Thursday, January 28, 2010

Day 13 - The Joy of Surgery


You might feel a little pinch.


          I have 14 kidney stones. Some of them are quite large. The biggest one is about 5/8 of an inch in length and a quarter inch across. That is a huge piece of gravel when you consider where it has to come out. I’ve passed kidney stones before, and I can attest that doing so will make a dancer out of the stodgiest and least rhythmic of old men. My urologist has scheduled a lithotripsy to start breaking them up. He thinks it will take at least two procedures and maybe as many as four to get them all. Modern lithotripsy is a wonderful thing. They use focused sound waves to crack the stones. The doctor doing the procedure can watch the whole thing on a video screen and see how he’s doing in real time. They put you to sleep to keep you from jumping every time they zap you, but there’s no cutting. That’s the best part. I don’t like cutting.
          Cutting was featured last year when I had cancer…and then I didn’t. This is a good story for two reasons. First, at the end I’m still alive…so far anyway. Second, it illustrates why I think that Fritz is very likely a jerk.
I went for a routine colonoscopy at the end of July in 2007. I tell people that I like a colonoscopy. No one wants to believe it, but it’s true. While bits of a colonoscopy are certainly unpleasant, especially the prep the day before, I really don’t mind them. I’ve had several. They give you good drugs, they knock you out for the actual procedure, and when it’s over you get the rest of the day off even though you don’t feel bad at all. What’s not to like? I especially like them now that one has probably saved my life.
I woke up in the recovery room after this particular colonoscopy. My wife was there making sure that I remembered to breathe because for some reason I don’t find breathing all that compulsory when I wake up from general anesthesia. Also it seems I like to profess a profound and abiding affection for the nursing staff while the anesthetic is wearing off, and my wife likes to stay close to keep me from either succeeding too well at fascinating the nurses or making a fool of myself. Anyway we were thus engaged, me waking up, my wife encouraging me to breathe and stifling my other natural inclinations when the doctor came in to the room.
“Well, you have cancer,” he said, just like that, no ‘good news—bad news’ preamble, no greasing the skids, no easing the shock.
Of course I was still stoned, so the gravity of what the doctor had said really didn’t register on me. My mind was busy processing other information such as: did that gasp I just heard from my wife suck all the oxygen out of the room? And couldn’t you have sent a nurse to tell me that—say the curvy little one with the dark hair and the big eyes I just saw pushing the IV pole down the hall?
In case we were still conscious after hearing this momentous news, the doctor also brought pictures he had taken of the inside of my colon. One of them featured a protuberance with an angry looking mass on a stalk. It was quite impressive. Not the kind of thing you’d like to meet in dark alley or a Quentin Tarantino movie.
“I took a sample,” the doctor said. “We’ll send it out to the lab to confirm, but I’ve seen a lot of these. It’s cancer.”
As it turned out, he was right. The lab confirmed cancer. I got hooked up with a colorectal surgeon, and we scheduled a bowel section to remove 14 inches of southbound pipe. I suppose there’s no scarier thing you can hear from your doctor than ‘you’ve got cancer.’ I only suppose this because it seems reasonable, but the fact is that I never got scared. I got mad. I got mad as hell, but I was never really scared. I think the reason for this is that my job already sucked so much that the prospect of a terminal illness represented something like a reprieve from having to go to work. At the very least I was going to get some time off, or so I thought.
I suppose the degree to which I got angry merits some comment because who I got mad at was God, and when you have a serious disease that might kill you like cancer the usual course is to start sucking up to God in order to cut a deal. ‘Oh Lord if only you take this cancer away I promise I will go to church faithfully every Sunday, be generous when they pass the collection basket, and never ever hit on another nurse as long as I live.’ That kind of thing. My problem, the thing that made me mad, had to do with the Scripture reading and the sermon that went along with it from the Sunday before I got the troubling news about my colon.
You may know the scripture. I know I’ve heard it many times before. It is from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 11, verses 11-13: ‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
I listened and took these verses to heart. I prayed earnestly for a boon from my Father in heaven. I prayed to be delivered from my job. Really I did. That was my fish, the thing I wanted, the gift I needed, the proof that I was loved. ‘Oh, Lord, please get me the hell out of here. Give me something else to do. I’ll take less money. I’ll take a smaller office, harder work, grittier conditions. Just please don’t make me do this any longer.’ Instead I got cancer—a snake, a scorpion, a crumby deal. I was pissed, and I stayed pissed for weeks.
Then an amazing thing happened. Maybe I was just tired of being angry all the time. It takes a lot out of you—staying mad. It wears you down. You lose your edge, your focus. You begin to be open to kinder, gentler thoughts just because it gives you a break from the bile in your stomach. What happened is that it began to sink in that I could actually die, and that if I did then technically my prayers would have been answered. God just might be getting me out of that job by calling me home. When I realized that, I actually began to feel a little thankful. God does answer prayers, but frequently not in the ways that we think he should. When the day of the surgery finally arrived several weeks later I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it, and I was pretty okay with that. The Lord works in mysterious ways, doesn’t He?
So I woke up in the recovery room, and I was thirsty as hell. The nurse was busy trying to make me comfortable. My wife wasn’t there because the surgeon forgot to go tell her that I’d lived. It was just the nurse and me and the sweet freedom to become the fool I ached to be. I asked her for some water. She said I couldn’t have any. I asked her for some ice chips to suck on. She said I couldn’t have any. I told her I just needed some relief. I wasn’t going to rat her out. I promised to love her forever if she would bring me some ice chips anyway. She brought me a whole cup of ice chips. She was overwhelmed by my post surgical charms, which it would seem are becoming legendary.
The surgeon finally remembered to stop by to tell us—my wife had found me by that time—that the surgery had been a success and that I was going to live. He had an amazing tale to tell. The surgery went well. He’d taken out the agreed upon 14 inches of colon. He’d checked the lymph nodes. He’d looked all over hell’s creation for some sign of cancer but couldn’t find any. He’d found the marks that other doctor had left during the colonoscopy to indicate where he ought to cut, but he couldn’t find any cancer. He couldn’t find any polyps. He couldn’t find anything to indicate he’d done me any good whatsoever. My wife found a miracle in this. Hundreds of people were praying for me. God had heard their prayers and taken the cancer away. I had to go through the surgery so that the doctor could confirm the miracle for us. It was plain as day.
I found something else in this. I’m not so easily duped by the Almighty. It may well have been miraculous, but the upshot was that I was eventually going to have to go back to work. My prayers had been answered not at all. I was reminded of my own personal favorite scripture—favorite because it is to me the most apropos: ‘Happy the man who delights in the chastisements of the Lord.’ Apparently I had not yet been sufficiently chastised, and, even worse, now I was going to have to answer for the nurse with the ice chips.
All of this brings me back to Fritz. Fritz had replaced Clive the sweetheart shortly after the company was sold to a private equity firm (not Cerberus) out of New York. The new owners were all about efficiency, urgency, and sweeping change. They didn’t approve of sweethearts. There was no room for sensitivity in their modus operandi. They wanted change agents, fiddlers, proactive thinkers outside the box, buzzword chandlers, and jerks. They wanted the kind of managers who occasionally throw out the baby with the bathwater. They fostered the kind of environment where it doesn’t really matter what gets destroyed or lost in the process as long as you are continually moving forward.
Fritz was perfect for them. Fritz is tightly wound. Fritz hums with barely contained energy that sometimes arcs out, sparks and fries things around him. He talks in clipped sentences. When he asks you a question, instead of listening to your answer he is already processing the thing he is going to say next. Fritz thinks that when he has everyone toiling needlessly at urgent tasks, spinning their wheels, arcing and sparking just like him, that he has done a good job of managing. You can imagine Fritz as a sea captain on a clipper ship. The entire crew is up in the rigging, hauling sheets, trimming sails, dodging lightning strikes, hanging on for dear life. Fritz is furiously spinning the wheel, port to starboard, starboard to port, only the wheel is not attached to a rudder. There is no rudder so all of what everyone is doing is for naught. There is a saying carved into the bowsprit. It represents the guiding philosophy of the ship and its master: ‘If it weren’t for our sense of urgency, we wouldn’t have any sense at all.’
At the time of my surgery we were working on the annual budget. Deadlines had been posted. The first pass of the budgets had already been done. That is broad assumptions had been made and translated into expected revenue and cost numbers for the upcoming fiscal year. The second pass—a more refined, more thoroughly vetted version of the first was due two weeks after my surgery. I had already done most of the work. I felt I had a week to recover from the surgery and a week to finish up the budget. That would give me plenty of time to do the few hours work that would be required to submit by the deadline, even if I took a few more days to recover than I thought. To me everything was copacetic.
This didn’t suit Fritz. He started worrying about it while the surgical team was probing my bowels on the operating table. I had the surgery on Friday, and was released from the hospital on Sunday afternoon. I went home with a couple of dozen staples in my abdomen and a bottle of oxycodone caplets to ease my considerable discomfort. Monday morning I got a frantic call from the other Ron, the new corporate accounting manager. Fritz wanted to schedule a conference call to discuss how we were going to get my budget done while I was recuperating.
“It’s not due for two weeks,” I pointed out. “I’ll be back in the office next Monday, and the budget will be submitted by the deadline. No problem.”
“Fritz doesn’t want to wait for the deadline.”
“Then why did he publish one? I mean, come on, Ron. We discussed this at the controllers’ conference. We’ve had conference calls since. We all agreed on the gateways and the deadlines based on what was feasible and what the board of directors expected. Why does he want to change it now?”
“I don’t know. He just wants to be able to massage it for a week or so before he sends it upstream.”
I could tell that Ron was very nervous. Fritz had given him a task. Get the budgets in early. Now he was having trouble getting me on board. I wasn’t being a team player, not being flexible enough, not demonstrating sufficient dedication to the team effort. Oh no, I was lollygagging at home with a belly full of staples and a head full of pain relievers.
“Is tomorrow good for you?” Ron asked.
“I have a doctor appointment in the morning.”
“So how’s the afternoon look?”
“I’m recovering from major surgery, Ron,” I say. “I’ll be right here, in pain, on drugs, forcing fluids, and hoping I don’t get sepsis and die.”
“Okay,” he says. “I’ll try to set it up for 2:00 p.m.




