Something I haven’t shared beforeOctober 2, 2018
Just because I haven’t been in a good place to write doesn’t mean I haven’t had plenty on my mind. In the bath reading a book the other day while trying to settle down my nervous system and lower the randomly hopping pain levels and I find myself, without even trying, writing a journal entry. Maybe it was about politics. Maybe it was about work. Maybe it was about relationships. I doubt, however, it was about how I was feeling–I try not to let my mind spin on my health more than it does naturally.
I know at some point over the weekend I was thinking about work. In particular I was thinking about the only two times in my life I’ve been fired.
As a kid I was the son of two high school teachers and as such I was terrified to get anything but an A. With their eyes ever watching I couldn’t help but ensure high grades and join into extra curricular actives on a regular basis. That’s just how our family was. I was in all the AP (Advanced Placement) classes. I was in Jazz band and band. I played a sport or two here and there (wrestling in middle school, tennis in high school). I recall seeing my sister get the Spanish Inquisition treatment for getting a B or B- once on a mid-term report card and it scared me onto the straight and narrow.
And let’s not forget where my parents came from. My dad’s mom came from Oklahoma during the Grapes of Wrath’s Days. She, like so many other starving farmers, tied all their worldly possessions down on a jalopy and somehow made the trek out to California where they worked their asses off in the fields. Hard to imagine it anymore, but my dad literally put himself through college by working in fields of one sort or another. My mom’s dad, well, he’d fought in World War II against the Japanese. In many respects he’d had a cushy job at a radar station near Sydney, but before then he spent the Great Depression exploring the United States working every muscle in his body for one of F.D.R.’s programs (Civilian Engineering Core I think?)–he even helped build the Timberline Lodge, front to The Shining, and place of beauty atop Mount Hood outside Portland, Oregon. I came from some proud, noble, and hard working stalk. Laziness was not permitted. Failure was, but only after it was clear one had worked their proverbial ass into the dirt. My family is filled with flawed human beings but most of them have one thing in common: they’re salt of the earth hard fucking workers regardless of occupation.
So what I’m going to share with you I’ve never (as memory recalls) shared online. The reasons are twofold. The first is that I didn’t want to potentially damage any future job prospects (who would?). The second was that I was terrified of a law suit, regardless of how truthful my words (in the real world David almost never kills Goliath, especially with Goliath has a team of million dollar lawyers). I just stayed clear of writing about work, even after I got fired. Metaphors! Oh God the metaphors I’d use! But I’d never directly and clearly discuss what had happened.
It was over a decade ago. I had started to become really ill with Lyme despite being tested negative for it (long story, but the standard Western Blot administered was a. not from one of the better labs in the country and b. it remains a highly inaccurate test). I was not doing well despite going to doctors nearly weekly, going to physical therapy, weekly Thai massage, eating better, yoga when I wasn’t working, eating a rabbit’s diet. At night I lay in bed tossing and turning, shocks of pain in my hips and knees, my muscles on fire for no apparent reason. And yet even after a few hours of sleep some nights I’d be in to work fulfilling all my responsibilities. Did I mention I came from some pretty hard stock?
One day my manager calls me in for a PIP or Performance Improvement Plan. I had three months to get my shit straight. I asked what I’d done and he gave me a litany of bullshit.
Let me tell you how I define bullshit:
Manager: “The computer systems haven’t gone any faster since I joined the company.”
Me: “I’ve been improving those systems for ten years now, speeding them up measurably every year.”
Manager: “But not since I’ve been here.”
Me: “With respect, in your first month with the company–your first, I might add–you told me in no uncertain terms that I was not to make improvements to the systems I manage.”
Manager: “No, I didn’t.”
Me: “Yes you did. And when I checked in improvements to source control you immediately saw it, came to my desk, and told me to never, ever again do that.”
