I had just started putting some of my personal effects into a box, when I got the call from Lee’s admin, to meet him in his office immediately.
All the way there I kept vacillating between thinking I should beg to keep my job, and thinking it would do me more good just to tell him off, because he was going to fire me no matter what.
The door to Lee’s office was open when I got there. He was on the phone as usual, but waved me in as he hung up.
‘Please close the door behind you,’ he said.
Without waiting for an invitation, I threw myself down in a chair across the desk from him and said, ‘You really enjoy this, don’t you’?
At this point I figured there was nothing left to lose. Legally, the company was governed by ‘Right to Work’ laws which essentially gave them the right to terminate anyone at anytime, unless they were covered under a contract, like executives or union members. That left workers like myself quite disposable. If Lee wanted to fire me, there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
‘What happened to Crayton’? I asked.
Lee shook his head and said, ‘Personnel matters are private to protect the individual. Please show some empathy and respect for Crayton’s privacy.’
‘I am your manager, Chris, and it is my job to help you to be productive, and return an appropriate amount of value for the investment the company has made in you. Whether you approve of my style, or me personally, is not germane to our roles and obligations to the company. This is not personal. It is strictly business.’
Lee opened a thick folder on his desk.
‘Chris, we need to have a very serious discussion, one that may impact on your career at the company. So pay very close attention. I have here your personnel folder. As I am sure you are aware, it contains numerous reports of performance deficiencies in the months since you arrived, and a very unsatisfactory annual performance review that shows you failing to meet expectations …’
‘Horse Pucky!’ I shouted. ‘I haven’t had my review yet. It’s not due for another 45 days.’
‘True, but human resources require managers to prepare performance reviews 45 days in advance, so they can be properly approved by senior leadership and HR. And while their contents are not normally reviewed until approved, I will tell you in the context of our discussion that the overall rating for you is failing to meet expectations.’
Lee pulled out a handful of paper. ‘These represent specific individual situations where your performance has been substandard. And later today I will be writing one up for your pitiful performance this morning.’
I leaned across the desk and jabbed my finger into the top of the desk. ‘You set me up. And when I was actually pulling it off, working my way out of your trap, you stepped in and stomped all over me in front of the executives.’
‘Actually, that merely shows your lack of awareness and experience working with senior leadership. By stopping their further consideration of your poorly constructed proposal, I saved you from the embarrassment of an immediate denial. You should be grateful I was there to help you.’
I was tired of this. It was driving me crazy. I just wanted it over and to have Lee out of my life. ‘If you want to fire me, then just fire me. Don’t try to justify it with a lot of nonsense.’
‘You may not believe this,’ he said, ‘but firing you is not the objective. Like all good managers at this company, I want you to be a productive contributor to our mutual success. It’s just that in your case, you seem to lack either the focus or the capability.’
Lee pulled a thin folder from his desk. It held two sheets of paper. Laying them down side by side facing me, so that I could read them, he pushed one towards me. It was a letter already written under my name.
‘Because I think you have potential, I am giving you two choices. First, is the option to resign today, effective immediately. If you choose that option, I have arranged for you to receive two weeks’ severance pay and continue your medical coverage until the end of the month. There will be no negative references given.’
Lee patted the larger, thick folder. ‘And this file will remain sealed. So it will not impact your ability to succeed elsewhere.’
‘As an alternative, I have here a remedial performance plan for you that spells out specific goals and behaviors you must achieve in the next 30 days. If you are successful, those accomplishments will be recorded in your personnel file, and you will remain an employee of the company until such time as you decide to leave, or you fail to maintain these high standards.’
I looked at the list of items. All were highly subjective, at the mercy of Lee’s moods. And those that were not, were arbitrary, and had little to do with my work. It was a list set up in such a way that I would never be able to achieve it; especially not in 30 days.
‘And what happens if I can’t meet these in 30 days’?
Lee pulled the document back and pointed to a section at the bottom. ‘If you fail to meet the commitment at any time during the 30 day period, you will be terminated with no severance, no further medical coverage, and these documents will remain accessible in your file for any future employers who call seeking references.’
Lee put the paper back in the folder and added, ‘And so there is no misunderstanding, the decision to terminate does not need to wait the full 30 days. It can be put into action anytime after it is signed, at the discretion of your manager, who is me.’
I shook my head. ‘So you could fire me the next day if you wished.’
‘That’s looking at it the wrong way. The performance plan is there to help you apply your full capabilities, to our common goals. It’s not a vast conspiracy out to get you. You’ve been watching too much television.’
‘Was this the same offer you made to Ramesh and Crayton? Did they chose the faux chance at rehabilitation, or did they choose to slip out quietly’?
Lee shook his head. ‘You’re asking about matters that don’t concern you, and just by asking them, you’re reinforcing how difficult it will be for you to achieve the listed improvements in 30 days.’