The call itself was confusing. This may have had to do with the level of pain medication coursing through my system and short circuiting my synapses, or it may have just been the mind numbing drivel coming out of the phone. It was hard for me to gauge at the time. The conferees included Fritz, the two Rons and myself. I spent some time making my case that the budget would be done in plenty of time, that I had planned for being out, and that the budget was under control.
Fritz however, as New Ron had indicated, was anxious to get something early. To accomplish this he wanted me to get someone else working on massaging the budget while I was out. I didn’t want to do this. The budget is a complicated animal. It resides in a huge interactive spreadsheet. Someone who doesn’t understand where everything is and how everything interacts could easily damage it. It is so complicated that it ranks among those things—we all have them—that are harder to explain than they are to do. Fritz wanted me to tell the new Ron how to do it. I knew that this would be harder than just coming in and doing it myself—even on drugs. I also knew that explaining this to Fritz in such a way that he would believe it would be more difficult still.
I began to think that I would never get off the phone. Fritz was going to keep us talking until he got a resolution that suited him. I only had two outs. I either had to die—interesting don’t you think how many of my problems seem to have an untimely death as a viable solution—or I had to lie. I decided to lie. I told Fritz that I would go over the details of the budget with new Ron and get him accumulating and analyzing expense data. I told him there was no reason for all of us to discuss the detail on a conference call. New Ron and I could do it privately after we all hung up. I told him that this way we could have him the second pass at the beginning of the following week rather than the end. He seemed to be happy to have made things more difficult for all of us, which is after all his own personal gauge on his effectiveness as a manager. That he chose to do it three days after I underwent major surgery makes him, in my book, a monumental jerk.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Day 12 - Good News Bad News