Actually, this is a lie, the lie being that I stood up to him. I was so suck and beaten down all I did was listen and fall into the mode of a company slave. “Yessa. Nossa. Yessa.” I didn’t stand up for myself except politely ask questions about why I was being put on a three month notice. Why? Because after being sick for years I really had begun to believe, especially after years of shitty managers (who were hired and fired with regularity) that I was somehow to blame for anything and everything. It’s way I stayed up at night until 3am monitoring the builds, fixing them when developers checked in breaking changes (knowing full well I’d get the blame for that too, in the morning, because my manager didn’t understand shit about build systems).
So reality aside he made it pretty simple. I had three months. If I didn’t “improve”, I wouldn’t be with the company. To make it “fair” he said in those three months I could not make two mistakes. If I made two mistakes I was fired.
I don’t know about your occupation but let me tell you something about computer software. Statistically speaking every page of computer code has 1 bug in it. Yeah, you heard me right, 1 bug. Three months is enough time to write hundreds of pages of code. Statistically speaking I would theoretically write hundreds of bugs no matter how careful I spent my days (and nights). Hearing this ridiculous expectation I wanted to scream, pull out the statistics, show him the studies, but I knew he’d just fire me on the spot for being argumentative.
I came from strong, proud stock. I would beat this. As I’ve beaten so many things before.
Three months come and go. I’d been dotting every i and crossing every t. Then one day I get pulled down to the dungeon that is Human Resources on the first flour. My manager and the HR lady was there. My manager said their words, words that still cause me PTSD to this day, “You are no longer employed at Insert Company Name Here.”
I stopped breathing. I looked at the HR lady, who I’d spent many days talking with about the write-up (especially in regard to how it wasn’t fair in any conventional sense but what I could do to beat it anyway). She stared blankly forward. Pulling back tears I turned to my x-manager and asked, “Why?”
His answer: “You made two mistakes and as you can clearly see on the PIP it was made clear you would be terminated if that happened.”
“What mistakes?” I asked.
He hemmed and he hawed, trying to get out of it, before listing two things. One was that I’d requested IT remove a hard drive from one of our servers and I’d indicated either the wrong drive or the wrong server, something that could have been a pain in the ass, but nothing that couldn’t have been rectified with me working a twelve hour day (and on salary that means nothing to the company); thing about that mistake was we caught it in the nick of time so it’s something nearly anyone I’d ever worked with at any company ever would have just given me a short speech on then it’s back to work. The other was a mistake–and I can’t remember what it was per say anymore–that was actually in my code. But the funny thing is it was added to my code by someone else. I knew who that someone else was. And I could prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, using a tool called a Source Code Control system, something that keeps track of every change made by every employee, that it was this other individual that made the breaking change.
“I didn’t do that,” I said as I held back tears, “I can show you who made that check-in.”
“Don’t bother,” was essentially the response I received. When I looked at the HR lady for support she just shrugged her shoulders. It hit me at that moment that I wasn’t being fired for my performance but for something else entirely. But I was in shock. I’d lost my job of ten years through no fault of my own and I wasn’t physically healthy enough to go start at some other company without it becoming an enormous burden to my already failing health. I was, despite those ten years of 50, 60, and 70 hour weeks, not allowed to get my things or say goodbye to my colleauges, but was walked out like a criminal. To add insult to injury my manager shook my hand and said, “You’re a smart guy and will do well.” I, not having the wear with all to stand my ground, didn’t do what I felt was the only honorable thing at that point: walked away without allowing him to get the final word in and covering my right hand in bullshit.
Over the next week I began to get phone calls, e-mails, and text messages. Other people I’d worked with for years were getting fired too. One of them had pretty bad diabetes. Another had other health issues. As I began to make calls over the grapevine I discovered the fired off employee after fired off employee had a medical condition.
The company had done one thing it had promised for the last couple years: Found a way to lower insurance costs by identifying those with serious health conditions, putting them all on bogus performance reviews, and staggering the lay off so it didn’t have to be reported to the government or the local news as it was: an illegal lay off.
