It starts with a kick in the gut.
It was Friday, October 28, 2011. One guy who worked on the help desk side of the information technology office area as a systems administrator had already been released the day before in what was a very awkward move.
Both he and I had started seeing warning signs about the future of our jobs around the same time a couple of months before, but this guy’s warning sign was more blatant. At least I had never been told I had been put on probation like he had, and at least I hadn’t gotten a call from a headhunter while still employed letting me know that the headhunter had found a perfect job with just the right skill sets needed … only to find that the job opening listed happened to be for the position I was performing at the time – just as it had happened with the sys admin in the days shortly before that one when he was finally terminated.
“Not cool,” I said to the co-worker across the aisle from me on the programming side when he broke the news to us that Friday morning of the sys admin’s termination the late afternoon prior. “That’s just not cool.” The sys admin was apparently angry as he packed to leave, of course, slamming books into a box.
I was only left to wonder – again– about my own job two months after experiencing what was a fairly typical dressing down that I and other co-workers had experienced from a cranky boss more than a few times in the past. The fact that it happened in front of pretty much everyone on our team wasn’t even all that unusual. But this one seemed a bit more … ferocious. And the brunt of it was aimed at me. This was a boss who gave little thought at all to tearing down people’s abilities in front of others. We’d seen and heard it before and been shocked, like the time our team was brainstorming on how to improve our workflow and a co-worker of mine with good skills to be a project manager was informed by the boss that he’d been told by other managers in the company that this co-worker would be “the last person” they’d want to see as a project manager.
It didn’t help that the boss was the nephew of the man who’d started the company from scratch in 1975, and it was the only company the nephew had ever worked for since getting out of college. It was a ready-made kingdom for someone who is gifted technically but cold, impatient, rude, and condescending – to his team members and users alike – for the most part personally.
My boss’ position and family relationship to the owner has surely played a key in the security of his role with the company, even after it was purchased in 2010 by a middle-market private equity investment firm. New leadership came in, my boss suddenly had his own boss, and what had always been a cold environment to work in became even more frigid. Oh, some gestures were made to keep people happy. Cookies would occasionally show up on a “manna table” for treats, the CIO would make quick rounds with the usual “Everything going alright?” kind of greeting before quickly making his way out of the room without really spending much time talking to his employees. But moves were being made to get the bottom line looking better for any potential new owners that might come along.
I won’t say that my boss didn’t earn his position or his security. He’s a hard worker, puts in plenty of hours, knows the computer system back and forth because he pretty much designed it himself, and when it comes to computer technology — the bits and bytes — he is brilliant. But he’s always struck me as not being a warm, friendly “people person,” even from my job interview with him before I was hired. That first impression of him concerned me after I was offered the job as a software developer. I spent some time debating in my mind whether I felt comfortable about going for the job offer just because of his demeanor, but I decided to go for it even though it meant two hours of daily commute time through some of the most notoriously bad freeway driving in Utah.
The cards seemed to be stacked against me early, being given the task of supporting a complex system used almost a continent away in Miami that was a mess to begin with, for reasons much too long to go into here, not long into my stint. About three years later, that system still wasn’t perfect but it was definitely improved, thanks in part to new people on the business side in Miami coming in who I could communicate and test with much more easily, closely, and effectively, even if it meant being logged into their machines and watching them from a couple thousand miles away with a phone pressed to my ear for hours and days on end.
I did my best in absolutely everything I did, and from what I could tell the users and the vice president in the Miami office appreciated it. That Miami VP even joked with me in a semi-serious manner on several occasions about having me move there to work directly with his team. For that matter, I sat with my boss through my annual performance review a few months before my termination and received an above-average rating, even giving me credit for “driving” (his word) a particularly complex and sticky foreign currency conversion project to the finish line when it had been “stalling out” before … relatively glowing praise from this guy.
So there I was that Friday morning, two weeks ago today, learning of the sys admin losing his job the day before. In the back of my mind, I wondered if more might be in store. My cubicle was just outside my manager’s office, so I could sit there and witness his door closing for mysterious reasons throughout the day and a call to one of the human resources people over his speaker phone, followed by an email scheduling a sudden IT department meeting for later that afternoon. It turned into a busy morning mystery-wise.
Speculation was rampant. A few programmers went on their usual afternoon walk break just before the meeting. The talk was on what the meeting might possibly be all about. My guess was that it would be on the future of the department. Well, I was right … from what I was told.
A little less than five minutes before the meeting was to start, I stood up to make my way upstairs to the meeting room and my manager called me in to his office from his desk. His door was open, my co-workers were slowly making their way to the meeting themselves, and he killed a little bit of time until the area was cleared by asking me where I was at on the report program I’d been working on – a report which grew in scope every time I’d show him my test results because of his own ever-expanding expectations. When the coast was more clear, the subject changed.
“I have some news, and it’s not good. The company is going through some cutbacks. We’ve had to pick people to let go, and for us you’re it.”
I drew a deep breath and released it as I slowly said, “Oooooookaaaayyyyyy.”
“To be honest,” he continued, “I haven’t been happy with your work for a while now. I would have let you go sooner, but we decided this was the best time.”
By that time, the human resources rep he’d called earlier that morning came through the door with a final check in hand. Remaining benefits were explained, there was talk of signing up with COBRA health coverage, and it was all a blur. My mind was racing, even though a part of me expected the news. I was asked for any keys I had, I handed over my security badge, and I started packing my belongings in boxes and cleaning out my desk with the two of them watching my every move to make sure I didn’t go through with any final act of rebellion or destruction.
They escorted me out one of the rear employee doors to my car, and I loaded my boxes in the back seat. A friend that I’ve known since my final year of college and that I’ve worked with nearly throughout my entire programming career had been car-pooling with me basically the entire time we worked for the company, so I had to wait in the car in the parking lot to make sure he had a ride home. He’d been called out of the meeting early because I was ready to go, and as he got into the passenger seat he said he was sorry for what had happened.
As we made my last commute through the hazards of 30 miles or so of freeway construction for the last time, I felt afraid for my family’s future. At the same time, there was also some sense of relief. Maybe it was because of a deep, heartfelt prayer that I’d said two months earlier when the warning signs were showing with more force, ferocity, and realism, leaving it all in the hands of a greater power.
After five years with the company – having received my five-year plaque in an employee meeting just the week before with my boss congratulating and thanking me for my work and mentioning the good things that I had done – I would no longer have to feel the stress of that commute and the constantly changing expectations and not-so-subtle slams of the worst boss I’ve ever had in my life.