          A recruiter called today about a job with an aerospace firm in Tulsa. She, the recruiter, found my résumé on line. She thinks I would be a good fit. She wondered if I would be willing to relocate to Tulsa. I love Tulsa. I have a lot of close friends there. I’ve been telling people since I left Oklahoma that I would move back there in a heartbeat. We talked for a while and she agreed to submit my résumé to her client. This is a very cool development.
          At work there is still no word on my replacement. People were stopping me in the hallways to ask am I leaving or what. Everyone seemed surprised to see me walking around doing the same old stuff after all the rumors that I’d been shot dead. In response I just grin and nod. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. What does anyone say in a situation like this? Probably best just to say nothing, and that’s pretty much what I did.
          There’s still no revised severance agreement to sign either. I’m in limbo. The closing is finished. All the reports are submitted. I spent some time with Helen going over projects she’s been working on. We have a physical inventory coming up at the end of October, which is also the end of our fiscal year. Auditors will be here to verify our counts. We have also just implemented a perpetual inventory system, so the physical inventory will validate the accuracy and efficacy of the new perpetual system.
I already know that it’s not going to be very pretty. The cycle counts are showing large shrinkages in key commodities. This means that our bills of material are wrong, that we are not assigning enough material cost to our products so that our margins are inflated from reality. I’ve been having a hard time convincing Fritz to take the adjustments now rather than waiting until year end. He thinks my assessment of our shortfall is too pessimistic. He thinks I’m stupid. To be fair, he thinks everyone is stupid. He doesn’t think there’s any way we could be using up as much unaccounted material as I say we are. I’ll be happy to be gone by the time they do the inventory counts. I hate physical inventories. They are always worrisome, and they always wear me out.
Lehman Brothers filed bankruptcy today. The government decided to let them fail. There’s been a lot of other activity since the beginning of the month, some of it scary, most of it curious. Seems to me that things must be way worse than they are letting on at the moment.
This was the beginning of the end--September 2008--when so many problems in the economy came to a head and the various bubbles and dams burst unleashing a flood of troubles. Follow the following link for a pretty good discussion of all the factors involved:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_crisis_of_2007%E2%80%932010 

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Day 9 - Sometimes Sweet Retribution

          Simpson headed back to Kentucky today. I don’t think he learned very much about closing the books. In fact I think he found some of the routines a bit daunting. It’s a very convoluted and intensely manual process. We take a lot of information out of the system, schedule it on spreadsheets, manipulate it, and then journalize the results back into the general ledger accounts. It is an arcane system, non-integrated, fraught with opportunities for error, and ridiculous. I knew that when I hired on. I was okay with it because I knew that I could deal with it. It fit my background. It provided me a lot of ways to look like some kind of accounting hero by streamlining relatively simple tasks. I was happy until the board of directors and the owners decided to sell the company.



         Honestly, I had landed a cushy job in a successful niche business with a podunk, backwater accounting system that no hot-shot wizard accountant would ever want to have to deal with. Management was happy with the information they were getting. I knew how to make them even happier with a minimum of effort and hassle. I had a sweet situation, and I had security. All of that changed almost overnight. Thinking back on it makes me want to cry.
          I lost the job before this one in 2006. The circumstances were different, but not so different as to make losing that job rankle less. In fact it may have rankled more. The company I worked for then reorganized in a pre-pack bankruptcy. That means that the reorganization plan was drawn up and approved by the creditors before it was ever filed. It was in and out of federal bankruptcy court in less than 36 hours. At the time it was the fastest pre-pack bankruptcy in the history of bankruptcies. It may still be. I don’t know.
          In any event, part of the plan specified that the company had to trim its annual overhead by $15 million. That meant a significant reduction in administrative personnel, and that reduction included me—unfortunate, but it happens. That’s the polished surface, the face, that’s put on these kinds of things, and when it happens management adopts a stern and funereal posture and waxes eloquent about how saving the company entails making some hard decisions, some difficult choices, but they have to be made for the greater good of the company and the greatest number of stakeholders.
          The reality though is that down in the trenches some poor schmuck has to decide who goes and who stays. These decisions are difficult, painful even, for the sweethearts, but they are easy for the jerks. They are especially easy for the fatuous, vacuous bastards furiously working their own agendas. My name got added to the list by one of those hot-shot wizard accountants who was advancing his career at my expense. Then the addition of my name to the list was approved by a succession of empty suits—the very crew that had made it necessary for the company to reorganize in bankruptcy in the first place. Had it not been for an unfortunate series of boneheaded decisions taken against the best advice of people who knew better, the company would have turned around nicely and posted attractive profits. Now the soulless louts who had made those decisions were deciding that I was dead wood, part of the detritus that had to be jettisoned to keep the company afloat. The result was I was out on the street looking for work, and the serendipitous consequence of that was I ended up with a better job in a better place. Thank you very much, you fatuous, vacuous bastards, because the serendipity was only short lived.
          When my current company decided to sell, all the wonderful backwater ease that went along with my new job went right out the window. What I was left with then was a monumental amount of work to accomplish with woefully inadequate systems. What had been quaint was now the modern bookkeeping equivalent of the Aegean Stables. If only it had smelled so sweet.
          There was one interesting development. Cerberus—a major player in the private equity investment game came knocking on our door with interest in acquiring the company. Cerberus is perhaps not a household name, but they are huge. At that time they owned a controlling interest in GMAC. They were quickly developing a majority stake in our industry in North America. They have since bought Chrysler. At the time they were high flying wonder kids with a mountain of cash and the investment world at their feet. At the same time they were courting us and launching into their due diligence exercises they were also buying the company I had just come from—the company of fatuous, vacuous bastards—those guys. Cerberus already had a deal with them. They had signed a letter of intent and made an announcement of sorts. When the boys from Cerberus found out that I had come from the company they were buying, they were very interested to talk to me.
          One of them—I later found out that he was the lead on the due diligence team—came to my office and closed the door.
          “If you had just bought your former company,” he said, “what would be your primary concern?”
          I'm not a big believer in karma, but I swear to you that the heavens opened up at that moment, and I heard angels singing. 

