Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Day 1 - Getting the Axe

          I lost my job today. It didn’t come as a surprise. I’ve been expecting it for some time. I knew I was in trouble when I got a stern lecture from my boss and the corporate CFO on the last day of a company wide accounting conference in July. I knew my days were numbered when I walked by the conference room here at our local facility about six weeks later and saw my boss and the CFO interviewing a series of guys in suits. There could be no other reason for the two of them to be conducting interviews together unless they meant to replace me. I’ve been waiting for the day ever since.
          Today the HR manager, Gina, called me about 11:00 o’clock. She asked if I was available to meet with her and the boss, Bill, in her office. I knew right away what was about to happen. When you meet with your boss and the human resources manager in your boss’s office, it’s about benefits or policy or budget or someone else. When you meet them in the HR manager’s office it means you are being terminated. I don’t know why this is. It’s like some unwritten law of office etiquette.
          “This can’t be good,” I said. Gina is a friend of mine. I knew she didn’t want to be involved in this, but she’s HR. It’s her job.
          “Probably not,” she said.
I had already shared with her that I thought I was going to get the axe, and why. When I told her that, I was trying to get her to confirm my suspicions—not directly, although that would have been okay, but rather I thought I might get her to raise an eyebrow or otherwise register some surprise that I knew. I got nothing. She was good at the keeping secrets part of her job. Now, weeks later, she had to pretend that she hadn’t known all along…and I had to pretend that I believed it.
          “I hate this,” she said when I got to her office.
          “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “It’ll probably end up being a good thing.”
          We sat there for a few minutes commiserating while we waited for Bill. Bill showed up with a manila file folder in his hands. He sat down in a folding chair against the wall, looked me in the eye, and got right to the point. Bill is not a staring-at-the-floor, beating-around-the-bush kind of guy.
          “We’ve decided to terminate your services,” he said.
          I looked at him like he had boils on his face.
“Gina told me you’ve been expecting this,” he said, as if that would somehow take the sting out of it, or even just get me to drop the boils-on-his-face expression, which I’m sure he knew was pretense on my part. I actually like Bill—not so much now as I did before he fired me, but some.
I looked at Gina, then back at Bill, trying to discern how long ago it might have been that she told him this. Neither one of them carried this information on their face. Really I was just curious. I decided not to press the issue with a lot of staring and probing. However long ago it had been, however long Gina had known this was going to happen, I couldn’t really hold her accountable for any kind of personal betrayal. She took her job seriously, and I would never have expected her to put our friendship ahead of her responsibility in that regard.
“Still,” I said. I spread my hands, palms up, and shrugged.
Bill felt compelled to explain. “You’re just not the guy that we need in the controller position any more,” he said. “You’re smart enough. In fact you may be one of the smartest people I know. You’re just not aggressive enough. We need someone who’s going to help take the company to the next level.”
          I wondered what the hell that meant, ‘take the company to the next level’. I knew what Bill thought it meant. He thought it meant that he was going to make quantum increases in the size, efficiency, and profitability of the company. He thought that they needed someone else to run the accounting department in order to get there. I had no doubt he was going to try, but I sure didn’t believe that another controller was going to make it any easier.
He reached into the manila file folder and pulled out some papers. There is comfort in having stuff written down when you know someone is going to question your motives or your logic. He thought that was what I was about to do. Having it written down, word processed, and sent to him by the corporate director of human resources made things more certain for Bill. Even if somehow I could prove to him that he was making a huge mistake he couldn’t take it back. It was written down right there in his hands. It couldn’t be changed. It was a done deal. I was history no matter how great a defense I could mount in the few minutes that were going to be allotted to me to make a case. I knew what was in those papers. It was my severance agreement. I wondered how much they were going to offer.
          “We’ve hired a replacement,” Bill said. “He starts Tuesday. You can go home now if you want. Think things over. We’ll give you three months salary. If you want to help transition your work to your replacement, we’ll make it four months. It’s all written down here.” He waved the papers at me.
          “Take it home. Read it. Let me know what you decide. Call me tomorrow. We can schedule a time for you to come in and clean out your office.”
          He handed me the agreement. “You’ll have to sign this of course,” he said. “We won’t make any severance payments until this is signed. There are two sets in here according to what you decide. Sign the one you choose. I think you’ve got seven days to sign, but I’d like to know tomorrow if it’s all right with you.”
          I was still looking at him like he had boils. It takes nerve to fire someone. I know. I’ve had to do it. I’ve done it badly, and I’ve done it well. Either way I figure it’s about the same to the guy getting fired. Human resources people don’t want to hear that, but it’s true. When you’re fired, you’re fired. There’s nothing anyone can say to make it better. You’ve got people who depend on you, and you’re going to let them down. You’ve got obligations—all kinds—and you’re not going to be able to handle them. You’re in a terrible fix, and whether the guy firing you is a jerk or a sweetheart doesn’t change a thing, doesn’t make any difference whatsoever to your new reality. You’re screwed, and the best thing you can do in the moment is stand there and take it like a man. “Sure, I’d like a cigarette, but I won’t be needing the blindfold.”
          It’s different for the guy doing the firing though. Maybe not if he’s a jerk. A jerk is a jerk, and what makes him a jerk usually is an overriding insensitivity to other people’s feelings. So a jerk probably doesn’t care what the person being fired thinks or feels any more than he cares whether he does the firing well or badly. It’s all the same. On the other hand, the guy who’s not a jerk, a sweetheart, has a different set of circumstances. He cares. He’s already left his comfort zone just having to fire someone. If the person he fires takes exception to being fired, if he starts offering up reasons why he shouldn’t be fired, or whining and crying and pleading, or threatening to throw you out a window—well that just elevates the discomfort to a whole other dimension.