Trust me when I say it was not easy convincing the unemployment department that I was laid off and not fired. “Check with the company,” I said, “A dozen or so people were ‘fired’ over the course of two weeks. Those people–including myself–were laid off not fired!” Fortunately the company wasn’t willing to take that one to court so I received the unemployment that was essential to keeping a roof over my head and medical insurance in my pocket for the next few months.
I spend the next week getting everyone I could together. I asked them to fight. They listened. But they were not willing to take a stand. Think you’re sick now? Goliath was a multinational mother fucker and he’d pummel us and our families into the dirt. I knew they were right but I didn’t care. I’d never been professionally insulted like this before, I’d loved that job, I’d spent a decade building up the benefits, I’d single handedly written software that had saved the company millions, yet I’ve never been lied to in the face like that by an employer and fired for a bunch of made up reasons, especially after doing so much for them. It was unconscionable. And all because I was costing Blue Cross Blue Shield too much…
Some managers who knew warned people what was coming down the road; they knew six months in advance. My manager, probably thinking he was being a nice guy, once hinted at it months before: “You should get out and network,” he suggested during a one-on-one, “You never know what’s out there.”
I want to conclude by saying I empathize when a manager is put between a rock and a hard spot. But if a company came to me and asked me to come up with reasons to fire people that were bullshit, if some or all of those people were struggling with health issues or disabilities, I’d tell that company to go fuck itself as well as report them to the authorities, possibly the press. No job is worth loosing one’s integrity.
Can I say if put in that position I’d give the finger?
Yes. Yes, I can.
You see, at my last job, I was a quasi lead slash manager. I was brought in to build up a team given my decades of experience in the subject matter. At my thirty day mark my manager admitted to me he had plans to fire two of the three people on my team. Despite all slippery language I got the simple message: one has a physical condition and the other is strongly opinionated. He used all the right PC language as not to implicate the company, but there was no doubt in my mind one target was crossing the line into illegal discrimination via the American with Disabilities Act and the other had more to do with his thin skin with possible tones of racism/sexism on the side. He asked me to start collecting data on both of them so over the next month or two we could let them go. So there I was, looking at the work of someone who’d just had an organ transplant, wanting to warn him, looking at another team mate and wondering why she shouldn’t be able to voice her concerns after the company worked her so many 50 and 60 hour weeks that she’d obviously begun to burn out and felt neglected by a company that she didn’t feel was hearing her concerns.
Fortunately I parted ways with that company before I had to do more than meet with HR a few times to do what I could to keep these stellar employees on. Funny thing is, the woman gave notice before I left. The other guy left shortly afterwards. I guess the company simply made the place unbearable and they made the smart choice. C’est la vie.
If you two are reading this, I had your back–until that same manager came after me first. I have a lot of thoughts on that but perhaps for another time, maybe when that company goes tits up or implodes against its own unrealistic standards and faux political correct “accepting” culture.
Anyway, I’ve written enough. I’ve had a really bad day at my current job. I’m used to herding cats, cats are easy, cats are my thing. But donkeys? You ever hear the saying, “You can lead a donkey to water but you can’t make it drink?” No! Because that’s fucking stupid. You’ll never lead a donkey to water. Not in a million years. Less metaphorically speaking: I’m not a fan of trying to train a team, only a fraction of whom shows up, only to have half of them engage in other work and conversations leave early because they have better things to do.
I’m building the foundation of a skyscraper and the rest of the people are leaving because it doesn’t have anything to do with the superstructure, so they tell me.
No, I’m sorry, that’s not how it works.
Sorry, a very frustrating day in a line of very long frustrating days. I just wish I could change certain things in my life professionally, health wise, socially, and financially. My health is pretty bad and the stress of my current job isn’t helping, but I’m hoping at the very least I can make it through the next three months, pay off a shit load of debts, and find something that’s better (and as well paying) for me or, if I do get hired on full time, end up in a position with more clarity of purpose and on a team that feels like a family.