Monday, January 25, 2010

Day 8 - Funny Business

          Simpson showed up this morning from Kentucky. He actually let me know he was coming, which is kind of unusual for him. Ron likes springing a big surprise. I think he secretly hopes that he will find someone doing something they shouldn’t if he catches them off guard. He’s here to go through the closing with me so he can help my replacement should the replacement turn out not to be a quick study. I imagine that Fritz also wants Ron to do a read on me to make sure I’m not going to throw them a knuckleball or a spitter. I’ve never done anything to suggest to them that they shouldn’t trust me, so I’m beginning to think that they think that they have done something so heinous to me that I will completely change character and launch a personal vendetta. They don’t have any idea how happy I am to be shed of them. I’m not going to say anything. I don’t want them to get the idea that they can take the severance away and I’d still stay happily gone. I may be trustworthy, but I’m not above taking advantage of what little leverage comes my way.
          Parts of this were confirmed when Ron called Fritz from my office to report in. “He seems okay,” he said to Fritz at one point in their conversation.
          “Fritz checking up on my attitude?” I asked when Ron hung up.
          “Yeah. He wanted me to take your temperature.”
          I thought of a rectal thermometer as soon as he said this, mostly because that image fits the new elevated esteem that I have for these bozos. I didn’t say anything about this of course. I was the very picture of maturity and judiciousness.
          “How’s he doing finding my replacement?” I asked.
          “I don’t know.”
          Ron seemed a little deflated to have to admit this. Ron likes to let you know that he is in the know, so it would follow that he’s not that happy with not being in the know. When he brightened suddenly and broke into a conspiratorial grin, I knew that he was about to share something with me that he shouldn’t in order to make up for not knowing how Fritz is fairing with my replacement.
          “I don’t think Fritz has gotten over the first guy turning him down,” he said.
          “Oh, really?”
          “Really. Do you know that the guy took another job for less money than we were offering?”
          “Oh, really? The guy said that?”
          “No, but his recruiter did…and do you know why?”
          “I can’t imagine.”
          “He said the guy talked to Fritz for an hour and a half in the interview, and Fritz never said one thing to convince him that this was a good place to work.”
          “He took less money because of that?”
          “Well according to the recruiter it wasn’t so much that Fritz couldn’t convince him. It was more like he didn’t even try.”
          “Why am I not surprised?” I asked.
          Ron nodded his head. I thought that if I could show Fritz a video of this conversation between Simpson and me, Simpson would be training his own replacement in pretty short order. This was a way more gratifying image for me than the rectal thermometer.
*****
          The proximal cause of my getting fired was someone else’s marital infidelity. That’s how I read it. It’s rather more complicated than that, but that’s where it all began for me.
One fine night in July, Threasher, the corporate human resources director in Kentucky got a phone call from a woman who lives in Nebraska. She related that her common law husband worked for a maintenance and cleaning services company that had contracted with our company to clean our buildings and provide other maintenance and repair services at our facility in Omaha. She went on to say that this man had been stealing materials from our facilities and storing them in a warehouse leased for that purpose. She said that he had confided to her that he now had over $100,000 worth of our inventory stored there. Then, even more remarkably, she went on to say that the director of maintenance and facilities at the Omaha location had full knowledge of these alleged facts.
Threasher was curious as to why the woman had called him with these revelations. She told him that her common law husband, the alleged thief and ware-houser of stolen property, had confessed to her that he had a girlfriend who was now pregnant with his child. Incensed at this betrayal, she had decided to gain retribution by revealing his ill-gotten gain to the management of the company he had bilked. Why she chose Threasher in Kentucky rather than Bill in Omaha, and how she had got Threasher’s phone number remains a mystery to me, but these revelations were the beginning of the end, in quite short order, for the head of maintenance, and eventually, months later, for me.
Threasher called Bill. Bill called the maintenance guy. They met at the office in the dark of night, and Bill commenced an interrogation that, after a series of missteps, deceptions, lies, catchings-in-lies, and subsequent revelations, disclosed really only one pertinent fact.  The maintenance guy (let’s call him Larry) was in fact the owner of the company that had contracted with our company to clean the buildings—the company that employed the errant common law husband on whom the deceived common law wife had ostensibly blown the whistle. This of course represented a serious conflict of interest and was in fact strictly forbidden by company policy.
There was no admission at this time (nor would there ever be) of any thievery, or of the warehousing of stolen property, or of any knowledge of the same. Bill asked for and received the maintenance guy’s resignation, effective immediately. Gina, the local HR manager came in to prepare the necessary paperwork into the wee hours of the morning.
This is the state of affairs that confronted me the following morning. Bill caught me in the hallway and shepherded me into his office while I was on my way, lunch bag in hand, to mine. He laid out the whole sordid story from beginning to end. He wanted me to immediately launch a full scale accounting investigation into every transaction that had Larry’s fingerprints all the way back to his date of hire, which, thankfully, had not been but 8 months or so before. As it turned out, and unbeknownst to me at the time, this was like handing me a shovel and asking me to dig my own grave.
Now I have to say at this point that Larry’s conduct, his modus operandi, had ever been a source of suspicion for me. He spent money like it was water, and his guiding philosophy seemed to be it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission. The problem was that Larry never had much trouble getting either—forgiveness or permission. It seemed to me that he was given pretty much a free hand to get our facilities up to snuff. There were certainly a lot of things that needed to be addressed, and Larry was no slacker when it came to getting things done.
In addition to several buildings that were in considerable disrepair and equipment that was constantly breaking down and causing stoppages in production, the company was also trying to implement a lean manufacturing initiative. They had earmarked a prodigious sum of money to upgrade facilities and to improve and rearrange machinery to eliminate waste—the main focus of a lean implementation. Larry worked hand in hand with the vice president of operations (let’s call him Juan) to make this happen.
Now besides suffering from years of more or less benign neglect our facilities had been built and structured to purpose on the cheap and in a piecemeal and haphazard fashion. The result was electrical and plumbing systems that were not up to code and did not support the volume of work they were being asked to perform. All this had to be fixed. It would have been a good idea to fix these things anyway, but in a lean environment, where downtime and wasted motion are mortal sins, these fixes became critical tasks.
Larry was in some respects the perfect guy to do this because he didn’t let anything get in his way. Unfortunately one of the things that he didn’t let get in his way was policy, especially policy as it relates to accountability along with its attendant paperwork. Larry bought into the lean concepts with all his heart. The guiding principal of lean is that everything you do has to be value added, and in Larry’s lean heart of darkness paperwork did not add value. Paperwork slowed you down. Paperwork was the enemy. He was not alone in thinking this.
Now when a person such as Larry goes to work in an organization that has robust controls in place and rigorous enforcement of well documented policies and procedures, the Larry person usually finds his natural creativity unnaturally stifled and he moves on to greener pastures in relatively short order. If on the other hand he finds himself in an environment where the policies are arcane and slipshod and only infrequently and arbitrarily enforced, then he is in his element and will flourish. This particular Larry had not only landed in the second such place, but had landed at a time when everything was being reinvented under the lean imprimatur. So long as Larry produced the results that management was looking for Larry flourished. When Larry overstepped his bounds, as he was likely to do on occasion, management tended to look the other way, excusing his excesses because they were seeing him transform our facilities into something approaching a lean showcase.
