RatsRats (image from fitsnews.com)

You know the old saying that “Rats will abandon a sinking ship?” as the picture illustrates how they fled the water line in the movie Titanic. I want to talk about that phrase in the aspect of business. I went out and found a concise explanation on wiki.answers.com:

When there were wooden ships in common use, there would always be rats on board. If the ship were to sink the rats would jump off and swim away because they knew the ship was sinking and that they needed to swim to safety/shelter.

The phrase is now used to refer to people who ditch a lost cause because they weren’t committed to it. Unlike the captain and men on the ship who would have tried to save it the rats just fled. Unlike the creators of a cause would try and keep the cause afloat (if you’ll excuse the pun) whereas the tag along followers just there for the ride (again an interesting pun – thus why this phrase fits so nicely) would just ditch it.

First off, is it a true statement? I personally HAVE been involved in a failing business (in the corporate world) so let me give you my take.

The year was 1990 and I was employed by a company called “The Oconomowoc Canning Co.” and we produced fresh canned fruits and vegetables. We were a very profitable business. So profitable in fact, that we purchased a national company called “Stokely” of the “Stokely Van Camp” fame. (Note: we did NOT purchase the Van Camp name) Anyway, the leaders of the company thought they could do no wrong and leveraged the company to the hilt to make the purchase, as well as build a brand new corporate headquarters building. As you probably surmise, all did not go well.

By the beginning of 1993, after 2 years of wage freezes, some plant closings and other obvious signs, things really took a turn for the worse. The executives started fleeing. First it was the CEO, then the COO, then the CMO. Within a 3 month period, the company ship was adrift. There were some employees that started looking for other employment as well (me included), but there were others that either couldn’t or wouldn’t.

So, in my experience, the answer I quoted above is incorrect. It has it wrong and backwards. In my personal experience, the rats were the executives. The people that caused the problem were the first to leave. This was even back in the days of the golden parachutes and such, which hurt the company even more with each departure.

Now, I completely understand the opposite happens as well. When the leaders are either oblivious to the course of the company they lead, or maybe just don’t care, then the line workers and other life blood employees start leaving. In either scenario, the company is in for rough seas.

So, should you be afraid when you notice a lot of turnover where you work? Well that depends. Make sure you understand why there is turnover. I always encourage my staff to learn and advance their careers. If someone decides to leave for the right reason (such as career advancement, family considerations, etc…) I am a full supporter. When you either can’t determine why people are leaving, or you get the feeling (or actual knowledge) that they are leaving for the wrong reasons, then you have 3 options.

  1. Fix what’s wrong, if it is in your power to do so. Help right the ship, so to speak.
  2. Ignore the problem and HOPE someone else is trying to right the ship.
  3. Polish up that resume and follow the rats.

Being a rat isn’t always a bad thing. Remember, the rat that jumps ship and swims to shore, while might be in for a rough time during the swim, should be around for to hop onto another ship.

Leave me a comment and tell me your sinking ship story and how you handled it.