Whole Lotta Firing Going On

Posted: June 17, 2009 10:19 AM
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Getting fired sucks. Doing the firing can get you fired at.

Since December 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, seven million Americans have been thrown out of work, mostly for reasons having nothing to do with job performance. It took many thousands of bosses to do all that firing.

Short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump — as the late, great Spy Magazine always referred to The Donald — thought he’d made the words “You’re Fired” so cool he tried to trademark them. But managers in the real world rarely use that phrase when giving employees the boot, having been trained by Human Resources personnel to employ euphemisms like “Your employment is being terminated,” “You’re being laid off” or “It’s time for you to go home now.” (OK, I made up the last one, but isn’t it friendlier?)

However you slice it, losing your job is almost always awful. It can be especially traumatic when you’ve identified so closely with your gig that losing it can feel like losing your self.

When I got fired from a nearly 20-year stint at a job I loved and identified with too deeply, I took a shot at a time-honored rationalization: I felt terrible, I told myself, not because I was let go, but because of the way it was done. The truth is, however the news is broken, the result is the same — one minute you have a job, the next you don’t.

Hallmark sentiments aimed at cheering up someone who’s just gotten the axe — even from sincere well-wishers — can have the opposite effect. The shock, isolation and anger that often accompany the pink slip will come back with a vengeance if we repress those feelings in favor of bromides like “it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” “everything happens for a reason,” “it was meant to be,” “whenever one door closes another opens,” and — perhaps worst of all — “be patient, you’ll feel better soon.”

Patience doesn’t require stoicism. Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg writes, “Patience doesn’t mean making a pact with the devil of denial, ignoring our emotions and aspirations. It means being wholeheartedly engaged in the process that’s unfolding, rather than ripping open a budding flower or demanding a caterpillar hurry up and get that chrysalis stage over with.” In other words, as Jill Clayburgh’s character — reeling after being dumped by the “perfect husband” in An Unmarried Woman — was advised by her shrink: “They’re your feelings. Feel ’em.”

There’s no comparison, pain-wise, between getting fired and doing the firing. If a boss tries to convince you that “It hurts me more than it hurts you” or “In the long run, this is better for both of us,” leap from the premises before the urge to do physical violence becomes overwhelming.

Being the one on the other side of the desk can have its perils, however. I was shopping for music at Virgin — before Virgin closed and all the people who worked there were fired! — when I ran into a woman whom I’d let go years before with little apparent acrimony. I smiled and said “Hi” and, she, eyes shooting daggers, spat, “I hope you rot in hell” and stormed away.

Another time, I fired someone we’ll call Lanny — actually I didn’t fire him, but someone who worked for me did. Lanny soon took to stalking me with a video camera, vowing he’d “get” me. I wasn’t sure if I was in store for a 60 Minutes-like ambush or an attempt at more physical vigilante justice, but — not wanting to take chances with this giant-sized fellow — I went to court to get a restraining order.

On the appointed day I felt a sharp stab of anxiety when Lanny limped into the courtroom, on crutches, demanding to be his own attorney. I was the only witness, and after I’d described his threats, he got his chance for cross-examination. Hobbling to and fro, Lanny began with a few questions that suggested he’d been watching too much Law and Order — “Where do you work, Mr. Sigman?” “What is your position at the company?” “Do you have a car?” and so forth. Finally, with a menacing glare, he delivered the intended knockout blow: “Isn’t it the case, Mr. Sigman, that you followed me to the place where I go skydiving every weekend and caused me to fall and ruin my knee?”

The ploy was creative, if psychotic: Don’t deny the stalking or the threats, Lanny, but persuade the judge your behavior was justified by my supposed act of sky-diving brutality.

Since there wasn’t the remotest grain of truth to the accusation, the judge granted me a restraining order, mandating that Lanny stay, I think, at least 500 feet away from me.

As we were leaving, Lanny asked the judge one final question: “Your honor, does this affect my right to carry my gun?” Before the judge could answer, Lanny added, “I have a permit.” The judge answered matter-of-factly that he still could carry the gun.

Lanny must have found someone else to stalk, because I never heard from him again. But I learned that life can be precarious on both sides of the firing line.

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