          I learned this early in my career. I was assistant manager of a Ramada Inn near Toledo. My boss called me from out of town and told me to fire the daytime chef, Raphael, over some dramatic bit of rudeness to the wait staff. Raphael was a huge man with a disagreeable temper. I called him in the kitchen and asked him to come to my office. I guess he knew what was about to happen because he showed up in his spatter stained apron carrying a ten inch butcher’s knife. He sat in a chair across from my desk. His paunch covered his legs almost to his knees. He started slapping the blade of the knife into the palm of his hand, all the while staring at me like I had boils on my face. That’s where I learned how to do the expression I was now giving Bill. It’s the only useful thing I took away from that exchange—how to make that face—because I did not fire Raphael. I may have been young and inexperienced, but I was not a jerk and, more importantly, I was not stupid. To this day, I would not fire a man carrying a butcher’s knife…but I have to say now that I believe that Bill might.
          I had not considered up to the moment that Bill fired me that he might in fact be a jerk. I was giving Bill the boils-on-his-face look because I thought that he was not a jerk. I actually thought that my giving him that look would make him uncomfortable—maybe to the point of reconsidering the wisdom of firing me. It wasn’t having any effect. Bill seemed to be not the least bit uncomfortable.
I began to think that, maybe, just possibly, Bill might be a jerk after all. A sweetheart—a man who had professed, during my last annual performance review, to trust me and to be comfortable working with me, a man who had just said I was one of the smartest people he knew—such a man ought to have registered some remorse at having to let me go. Bill had registered no such thing. Bill was unmoved by my stare. I suspect that he would have been equally unmoved by a ten inch butcher’s knife.
Bill had, now that I thought about it, given me some evidence over the course of our association that, at least, he was no sweetheart. He once told me that he had gotten into a knife fight when he was in college. In my experience, corporate executives do not get into knife fights, and guys who get into knife fights do not become corporate executives. I only ever met one other person besides Bill who represented to me that he had been in a knife fight. That person was a Samoan deckhand on a tramp coal steamer in Vietnam—about as far removed a person as one can get from one who ends up a division vice president in corporate America.
I also overheard Bill talking on the phone one afternoon to the HR director in Oklahoma, telling him that if he ever ran into the former vice president of operations at a traffic light, a man he had also fired recently, that he would snatch him out of his SUV and beat the crap out of him. Corporate executives do not snatch people out of their vehicles and beat them up. Neither do sweethearts. Samoan deckhands might. Huge, knife wielding chefs might. Jerks might. Not sensitive, caring managers anguishing over the task of having to let someone go.
          So now Bill, the newly minted jerk, wanted to know did I have anything to say.
          I did. “I think I’m being made the scapegoat for the Larry Lockes fiasco,” I said.
          Larry Lockes was the former head of maintenance and facilities for our division. Larry had been dismissed when it came to light that he had entered into a number of contracts for maintenance and supply purchases without proper prior approvals. One such contract he had entered into had been with a company that he owned. These transactions were all strictly forbidden by policy, and their discovery had caused a huge stink, to put it mildly. The president had held Bill accountable even though Bill had no idea these things were going on. The president pointed out that Bill should have known because it happened on his watch. Bill held me accountable. He pointed out that he relied on me to tell him about these things. It hardly mattered that I hadn’t known about it either. It happened on my watch. I was controller, and expenditures were supposed to be under my ‘control’. This ‘failure’ had been the topic of the stern lecture that I got at the controllers’ conference.
          Bill wasn’t having any. “You didn’t enforce policy,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
          I said, “Corporate has been talking about changing the expenditure policy for two years because it is ancient and arcane and unworkable. Besides, following policy would not have prevented what happened. Larry deliberately hid his transactions. Strict adherence to policy from an accounting perspective would not have revealed them. That policy’s only usefulness is to provide you a convenient excuse for getting rid of me in order to make it look like you’re on top of this. There’s a double standard at work here, and I’m getting screwed.”
          “How do you figure?” Bill asked.
          “You guys said you wanted me asking questions and holding everyone’s feet to the fire over expenditures, yet when I brought up some apparent lapses just last week I got slapped down. Fritz (the corporate CFO) told me that Threasher didn’t need to provide me copies of any approvals to justify relocation payments, even though the policy clearly says that he does. My problem was that Threasher was telling me to pay on terms that were different from the relocation agreements. Then Threasher got all peevish because I had questioned his integrity, and told me that what controlled our expenditures for relocation were what he meant to say rather than what he actually wrote in the contract. In other words he doesn’t have to follow policy, but I have to enforce it. Double standard.”
          “Threasher is a director. He’s on the executive management team. You’re not,” Bill said.
           “My point exactly,” I said, and I thought I had made it quite well.
          At this point Bill launched into a long-winded lecture—one I’d heard before, and refuted I thought—about my failings of process and temperament. I let him go on for about three minutes until I had to hold up my hand to stop him.
          “Save your breath, Bill. I got about as far with that Threasher business as I expected, which is nowhere. You’ve already fired me. I don’t feel like I have to listen to another lecture as well.”
          That was the end of me. I took the proffered manila folder and left. Driving home I felt lighter and lighter with each mile I travelled away from that place.
          While getting the sack may not have been a surprise it was still a shock. The uncertainties that attend losing one’s job are troublesome enough in the best of circumstances. For a sixty year old man with health issues ‘troublesome’ is an inadequate description of the panic that losing one’s job causes. For a sixty year old man with health issues in the middle of a severe economic readjustment, ‘panic’ is equally inadequate. Terror is more like it. So I drove home in terror, to tell my wife not to worry, that everything will turn out okay.
Though terrified, I almost believe it—that everything will turn out all okay. I like to be optimistic. Besides I hated that job with an abiding intensity. For six months I have been nearly suicidal about it. The prospect of going to work filled me with a dread I cannot begin to describe. I would wake at 3:00 o’clock in the morning and lay awake in a sweat for hours imagining what it would be like to drive into a bridge abutment or under a truck. If I compared those imaginings to the reality of having to eventually get up and go to work, I had trouble deciding which was worse. They seemed equally unattractive to me. I always went to work though because I didn’t want to put anyone else in the position of having to do what I loathed so much, to clean up any disagreeable messes, and to deal with the aftermath of what had been my life at work.

