Notes from the Scrap Heap: It’s Not Personal. It’s Business.

The nineteenth of November, 2010, dawned like any other. It was the Friday before Thanksgiving. Already the “Holiday Season” was getting under way, as retailers were wasting no time trying to lure the reluctant customers into their stores for the busiest shopping period of the year.

In our company, business had been slack since the general economic crash of 2008—the crash which grew out of the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007, as we described in the post “From Bailey Park to Pottersville.” For over a year, none of us in the production side of the business had gone a full day without dead time. There were days when there was no production work at all for anyone. Not all the reasons had to do with the state of the economy; after all, any damned fool can make money in good times. It takes no special ability at all. A good businessman or businesswoman is one who can make a profit—or at least break even—in bad times. It’s the hard times that separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff, and it was becoming clear to me and to all of us that our boss was being winnowed with the chaff.

The boss had made a number of management decisions which were coming home to roost. He had taken a young project manager for translation and put her into sales. She had not been strong as a project manager; why anyone would think she would have an aptitude for sales is a mystery to me, especially since she was not someone who worked well in a team context. To give an example—and I am not exaggerating in the least—she completely lost her temper with me because her computer monitor was tilted about a quarter inch to the left, or so she claimed! She was sure it had been damaged in shipping, or that I had assembled it wrong (yeah, all there was to do was to attach the strut to the base). She was also constantly complaining that her computer was “too slow.” Now, to be sure, I had equipped the office with an eye towards holding down expenses. I had not bought top-of-the-line PCs for anyone, especially for those not having to run graphic design software. For those who were running Microsoft Office for the most part, I bought computers that were more than adequate for that task, but maybe not up to advanced gaming, animation, or color correction. However, the boss was sure that if we only installed a sales contact extension for Microsoft Outlook she would become a proficient saleswoman. I installed the software. She had a hard time using it, and of course, that was my fault. It didn’t really get under my skin—except that I knew she was not going to bring in the work. The next thing was that she had to have a smart phone, a Blackberry (this was before the i-Phone and Droid). And she had to have a newer and faster computer. All of these things the boss bought for her: actually, he sent me out to buy them for her. It was no problem: I considered it to be part of my job, and if that was his decision, I saluted smartly and did it. None of these things improved her sales figures.

If there is one thing I have learned in forty years, it’s that there is no magic gimmick to being a success in anything. No software is going to substitute for hard work, for setting a high standard for oneself, for doing what it takes to get the job done and doing it right, preferably the first time. My mother called it a “sense of responsibility,” and she was right. This woman didn’t have one. However, the boss stubbornly kept her on and kept her in her position. My wife wondered if there wasn’t something inappropriate going on between them. I didn’t think so and still don’t.

However, in all fairness, she was trying to sell in a miserable market. If there was any business that was hit harder than printing companies it was translation agencies. All of them were competing in a world market where the Internet had completely eliminated national borders and time zones. In 1998 translators could routinely charge 25¢ a word, even for Spanish and French. By 2009, we were working with a translation agency in Córdoba, Argentina, which was providing English to Spanish translation—and proofreading and copy-editing—for 6¢ a word. Desktop publishing studios in southeast Asia or Latin America were charging 10% of what an American company needed to charge just to break even.

As I mentioned in the first post of this narrative, “Hard Work and Heartbreak,” I genuinely thought that my boss was a decent guy who would do right by his employees even in tough times. I should have suspected something when he started making strange requests—through his part-time bookkeeper, about whom the less is said the better. She demanded that I write up a complete job description of everything I did, including all the passwords for everyone’s e-mail account, for the administration of the file server, all the passwords for the virtual private network, and so forth, in order to get certification for a quality standard called ISO-9001. I couldn’t imagine why ISO-9001 required everyone’s passwords, but so be it. I told her I was uncomfortable giving them in writing to someone I didn’t know, and I took my objection to the boss. He said that it wasn’t going any further than this office. Additionally, she demanded three rewrites, ordering that I write it so that “any idiot” could understand it. I responded that I didn’t want “any idiot” messing about in my file server, and if she didn’t understand what I had written, why, she didn’t even know how to transfer a file from her hard drive to a removable drive, so how on earth was she going to understand network administration? I should have suspected that something else was on the agenda, but I have always been trusting to a fault. I should have also suspected something when I was asked to re-execute a nondisclosure agreement I had signed when I first started with the company. Why was that necessary? However, since I wanted to continue with the company, and signing this document was obviously a precondition for doing so, I did it. I have since discussed it with an attorney, who has said that it amounted to signing under duress, which may very well invalidate the agreement.

I should have also suspected something when, during the week of 12–19 November, the production manager asked me to do data entry of all the job work for the past six months. She wanted it in an Excel file; I suggested that a proper database set up in Filemaker Pro would be better, especially since that could be imported into Excel with only a few mouse clicks. She was fine with that, and I went to work.

As anyone who has ever done it knows, data entry is the most tedious work one can do at a computer keyboard. If I had to do it day-in and day-out I would either go crazy or learn a new skill at which to make a living. But I was happy to be doing something—anything!—productive, so I went at it. It took me several days.

By Friday the end was in sight. After lunch I gave it a home-stretch sprint and finished the data entry by about 3:00 p.m. Whew! Now I was ready for the weekend. I turned it over to the production manager, who thanked me profusely.

An hour later I was called into the boss’s office. The part-time bookkeeper was also there.