Larry’s style first became problematic for me when he started exceeding the budgets for the lean implementation and facilities consolidation. These budgets had been developed in considerable detail before Larry’s arrival on the scene, and were scheduled by me and monitored in total by corporate finance on a monthly basis. When Larry started exceeding the budgeted amounts, I started scheduling out his expenditures in detail—that is line by line—and analyzing the payment details to determine their appropriateness. I had some misgivings about the nature of some of the amounts, and felt that they were in fact misclassified, that they should not have been charged to the lean and consolidation budgets at all, but rather to operations. I distributed the schedules to Larry, Juan, Bill, Fritz, and Ron for review and comment. While we made numerous reclassification adjustments to correct these charges, no one ever questioned whether or not these expenditures had been properly authorized. In fact it appeared as though they had because they all had signed purchase orders attached and Larry and Juan provided succinct and plausible explanations as to what the purchases were for and why they were necessary.
When I questioned the amounts of some of the expenditures, $84,000 for instance to change out all the locks on the premises, I was shown valid purchase orders, signed authorizations, and told that the change had been mandated by OSHA and had to do with accessibility to closed rooms by the fire department in the event of a fire or other disaster.
When Larry’s conflict of interest problem came to light, I had to revisit all these analyses I had already performed. It wasn’t just Bill who wanted this either. By the time I got to my office after getting marching orders from Bill I found several hysterical e-mails from Fritz demanding a complete and immediate review of all transactions initiated by or involving Larry in any way—to include especially any that had to do with the janitorial and maintenance services company owned by Larry. I have to say that at this point I agreed with Fritz’ sense of urgency regarding said review, but it did occur to me that he must have talked to Bill and known that such a process was already being initiated so the hysteria to me seemed a little misplaced.
Curiously absent in the hysteria was any mention whatsoever of the alleged thefts of inventory and any urgency attached to locating the alleged warehouse. I should point out here that in fact no warehouse was ever found, nor was any credible proof that materials had gone missing in any systematic, recurring way, although we certainly didn’t know that this would be the case early in the investigations. It was eventually concluded that the aggrieved woman had made up a great deal of the story wholesale just to dip the errant and randy common law husband in the grease.
The result of the review was that all the transactions seemed normal and reasonable. The janitorial and maintenance services costs had actually decreased somewhat since Larry replaced the former contractor with the one surreptitiously owned by himself. In fact Larry had indicated to Bill in the process of coming clean that the reason he set up his own company was that he couldn’t find anyone else to do the work to his satisfaction at rates he found reasonable. He claimed that he would have preferred to do the work internally, but the current budgets and lean initiative had obviated the addition of any indirect personnel to our payroll. I don’t know how much of Larry’s explanation was true and how much was smoke blown to deflect the attention he was getting during Bill’s interrogation. What I do know is that the transactions I looked at, while they might not have been squeaky clean, at least supported Larry’s contention that he was just trying to save money. In my opinion the only serious problem was the alleged missing inventory, but no one else seemed to be concerned about this.
Several days later, I received notice that Ron Simpson was coming (on Fritz’ orders) to conduct his own review of Larry’s activities. I knew that this was going to be a huge pain for me, that a lot of work was going to be duplicated not just for me but for my staff as well. I don’t know why Fritz decided to do this. The only two possible reasons are the either he thought I was incompetent to conduct the review or he thought that I had colluded with Larry somehow to defraud the company. In any event to forestall having to do things twice I stopped my review in its tracks and awaited Ron’s arrival.
Ron stayed three days, made an extensive review of a large volume of transactions—most of them in the lean and plant consolidation categories I had already analyzed, scheduled and distributed to him, Fritz, and Bill. He found a few items that should, according to policy, have required an authorization for expenditure form (AFE) to be filled out and signed by management before being processed for payment. Instead these items had post-dated purchase orders attached.
The post dated purchase orders meant that my accounts payable clerks had pulled the invoice because it did not have sufficient documentation for payment, and routed it to purchasing for review and approval. Invoices submitted for payment must usually reference a purchase order as evidence that the purchase was properly authorized and a receiving document as evidence that the items invoiced have in fact been delivered to us. Payment is only made when the required documentation is either attached or matched in the system. In the normal course of business my clerks would not know without a lot of research that an authorization for expenditure (AFE) was also required. If they can match a PO and a receiver they pay the invoice. If they cannot match, they route the invoice to purchasing for resolution. If purchasing returns the invoice with a PO and notes some proof of delivery the invoice is then paid.
The trap in these few expenditures was an antique policy written in the days of an anal retentive corporate management. This policy required that an AFE be executed and signed by the president of the company in Kentucky for all non inventory expenditures in excess of $250. Holy crap! We’ve got annual revenues in excess of $110 million. Virtually every expenditure we make is over $250. This is the most burdensome and ridiculous policy I have ever seen or heard of. In the company I just came from line managers on the floor could authorize expenditures of up to $1,000 without having to get an approval. The vice president in charge of a division had authority to spend up to $10,000. A $250 spending limit would grind a company like ours to a halt. It would make a champion of lean enterprise blanch.   
We had actually discussed this policy at our company-wide controllers’ conference nearly a year previous to the Larry fiasco. We had agreed then that the spending limits were overly burdensome and needed to be revised upwards. No one did anything about it though. One of New Ron’s projects was supposed to have been rewriting the accounting policies and procedures manual. Unfortunately Fritz had changed direction and fired New Ron before he got around to doing this. I had no recourse at this point but to agree with Old Ron that there were indeed some expenditures initiated by Larry that were contradictory to policy.
When Ron finished his review he met with Bill and me to go over his findings. He indicated that while it appeared that Larry had deliberately undertaken to circumvent some of our controls, there was no evidence to suggest that he had done so in order to convert any company assets to his own benefit. That is Larry had not stolen or misappropriated any company funds, and his peccadilloes, to the extent they could be identified, appeared to be undertaken only so that Larry could avoid any additional paperwork. In other words there were no alarming transactions in our system indicating any serious problems or evidencing any malfeasance.
          Then Ron flew back to Kentucky and wrote a report that made it sound as if there was wholesale disregard for any and all accounting safeguards, policies and procedures at our company, and that under my watch it was nothing short of a miracle than the company had not been robbed, bilked, scammed, and purloined into insolvency. Did I already say holy crap!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Day 7 - I Put Points on the Board, So It's Not a Complete Rout