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          In the end I’m not just terrified to have lost my job. It’s more complicated than that. I’m terrified and relieved. Not having to go to work tomorrow feels really good. It feels like taking off a pair of shoes that are too tight and too stiff after walking around in them all day. It feels wonderful. It feels like cause for a celebration. It calls for a martini, dinner out, a party…if only I weren’t terrified…if only I could afford it.


  1. Hi,

    I bumped into your site while looking for some tax(men) info.

    Great writing. Although I have read only 2 posts so far, it is enough to tell me the quality of your writing, and I will time to read all your posts.

    I can somewhat relate to your situation as I am also not working for almost 1 year now ... although my situation was a conscious decision between continuing to suffer fools, or figure out something else. Unfortunately, the figuring out something else did not happen yet. Well, tomorrow is another day!!

    I had a couple of quick questions for you:

    A) Have you thought of writing books? Sorry maybe you already talked about it ... and I will get to your other posts ... but it seemed like a natural line of business for you given the depth in your writing.

    B) Have you thought of starting your own business? In my dealing with tax accountants, I have basically seen people who are either licensed but also learning some of the law on the job, or just way too expensive for people with moderate wealth to deal with. While I know a controller is not a personal financial accountant, the number of people who are successfully in running a small 1 person practice with basic knowledge is very high. I am sure you could do it.

    I myself would like to write a novel about my previous job, never got around to it after the first 2 lines. Maybe reading your site will give me inspirition.

    Confused from

  2. Sardar,

    Thanks for your comments. Yes I have thought of writing a book...or books. In fact I'm hoping that these blog entries, with some editing and reorganization, will eventually be published as a book. I also have one novel in progress and another queued up to start. It's been a plod, but I seem to be making progress toward a new me. Here's wishing us both success.


  3. You are an incredible writer!

  4. I'm happy you think so. Be sure to tell all your friends, else I have to give up the writing and go back to ticking and footing columns of numbers.


Comments are always welcome. Tell me what you like and what you don't. Information, encouragement, criticism--I don't care. A day where I don't learn something new is a day lost to me.