Lee stood up, came around to my side of the desk, and sat in the chair beside me. ‘As a manager, I’ve dealt with a lot of these types of situations before. Let me offer you some advice. You are a good person, and I don’t want to see you stress out. Just by listening to you, I can tell there is no way you are going to be able to make it through the 30 days successfully. I seriously doubt if you will make it past Monday. Save yourself some pain. Save your dignity. Sign the resignation letter and set yourself free. There are places out there better suited to you.’
That was perfect for Lee. I resign and there is none of the mess of a firing, and he gets credit for being a firm but fair manager who’s looking out for the good of the field. Maybe I should quit and start a consulting company with Ramesh and Crayton. We could call ourselves ‘The Burnt Ends.’
‘Unfortunately,’ said Lee, and he placed both documents before me. ‘I need a decision from you today, before you leave this room. What is your choice’?
I hesitated. Every bit of me said resign, take the money and run away from the pain. But after all the suffering Lee had put me through, I needed to fight back, to somehow even up the score.
‘You understand this is a very aggressive plan, and you will be eligible for termination at any time after you sign it’?
I nodded, more confident now. ‘Yes, although I’d like to go over it with human resources. And why aren’t they here’?
‘They will be here soon. You need to get a signature down before they arrive,’ said Lee, as he retrieved the resignation letter and extended a pen. He pointed with a finger to the line on the performance plan. ‘If this is your choice, sign here, please.’
I stared at the signatory line for a second, before inking my name, and the date. I pushed it back across the desk to Lee, and he did the same.
As if on cue, the door opened, and Helmut, the head of HR, stuck his head in. ‘May I intrude’?
‘No intrusion,’ said Lee. ‘Your timing is excellent. We’ve just made our decision.’
‘Excellent,’ he said. ‘But before we finalize that,’ he opened the door completely. Standing beside him was Jessica, our CIO, and Joshua, our CEO. ‘We need to have a very serious discussion. Your office may be a little small. There is a conference room down the hall.’
‘Of course,’ said Lee, and he stood up and headed for the door. He handed my signed remedial performance plan agreement to Helmut.
I stood up, and began to follow Lee, but Helmut stopped me. He checked his watch and said, ‘Right now we need to verify a few things with Lee. It’s late. We’ll update you and your status on Monday morning. You may return to your work.’
I sat in Lee’s office for a few moments after they had all left, and wondered if I had made the right choice. Maybe all I’d done is move my firing day from Friday to Monday. I wasn’t sure. But I did know that I had made life a little more complicated for Lee, and although I’d never been into payback before, this felt really good.
I left Lee’s office, but never went back to my cube. I headed for the parking lot and headed out to get a glass of beer. I figured I was owed one.
Monday morning came too quickly for me. As I walked up to the door I hesitated before swiping my ID card. I wondered if it was going to work, or if, after their meeting on Friday, Lee had already gotten me fired. With a deep breath, I swiped my card, and to my surprise, the door opened as it always had. So far, so good.
I hadn’t received any e-mails or text messages from Lee, so I headed over to his office to see what the next steps would be.
When I got there, no one was around. I knocked on the door and got no response, so I pushed it open. The entire room was empty. No boxes, no furniture, no awards, no expensive furniture … nothing. It was so empty, it almost echoed.
I was standing there, totally confused, when I heard footsteps behind me. I turned around. It was Sean.
‘I guess no one told you, did they’? asked Sean.
‘Told me what’? I asked.
I was stupefied. ‘You mean set free to succeed in other ventures’?
‘No, he wasn’t fired. Actually, he was moved back to the field.’
I started to smile. So they sent him home because he didn’t play well with others. That was almost worth being on probation. Maybe even that would be lifted, too. ‘So there is some justice, after all.’
Sean laughed. ‘I’m sure he’d see it that way. He’s been promoted. He’s now in charge of all operations for an entire division in the field. Everything: sales, service, support, the works, all report ultimately to him in the region. He’s one step away from making VP. Apparently they had been considering this for a while and after his ‘success’ working with IT here in home office, the powers that be decided he could lead the entire operation.’
‘You’re kidding,’ I mumbled.
‘Check your e-mail. I think he is even the youngest person in the company’s history to get that much responsibility.’
Sean gave me a slap on the back. ‘You may have had the privilege of working directly for our next CEO in training. How does that feel’?
I wanted to break something. But before I could do anything, Jessica, our CIO, walked by. ‘There you are, Chris. We’ve been looking all over for you. I need to see you in my office right away. With Lee’s promotion out, you will be temporarily reporting directly to me. We have some very serious discussions to have about achieving the goals related to your remedial performance plan. Can you come with me now back to my office’?
I nodded yes and started to follow her. Sean whispered, ‘Good luck.’
We walked quickly. Jessica was a leader with a lot to do and she moved fast to get it done.
We were about half way there when she asked me, ‘I also need to talk to you about any prior experience you’ve had managing direct reports, or working with dashboards, key performance indicators, metrics and scorecards.’
As you begin a series of ITSM initiatives, there will be some where you will not win, you will not get approval to proceed, and you will not get credit for all the work; no matter how good your initiative is. It will not matter how right or aligned your proposal may be. Never give up. Be persistent.