          Bill came to my office this morning. He stood in the doorway for a while without saying anything. This is not like Bill. He’s one of those brusque types who starts talking before he’s even through the door with complete disregard for whatever else you might be doing or to whomever else you may already be talking.
          “I talked to Threasher about the medical insurance,” he said at last. “We can’t just leave you on the insurance and pay the group premiums because of the way our contract is structured.”
          “I’ve got to have it,” I say.
          “I know,” He said. “Threasher told me how high the COBRA premiums are. I was shocked. What he wants to do instead is just cut you a check for four months of premium, and let you deal with COBRA.”
          I agreed, and he started to leave. I wondered if he was ever going to mention the fact that my replacement isn’t coming. It’s like he was afraid he’d give me some kind of advantage, like saying it out loud would make it worse. I decided to help him get past this impasse by ripping the scab off.
          “I understand that my replacement took another job,” I said.
          Bill stopped and turned around in the doorway. He stepped back into my office and closed the door, but he left his hand on the doorknob.
          “Fritz is making an offer to another candidate,” he said. “We should know something in a day or two.”
          “I’ll have the closing finished before he can start,” I said. “I’ll have to stay on another month and walk him through the next closing.”
          “Yeah. We’ll probably have to redo the severance agreement with new dates. We’ll just have to see how soon he can start.”
           


