. All work comes down from above. You get assigned to work on specific task that take all your time and there is little or no opportunity to master any larger domain. You end up becoming expert on a small domain, and since few people use the domain the career starts to stagnate. It is difficult to take on additional areas because there are entrenched experts and your assignments limit you. The term is a “pigeonhole”, a small compartment that limits your career.

It can be difficult for organizations to offer much growth, much “blue ocean” and “green pasture”, as they get bigger. That doesn’t mean it cannot happen, it just requires effort and many companies don’t want to do it.

It can be a very real problem as organizations grow.

I think the hardest part is just awareness. Individual workers and their managers need to communicate about when someone is feeling pigeonholed or may become pigeonholed. Just because someone has written network interfaces for the past two years does not mean the individual wants to make that their entire career. However, some people DO want it to become their entire career. So talk with managers if you want to grow. Start out simple, “I feel pigeonholed. I would like to also grow into these other areas.”  If you are concerned about becoming trapped, perhaps “I did that last project. I’ll certainly help out in that area, but I need to work on other areas in this new project.”

There are managers who THINK you enjoy doing something even if you don’t. There are managers that even when you tell them to their face ‘I want to do something different, please reassign the work” they’ll still assume that because you are the most efficient (due to experience) all the work should go to you. Once that happens, sadly, the best options become through the HR department. Sometimes the individual needs to go to HR and explain that they aren’t satisfied with their current role and want to move to a totally different role. Sometimes the individual just needs to move to a different company.

It absolutely happens that people get trapped inside organizations.  I’ve seen it happen first hand and also read about it with others. It also plays a role in the age discrimination sadly prevalent in industry. First the person says “I would like to be transferred or spend a portion of my time on other projects so I can gain new skills.”  Then some time later “I need you to transfer me”. Then, before any transfer happens, the organization lays off the worker along with other pigeonholed workers because the thing is no longer relevant and organizations currently prefer to train new (cheaper/younger) workers rather than move experienced (expensive/older) workers laterally.

You don’t need to look far for that. Recently Microsoft announced that they were laying off almost everyone in the Nokia division. 12500 workers. They were horrible about the announcement, which started out as “we are improving our business”, “we are streamlining”, and on the 11th paragraph, “by the way, we’re having the largest layoff in the history of the company and you’re fired.” Those who were let go were banned from future Microsoft employment for six months. That is the epitome of pigeonhole: Not only are no not allowed to transfer anywhere within the 100,000-person global company now, you are also not allowed to use your skills anywhere else within the company for a half year. Even if another division is hiring and your skills are a perfect fit, the workers are pigeonholed into a defunct role.

Fixing it can be an organization wide issue. I think that if the organization is aware of it, and the organization wants to prevent it from happening, the organization can take steps to prevent pigeonholed employees. Organizations can (if they choose) ensure that people spend a portion of their time on tasks outside their typical domain, that people are allowed opportunities for personal growth, that people are allowed to exercise their imagination and creativity outside of strictly assigned roles.

While I understand some of the mentality, I see growth as a retention issue. You will not be able to hire and retain the best workers when your existing workers are pigeonholed.

There are questions you can ask during interviews when you change jobs to help detect it. “How often do people change roles?” “How long have you (as a future peer) been in this role, and what were your prior roles?” “What did you (peer) focus on during the last several projects?” “What is the employee turnover?” “When was the last layoff, and how many were terminated?” “Why are you hiring for this role?” “What happened to the person who used to have this job?” If everyone is stuck in their job it is a sign of stagnancy. If they recently laid off people but are hiring for a role because it never existed before, it is a sign that they won’t allow people to move laterally.

Look at the age of people. How many people are over age 40? Over age 50? Over age 60? I’ve seen too many game studios where “old” happens at age 35, where there are only a handful of 40+ individuals plus a bunch of H1B workers, and where the organizational philosophy is to just pigeonhole, fire, then replace with this year’s round of cheap labor. Keep your eyes open.

Finishing this post out, this is actually one reason I prefer small companies over big companies. In a five person startup everything is a growth opportunity. Finding growth opportunities in a 30 person company is usually easy if you talk to those in charge, but can be difficult if the boss is not open minded to growth. Finding growth opportunities in a 200 person company takes effort but can often be done. Finding growth opportunities in a 1000 person cubical maze is not really possible, those are great environments for hiding incompetence and any growth you make serves as a hiding place for roaches and leaches within the organization.

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