This morning my boss gave me a vision of my future. I know that’s unlikely considering that my boss is a database administrator rather than a voodoo priestess. Yet it occurred. My boss announced we’d have layoffs today, and I saw myself living in a sewer tunnel and eating Styrofoam, while my cats deserted me for better-employed owners in the good part of town. This was a hell of a thing to face while my first cup of coffee still dripped through the filter.
When my boss announced the layoffs, my senior coworker, Andy, dropped his Dilbert coffee mug and collapsed into his chair. Our assistant, Jill, turned away from my boss and pulled out her iPhone. She was presumably tweeting that she needed a new job, or maybe she was calling on a thousand friends to come besiege the company headquarters on her behalf. All I know is that she turned back to us several seconds later wearing a smirk. After a few heartbeats of stunned terror, I did something constructive. I asked, “All of us? The whole department?”
My boss looked like she was on her way to kill her dog while selling orphans into slavery and kicking her grandma in the head. But she brightened a tad and said, “No, not everyone. Just one of you.”
I squinted sidewise at Andy. Jill faded back until she occupied a strategic spot behind us. Andy said, “That’s just terrible. I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do without one or the other of these guys. They really help me to keep stuff going around here.” Andy shook his head and looked at the floor. I thought he might work up a couple of tears, but after decades of soaking up coffee and overhead projector radiation, I’m sure his tear ducts had atrophied.
I organized my argument for why Andy was the worst thing since smallpox, but my boss spoke first. “I’m sorry Andy.” She looked at Jill and sighed, “You’ll have to get by without your trusty assistant, Jill.”
Andy and I both moaned as if we were on the rack, which I thought was pretty good since we were trying not to laugh like idiots. I looked at Jill, who had cocked her head at my boss. She didn’t show any other sign that she understood she was being tossed out onto the chilly, rat excrement-covered street. She said, “I’m the sharpest one here, and you know it.” In my heart I knew it was true. Jill was young and not jaded by years of futile striving to accomplish something that made sense to real people. In fact, she busted her ass. I saw my boss look down, and I felt uncomfortable. Jill continued, “Plus I’m the cheapest employee you’ve got. Keep me and you get more done for less money. You’ll look like a frickin’ hero.”
My boss chewed her lip and nodded a bit. Then she swiveled her gaze to Andy, who rocked back in his chair as if she’d shot him in the forehead. “Andy, I’m sorry, but Jill’s right. It’s unfair to single her out because she’s young and she’s a woman.” Andy looked confused, because no one had said anything about Jill being young and a woman, and in fact no one cared. But I realized that my boss was already creating a plausible line of bullshit reasoning to justify her actions to her VP. She didn’t look regretful now. She looked like a lioness that’s just spotted a slower gazelle.
Andy didn’t remain slow. He sputtered. “I’ve memorized a whole 20 years worth of totally undocumented code, and I’m the only fellow who knows where to find those mainframe emulators. Without me, you’ll be crippled. And if you fire me, I’ll sue y’all all across Hell and half of Georgia. I make the most money, and I been here the longest, and laying me off ain’t right.” Andy leaned forward, reminding me of Clint Eastwood about to pull his Navy Colt revolver. “I mean I’ll sue you, yourself, personally. That little lake cabin of yours looks sweet, and my wife’ll have chintz curtains on that thing by Christmas.”
My boss literally took two steps back from that. Then she pointed at me. “I’m sorry, but we have to let you go. It’s just business. It has nothing to do with you.”
Neither Andy nor Jill even pretended to feel bad for me. I think Jill may have giggled. My ears felt as if something were shrieking into them, maybe one of those big dinosaurs so horrible that they eat even bigger dinosaurs. Then the dinosaur ripped my ears off and pranced around the cubicle waving my ears around and roaring into them. I closed my eyes and spewed the first stupid thing that hit my tongue. “But, my employees love me. If you fire me, you’ll make them sad.”
My boss stared at me, apparently unmoved. I went on, “And then you’ll have to talk to them.”
As far as I knew, my boss had never spoken to any of my 30 employees, nor come within polite speaking distance. I think she was afraid of them. Perhaps she should have been. I brought in sandwiches, or candy, or pie for them, three or four times a week. I praised them as if they were cocker spaniel puppies, and I let them do whatever the hell they wanted. I did this on the theory that in a company environment of undirected, fitful bursts of random activity, a totally chaotic mob of employees would prove just as effective as a highly regimented staff. I was wrong. They were more effective. And they were far more terrifying to anyone except the man who dispensed love and treats.
My boss’s jaw fell slack in obliterating horror. She glanced at Jill, who growled. She looked at Andy, who leaned back and crossed his legs, radiating danger.
My boss didn’t get where she is by being uncreative and indecisive. She lifted her chin and said, “I see there’s only one fair way to do this. Jill, I’m not going to lay you off because you’re the lowest paid and a woman. Andy, I’m not going to lay you off because you’re the highest paid and a senior worker. I’ll prove that I’m fair by laying you both off, so you can see that I’m not discriminating against either of you.”
I jerked in high-voltage shock. Andy slipped his left hand over his mouth and looked down. Jill yanked out her iPhone, hissing like a cross-wired coffee maker. My boss continued, “Andy, Jill, thank you for your valued service to this organization. We regret that you have to go, and please know that you’ll be missed. Security will be here in ten minutes, so you should pack up fast.”
She smiled a mother’s smile at me and said, “I’m happy you’ll be staying with us. I hope you appreciate the trust that the company and I are placing in you. You’ll take over Andy’s and Jill’s groups, so they’ll roll under you. I know that’ll bring your staff up to, what, 70 employees or so, but you’ve demonstrated that you can handle it.” Without waiting for me to say anything, she whirled and floated from the cubicle, a thousand pounds lighter than when she’d entered.
I sat down, facing my laptop, and avoided looking at Andy and Jill. They didn’t speak, but I heard a lot of useless desktop detritus being hurled into cardboard boxes. I assessed my situation. Now I was alone. I had no one to lean on. I had no one to shift blame to. I had no one to scheme against. And I didn’t have to worry about those two sweaty hyenas anymore.
True, I had a lot more people to manage, but what did that really mean? I’d spend more time wandering around telling people how great they were, and trying to ignore the appalling disasters they were creating—disasters that would end up saving the day once corporate got its head out of its ass. And I’d have to buy a lot more sandwiches and pie. I wondered whether I could push for a raise out of this.
And they say that people skills aren’t relevant anymore.