          I couldn’t resist. “As long as we’re redoing the severance agreement…?”  
          Bill flinched a little at this. I know I would have if I was him.
          “Yeah?”
          “Besides the medical I think maybe I should press for eight months salary and a new car. What do you think?”
          He turned, opened the door, and walked out of the office without looking back. There’s no telling what was on his mind although I’d like to think that I got under his skin a little bit. Whatever it was, he wasn’t giving me the satisfaction of a reaction. I didn’t even get to tell him what kind of car I wanted. I guess the black Aston Martin DBS I have as wallpaper on my computer frightened him. 

Friday, January 22, 2010

Day 6 - Then a Funny Thing Happened

          I went to the office about 10:00 this morning. I went right to Bill’s office. I’d decided to put his mind at ease.
          “I just wanted you to know,” I said, “That even though I disagree with you about the events leading up to my dismissal, I’m going to be an adult about it.”
          He looked at me kind of funny, almost like he didn’t know what I was talking about. I had to wonder what was really on his mind if he wasn’t worried about me doing something vindictive.
          “Did you sign the agreement?” he asked. “I know you’ve got 7 days, but corporate wants it back as soon as possible.”
          Honestly I don’t know what they’re afraid of. Sometimes the executive team goes off on a jag, and you can’t rein them in with logic. You just have to give them what they want. I told Bill I hadn’t signed it yet because I wanted to make a change to it. This got his interest. I guess nobody ever tried to negotiate better severance terms with him before. I told him I wanted them to pay my medical insurance for the duration of the severance.
          “The COBRA premium is over $800 a month,” I said. “That’s a big nut for me to handle. I’m a 60 year old cancer survivor with high blood pressure and kidney stones. I don’t want to let losing my job become a death sentence because I have to drop my medical coverage.”
          “I’ll talk to Threasher and see what we can do,” he said.
          I’m thinking if they’re so anxious to get the agreement signed, maybe they’ll cave on this point as an inducement. We’ll see.
          I headed to my office—not mine anymore; I’ll have to remember that. I didn’t see any evidence of my replacement. The office looked exactly as it did when I left it on Thursday. I went next door to the assistant controller’s office. I decided to wait there until the new guy showed up. I didn’t want to seem like I was going to be difficult to dislodge when he got there.
          Helen, the assistant controller, wanted to know how I was holding up. I told her I was doing pretty well under the circumstances, that it felt good to be free, but I was anxious to get on with showing the new controller the ropes.
          “Didn’t you hear?” she said. “He’s not coming.”
          I was stunned by this bit of news. You’d think that Bill would have thought that this was an important thing to share with me. I guess it explains his strange expressions and his seeming worry about how I might gum up the transition. There wasn’t going to be a transition. Seems the guy they hired to replace me called on Thursday afternoon—just a couple of hours after I left the office with the manila folder—to say that he had decided not to accept the company’s offer after all.
          I went back to the office that was apparently still mine for a while, and sat down in the still-my-chair. I felt the beginnings of an uncomfortably big grin spreading across face. What the hell. I called my wife to share the news with her. This was too cool, too funny, to sit on. Still I didn’t know what to make of it. I guess Bill didn’t either. He seemed pretty adamant on Thursday about throwing me out on the street. Now he’s got to regroup, and he can’t do it alone. He’s got to wait for Fritz and Threasher in Kentucky to regroup first and tell him what to do.
          One thing seemed pretty clear to me. Someone needs to be working on closing the books for the month just ended. The only person on the planet who knows everything about how to do that is me. So someone—probably Bill—is going to have to kiss my ass just a little bit to make sure that I don’t suddenly decide that I like the three month severance option better after all, and so won’t be helping with the transition as I had originally indicated. I suddenly found the job that I used to loathe immensely entertaining. I kind of wish that I still had it. Oh wait…I do!
          Ron Simpson called in the afternoon. Ron is the corporate controller in Kentucky. He consolidates the financials from all the divisions into one master set of statements for the whole company. He is Fritz’s right hand man. There was a period of time about six months ago when it seemed to me like Ron Simpson was not going to be the CFO’s right hand man. Instead another Ron, a new hire by the CFO was going to assume that role. The other Ron didn’t last though. He sold his house in Boston, bought a new house in Omaha and started work in an office down the hall from mine as the corporate accounting manager. Six months later Fritz decided to let him go. He told him they had decided to go a different direction, whatever that was supposed to mean. It’s possible that Fritz, like Bill, is a jerk as well.
          I wonder if Ron Simpson had anything to do with Fritz’s change of direction. I wonder this because before the change of direction, Simpson who was part of the old regime—the regime of Clive the sweetheart—was going to have to step down from his position as corporate controller to become controller of one of the other divisions. After New Ron’s untimely and surprise demise Simpson’s star was once again on the rise. I Don’t know of course—like much of what I think it’s just idle conjecture. Still…
          Anyway what Simpson wanted to know was how was I doing on the month-end closing. I was happy to tell him that since, technically, I Didn’t work there anymore I was waiting for the new controller, my replacement, to show up so I could assist in the transition as I had agreed.
          “He’s not coming,” Ron said.
          “Who’s not coming?” I asked.
          “The new controller. Don’t you already know this?”
          “I spoke to Bill this morning, and he didn’t say anything about it,” I said.
          “Well he’s not taking the job,” Simpson said. “He called early Thursday afternoon to say that he was taking another job. Fritz was in a board meeting so we had to send a note in to tell him.”
          “Two hours after I left?” I said. “I’ll bet Fritz was fit to be tied.”
          “You might say that,” Ron said. “He texted the guy during the meeting to tell him how disappointed he was and how unprofessional he thought it was, considering that the guy had accepted the offer in writing.”
          “Fritz sent a text during the board meeting to tell the guy he thought he was unprofessional?”
          “That’s what he told me.”
          “How would Fritz even know?”
          “Know what?”
          “What’s unprofessional.”
          This may be the most fun I ever had at work. Oh wait…I’m not at work. I keep forgetting.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Day 2 - At Sea