He began by telling me that for some time business had been difficult, and that “expenses were exceeding sales.” I knew then that something bad was going to happen. He then explained that up until now he had tried to avoid reducing payroll, but that now he had to do that. He explained that the graphic arts business was in steep decline and that he was going to be shifting almost exclusively to translation agency work—forgetting, of course, that I had been the one who had set the company up as a translation agency. And, therefore, he was terminating me, “effective immediately.” He explained, “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.” I thought to myself—and he knew it—those are the exact words that Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino in The Godfather) said as he was planning the murder of Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and Captain McClusky (Sterling Hayden). Here he was, with a calm face, telling me, I’m going to destroy your life, and it’s not personal. It’s just business.

This was the last Friday before Thanksgiving, the official start of the Christmas holiday season. That night my daughter was to arrive at Newark Liberty, flying home from graduate school in Ohio. My first thought was, “I’m going to lose the house.” And my second, when the bookkeeper, henceforth known as “the little blonde consigliere,” handed me a slip of paper containing the amount I would have to pay to keep my medical insurance under COBRA, was, “There’s no way I can pay $1,400 a month for health insurance.” I am uninsured to this day. The boss said, “I know this is hitting you like a ton of bricks.” Duh! Here I am, nearly 61 years old, in a business that is withering, laid off right before the holidays. Talk about a perfect storm!

The boss was apologetic. He made sure to tell me that there was nothing wrong with my work. He offered to give me a positive reference for any jobs to which I might apply. “If there’s anything I can do…” Yeah, jerkwad, how about not laying me off right before Thanksgiving? But I didn’t say that. Maybe I should have.

I went back to my office feeling lightheaded. Emotionally it was as though I had been blindsided by a truck. I began gathering up all the personal things in my desk. I had some personal files—family photos, music downloads, etc.—in the office computer that I wanted to copy to a flash drive. But to add insult to blindside, the little consigliere had already changed the password on the computer! I guess she had learned something from the instructions I had written out! I could no longer access anything, not on the workstation, not on the fileserver. “Oh, and I’ll need your keys.” I almost wish I had been downloading pornography and left her a few gigabytes of it to enjoy.

I went around the office, saying goodbye to the staff. My production colleagues were dumbstruck. They couldn’t believe I was saying goodbye forever. They told me how terrible they felt about it. The others, the ones in the office, couldn’t even face me. The boss shook hands with me as I was leaving. My last words to him were, “Well, it’s been a hell of a ride.”

But later on that evening, I put a curse on him: that he would remember at every Christmas what he had done to an employee who had trusted him and worked hard for him, and that he would never again be able to enjoy a Christmas because of what he had done. And I further cursed him with a wish for a long life and many Christmases to come. I am confident that he will suffer from that regret every December and that the happy time of year will for the rest of his life be unbearably sad.

About three weeks later I heard that the two other employees who were over sixty years old had also been let go. One of them, the other production worker, told the boss everything that I had been too much of a gentleman to say. She has a Neapolitan temper: she looked him in the face and questioned what kind of a man he is and where was his sense of decency. When she told me about it I congratulated her for having the guts that I didn’t have.

But in the last analysis, it wasn’t about the boss’s masculinity or decency. It was true: it wasn’t personal; it was business. He had certainly made some poor management decisions, but ultimately it was the result of the business cycle itself and the nature of how an economy works. But for me and the other workers it was indeed personal. Our lives were now a train wreck. I was looking at a mortgage I could never pay and credit card bills that were out of control. I was looking at health insurance premiums that, as a cancer survivor, I could never pay without hitting the megamillions jackpot. It was no longer a parlor discussion about the state of the economy and the condition of the working class. Now it was real life. Now it wasn’t about what is the President going to do about it, what is the Congress going to do about it, what are the unions going to do about it? It was about what I was going to do about it.

3 Responses to Notes from the Scrap Heap: It’s Not Personal. It’s Business.

  1. Wow this is freakishly similar to my recent experiences (down to the fact that I lost my job Nov 19th but a year earlier than you). Very similar circumstances, mine the result of a poorly planned merger between two non-profit agencies, which ended up being more of a takeover by the larger agency. I was told I was “not a good fit” for the environment of the new merger, whereas I had exemplified the practice of the philosophy of the original agency. Thankfully I had no mortgage, car payments or credit cards. Thankfully I was able to qualify for disability due to some health conditions. At 51 I was told I was unlikely to get hired due to age…51!
    It’s ironic, maybe that my having nothing to lose probably put me into a better position than you, yet we are all struggling in our own ways. Thanks for sharing your story. I am a blogger myself and I believe that by sharing and hearing each others stories, we can build community, empathy and understanding, qualities our country needs desperately!

    • Lucyann Turo says:

      Hi…I’m the other employee that was let go. Of course I was upset
      at what happened, but what really got to me was this man
      called me into his office three weeks prior to letting me go. He
      had the nerve to ask me if I was happy and told me NOT to
      look for another job. He also said that I have job security, well
      so much for job security. The only job security I have right now
      is unemployment.

      • Lucyann, you and I need to get together for a drink! We’ll drink to a brighter future. I still haven’t found a job yet, but I’m learning a lot in my community college classes, and maybe they can lead to business opportunities. And if I find a good job that doesn’t involve relocating to Seattle or somewhere, I’ll certainly share the opportunity with you.

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