I'm Just Doing My Job

I hate that phrase. It's used by cops harrassing black drivers, soldiers burning down villages and napalming children, utility workers cutting off power to elderly widows, telephone solicitors calling you during dinner, network administrators working at spammer ISPs, data entry clerks who insist on getting your social security number even when you have a legal right not to provide it, and many others.

"I'm just doing my job" is an all-purpose excuse by anyone who doesn't want to take responsibility for their own actions or even consider that what they're doing might be wrong. It's as if the person who's just doing their job isn't a real person with the ability to make choices and moral decisions. Instead they're just an unthinking cog in the corporate machine with no more choice or responsibility than a photocopier or fax machine.

People aren't cogs and they aren't machines. They need to stand up and take responsibility for their actions. They need to make choices, and admit the choices they've made. They need to be prepared to defend those choice, and if they're wrong and can't honestly defend the choices they've made, they should be prepared to correct their mistakes.

I'm less alienated than most from my labor. I'm a freelance writer, and I write pretty much what I want to write, when I want to write it. I say what I want to say, and I admit that I've said it. Sometimes people disagree with me, and they let me know. Sometimes they're right; sometimes they're not; sometimes the issue is cloudy. That's fine. Sometimes I make mistakes, and I admit those too. But I accept responsibility for my actions. I don't claim that somehow I'm not responsible for something I said or did simply because I was working for a paycheck when I said or did it.

What spawned this latest tirade was the news that Bell Atlantic is trying to censor a web page that advocates calling and writing certain Bell Atlantic employees at home to express displeasure with their advocacy of per-minute ISP fees. Now the site in question was at least a little over the top and did advocate some possibly illegal activity, perhaps even to the point of being illegal itself, so that's not what bothered me. What bothered me was the following statement by Larry Plumb, director of communications for Bell Atlantic.

I suspect many of us would object to having incidents at work coming back to haunt us at home
Sorry Larry, that doesn't cut it. Our lives are our lives. We cannot and should not separate them into a "work part" and a "home part" where the home part isn't responsible for anything that happens at work. We are whole beings, indivisible. If you commit a crime at work, you don't just go to jail from nine to five. If your job requires you to take action in the public sphere in an an attempt to influence government regulation, people who disagree with you may call you at home to discuss it. This shouldn't surprise you. You have to take responsibility for your actions, regardless of whether or not you were acting at work. It is not acceptable to advocate particular policies that are beneficial to your employer, and then turn around and say to your friends in private, "I don't really believe that, but it's my job to say these things." I know this goes against everything that qualifies you to be a "director of communications", but it's the truth. Corporations are legal fictions. Corporations don't speak or communicate or lobby for regulation. People do. And those people must be prepared to take the heat for their actions and their beliefs.

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Copyright 1997 Elliotte Rusty Harold
Last Modified September 30, 1997