          I didn’t sleep very well last night. I don’t guess I should have expected to. I kept replaying the meeting with Bill and all the events that led up to it. Something stinks here, but I’m not sure what. Thinking about it at this point is probably counterproductive. It’s not like I can undo anything that’s been done. They really went out of their way to make sure that’s the case. By ‘they’ of course I mean Bill, Fritz the CFO, and Threasher the HR Director. They contrived to keep me in a position of weakness, to limit my options, to force me to behave in a certain and specific way that limits their exposure. It’s all done to protect the company and its assets. I can’t really blame them in that regard. It’s their job. It used to be mine. Now though I’m on the receiving end of the company’s big stick, and there’s no carrot in sight.
The severance agreement is the controlling document. If I don’t sign it I can do anything I want. I can sue them for wrongful termination. I can bad mouth them in public forums so long as I don’t libel them. The beauty of the agreement for them is on the one hand whatever I do isn’t likely to have a very deleterious effect on them, and on the other it would take eons for me to get any legal satisfaction. A wrongful termination suit takes forever, and there are no guarantees because I also signed a paper when I was hired that says that I understand that my employment is at the company’s pleasure, and can be terminated by them at anytime without prejudice. So whatever I might do to get justice, assuming that I even need justice, is uncertain and long-range. Meanwhile, if I just sign the severance agreement, I begin to get paid. I continue receiving my salary for four months provided I abide by all the other terms of the agreement. The other terms are basically that I won’t make any waves. As soon as I do they can stop any further severance payments, and even demand back any payments they may already have made.
          In my case the agreement also stipulates that I may not discuss the terms of the agreement or even acknowledge that a severance agreement exists without voiding same. That’s harsh! I already told a bunch of people about the three-month/four-month thing before I even read the damn thing. I haven’t even signed it yet and already I’m in violation.
          Of course I’m going to sign the agreement. I’d be a fool not to. Like Bill said, I’m smart. I’m going to help with the transition too. I need the extra month of salary. The economy is in the tank and spinning down the drain. Lehman Brothers posted the biggest quarterly loss in its history this morning. So far the Fed is refusing to bail them out.
This is could easily be the hiccup that brings the whole system down. I’ve been listening to bad economic news for a year now.


  


There is a mountain of sub-prime debt out there that has been securitized and resold as a seemingly sound investment—often to the very banks that made the risky loans in the first place. You’d think they would know better. The whole house of cards is guaranteed by untold trillions of dollars of credit default swap derivatives that are neither regulated nor scrutinized by any agency of government. It’s only going to take a tiny pin prick in just the right place to let the air out of the whole mess. We’ll be years recovering from the fallout.
The economy aside, I’m getting to be an old codger. I may need every bit of 4 months severance to get another job. Then again I may not. Wouldn’t it be great to get a job in a couple of weeks and be able to bank 4 months of extra salary. That would be like $32,000 of found money. That would make up for the fact that there won’t be any bonuses this year because the company has fallen way short of the budgeted earnings target. Of course I wouldn’t get one anyway would I? I’ve been fired.
          I called Bill to tell him I’ll take the 4 month deal and that I’ll be in on Tuesday (It’s Labor Day week-end) to show the new guy the ropes. Bill seemed hesitant about this. I wondered if he’s changed his mind. That’s too bad. The company made the offer in writing. I’m taking it.
Bill said maybe I shouldn’t come in too early. He’s got some things he needs to iron out before he puts me together with my replacement. I figure he wants to talk to me, to see what kind of trouble I might be thinking about making for him before he just turns me loose with the new guy. It wouldn’t be like me to make trouble if I say I’m going to help although it might be like Bill to do that, which would explain why he doesn’t trust me. That’s been my experience in business, and in life too for that matter. If someone is unreasonably mistrustful, it’s often because they themselves couldn’t be trusted in the same situation. I’ll just have to put Bill’s mind at ease on Tuesday.
          Meanwhile I uncorked my online accounts at all the internet job sights I used the last time I was looking for work. That would be when I got the job I just got fired from. Back then it had been a perfect fit. I was tailor made for that job, and it was perfect for me. They knew it too. When I interviewed Bill, I asked him how many candidates he was talking to about the position. He said that they had received hundreds of résumés, but after going through them all he was only talking to me. I knew the job was mine right then. They made me an offer a few days later. I had to talk to the CFO first, but that was just a formality. The CFO then, Clive, was a different guy than the one they have now. Clive was a sweetheart. The one they have now, Fritz…not so much. Fritz is the guy who told Bill to fire me.
          I updated my résumé and my contact information. I made everything visible to recruiters and job posters. I took a look at the job listings. It looks to me as though there are a lot of accounting jobs out there. Of course that doesn’t mean there is one for me, but at least there is hope. I’m not likely to find a job that perfect again. Hell even the perfect job I found last time didn’t stay perfect very long. I guess in retrospect I should have known it was too good to be true when I took it.

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.