I’ve hired – or helped to hire – at least half a dozen people. However, so far, I’ve only been involved in one firing. If I’m lucky, I won’t be involved in any others. The one experience, when I did the company’s dirty work was abrupt and needlessly brutal, and I remain embarrassed by my acquiescence to it eight years later.
The setting was a small startup in Vancouver, the person fired a young programmer on his first job. He was a bit brash, a bit too eager to fit in with the other programmers in the company, and prone to carelessness, but nothing out of the ordinary for a young man on his first job.
Perhaps, too, his coding skills weren’t quite up to professional standards. But he was willing to work for the low wages offered, and tremendously excited to be working with free software – we all were.
Over the few months he was at the company, I noticed that he was gradually developing the necessary working habits, and I was starting to become convinced that he would develop into a useful employee with a little more time.
The trouble was, a startup isn’t the place to learn working skills. At the best of times, a startup is a rough and ready sort of place, and this was the Dot-Com Era, which made the company even more giddy than most in their first few months. People were doing things like sleeping overnight in the boxes the file cabinets arrived in – not because what they were doing was essential, but because they wanted to plunge into the whole Dot-Com experience.
Add to the fact that I was one of only two managers and we were both learning management, and running frequently to the parent company downstairs, and it wasn’t exactly a place for mentoring new workers.
Whatever the case, one day another developer reported that the newbie had been caught trying to hack into the company’s user accounts. In that milieu, the offense seemed a peccadillo, especially since the newbie pleaded that he was only trying to find information that he needed to complete his own work when an account owner wasn’t around.
However, that wasn’t how the HR manager from the parent company viewed the incident. He’d served in the Israeli army as a volunteer, and his military attitude, combined with the sense of his own righteousness, had him springing into action as soon as he heard the story. He hauled the newbie in for interrogation around 10AM, and – presumably after consulting with the owners – fired him not long after.
The first I heard of the story was when the HR manager asked me to clean out the newbie’s desk; he obviously thought the newbie capable of anything up to and including taking his computer and chair with him.
Looking around, I could see that the developer who reported the incident was regretting having done so, and that none of the other developers thought the incident very important, either. But I lacked the confidence to register my own protest, and maybe the HR manager’s grimness as he stood there, bald-headed and scowling and with his arms folded, was a little contagious.
As for the newbie, what he had expected in the way of consequences, being fired wasn’t among his expectations. He looked as though someone had hit him hard on the head and he was still recovering.
Eight months before, I had been laid off myself, so I empathized with the newbie. But then, when I was teaching, I’d always hesitated before giving a D or an F, so no doubt some people would say I was too tender-hearted. But, in this case, genuine doubt seemed to exist, and I was certain it wasn’t being heard. And even if he was as malicious as claimed, he still deserved to be heard in full before
I wanted to call for more discussion. I wanted to take the newbie aside and slip him my card, and whisper that I would help him with a search for a new job. But I was unprepared, and lacking the confidence in my new role to do either of these things. Instead, I went along with the HR manager, removing item from the desk and solemnly asking the newbie whether each one was his before dropping it in the box, while the HR manager stood sentry and another person from the parent company cordoned off the area. Possibly, I was more embarrassed than the newbie, who still didn’t seem to understand what was happening.
Somehow, I made it through that ordeal. But I never felt quite the same about the company afterwards, let alone the HR manager. I was condemning them, of course, instead of condemning myself for not doing things the right way. A few months later, the episode became one of many that made me decide to quit – an easy decision, since I had realized that the company was going nowhere (and, in fact, it failed within the year).
The next time an arbitrary firing was in the works, I’m proud to say, I did take a stand, and helped to prevent it. But I still remember the first experience with shame – and that shame would stand, even had I known that the newbie was as dastardly as claimed. I’ve never liked having power over other people – or them having power over me – and the episode was as obvious a case of abuse of power as any I’ve seen. And although the others involved in it have probably long ago forgot the incident, it remains with me as an example of a time when I didn’t live up to my own image of myself.