Considering the number of jobs I’ve worked at, I’m surprised that I’ve only been fired once. I use the word “fired” deliberately, since I dislike euphemisms like “laid off” or “made redundant”and consider them inaccurate. It was experience that I found humiliating and unfair, and my wish not to repeat it helps to explain the fact that I’ve usually worked freelance or as a consultant ever since.
At the time, I was working as a technical writer. I had a job at one company that bored me to tears, so I hired a sub-contractor to do that, taking a modest hourly cut from her salary and showing up there one day a week. The other four, I worked at another company that wanted my services.
My four day a week job was everything that the other was not. It was new, and I was learning Unix, and I shared an office with two other people who were intelligent and shared a cynical sense of humor. Best of all, I was laying the groundwork for the company’s documentation, recording for the first time much of the information on which the company ran, which was a creative challenge as I struggled to understand the software system and to pry information out of the brains of uncooperative developers (this was before my knowledge of free and open source software made me tolerated in the world of programmers).
All seemed to be going well. The manager to whom I reported wanted me to turn full-time after my first week, and we had a mutual interest in birds (in fact, most of my initial job interview was spent talking about parrots). Elsewhere in the company, people were talking of me as someone who was dong the impossible, since I was the third person to try to give the company some documentation, and I seemed to be succeeding.
Then, one day after I had been working at the company for several months, I heard that the company had lost a major customer. I made the expected solemn noises when I heard, but didn’t think too much about the news, even when rumors of staff cuts started circulating about mid-morning. After all, I thought myself a star employee, so they couldn’t be about to fire me.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had forgotten what passes for wisdom among executives – the idea that the last hired or those on contract should go first, regardless of how irreplaceable they might be.
Early in the afternoon, the manager of my section called me in and told me I was being laid off. My first reaction was a wordless sound of disbelief. In my naivety and self-conceit, I had been taking the praise I had received as an indication of how the company regarded my work.
My second was to find a reason for the event. After a moment, I remembered an incident in which part of a printing job needed redoing because of a mistake in the address. Hesitantly, I asked if that was the reason for me being fired.
“Let’s just say that it made the decision easier,” the manager said, suddenly stern.
I pointed out that, while the final responsibility was mine, both he and the president of the company had proofread the job, and so had some of the blame for that mistake. The manager sputtered for a bit, and I realized that all I had done was give him an excuse where he hadn’t had one before.
I could recall far more costly mistakes, including a couple by the manager.
But the excuse didn’t matter. The manager told my office mates to make themselves scarce, and stood over me while I cleaned out my workstation.
To give him credit, he did say that he thought me unlikely to steal or sabotage anything. But he treated me like a potential troublemaker anyway, and I had one of my first direct insights into how expectations and policy could make a basically decent but courage-deficient person act like a stranger to someone who was a friend.
Full of resentment, I packed my things and left, so quickly that I forgot a little plaque with a Northwest Coast design on it. The office manager left a phone message about the plaque, but I never did retrieve it. I didn’t want to return to the place where I had been treated that way, or to face my office mates after what I considered a public humiliation. Never mind that three of the other recent hires were also fired; I took the action personally.
A couple of years later, I met one of my office mates on the Skytrain, and he said that they had all been hurt that I hadn’t kept in touch. A touch icily, I observed that they had never tried to contact me, either.
In the end, I wasn’t largely unaffected financially by the incident. The other company had enough work that needed doing that I could return full time there, while still receiving the stipend for supervising the sub-contractor. But the incident left me more cynical and less trusting, and at some level I promised myself never to endure the situation again.
The next time it looked like financial troubles meant that a company at which I was a long-term consultant was about to lay off people, I bailed a week before the staff was nine-times decimated. The company’s president had promised me a job as long as I wanted one, but I decided not to put his character to the test; instinct told me that he would have failed.
Very quickly, too, I decided that I would not worry about full-time employment and stay freelance. To this day, I dislike people have the power of judgment over me, especially when they are under no restraints to use that power responsibly or fairly.
Even now, I avoid situations where someone might exercise that power over me. Some people might say that shows a bad attitude, but, in the end, I’m glad to have it. If I hadn’t learned to feel that way, I might not be doing almost exactly what I want for a living.
Read Full Post »