By my count, I’ve been fired nine times in my adult life, though I’m probably forgetting a few. That’s about one firing a year, so I’ve become rather attuned to the signs of an impending termination.
When I’m fired, it’s not because I’m a poor or lazy worker; I’m quite diligent, but that’s beside the point. In today’s office, submissiveness is the highest and only measure of worth. I’m fired for not playing the game—for not participating in Hawaiian Shirt Fridays, for not smiling when talking on the phone (“Customers can tell!”), for not greeting management’s comically idiotic ideas with a double thumbs-up and an open-mouthed grin. Or for writing a 3,000-plus-word article in a local weekly detailing such behavior in my thinly veiled workplaces (“The Drone Ranger,” 8/26).
Much of the material for my article was inspired by my employer at the time, a regional Internet company. In my experiences there, it was a place where, generally speaking, mediocrity was not only tolerated but given a gold star and a raise, reality was merely an inconvenience to be focus-grouped away, and back-stabbing was more common than in a prison laundry room.
I mean, to not be fired by a place like that would’ve been a grave insult. I would have quit if I hadn’t been preoccupied with repeatedly slapping my forehead in disbelief—or accustomed to weekly eBay sprees and eating out three times a day.
A few weeks after the story ran, a member of senior management had asked me in the hallway if I was “the Frank Schneider who wrote that story in the City Paper.” From that point on, I could sense the sword trembling over my neck, and, furthermore, I knew exactly who would make the final cut.
The human-resources manager, a senior VP, was the bane of my existence, and I came to dread her daily waddle through our department in her pastel-colored, Nehru-collared boat tarps. In my mind, she had become the very embodiment of the soulless corporate thug, the type who treats people as a means to an end and worships nothing but the bottom line, a white-collar Rasputin.
As far as my anticipated firing went, she was like that guy in the beginning of every Western, the one with the black hat and the mustache that curls up at the ends. When the ugliness went down, I just knew she was going to be involved.
When I got in on the morning of Sept. 23, my boss—a trusted colleague and good friend of mine—summoned me into her office.
“Did you draw that?” She gestured toward a white board opposite her desk.
The previous afternoon, delirious with boredom during the latest “emergency meeting” (every time someone expressed even the slightest dissatisfaction with the company’s Web site—a daily if not hourly occurrence—management would order us to hastily reconstitute the entire product from scratch), I’d absentmindedly sketched a line drawing of someone of indeterminate gender lying on their back with a question mark over their crotch.
It had been an offhand and unconscious doodle, but even had I thought about it, I wouldn’t have had any reason to think it would offend anyone. This was, after all, an office where people routinely forwarded each other videos of people being torn to pieces by speeding race cars, two-minute-long ejaculations, pornographic Japanese game shows, and “Tubgirl,” a notorious picture of a woman in a bathtub expelling a geyser of diarrhea onto her own face, which made the rounds at least once a week.
“Yeah, I drew it,” I said.
“[The senior VP] was in here this morning, and when she saw the picture she went ballistic,” my boss said. “She said it was the most offensive thing she’s ever seen. She’s going to launch an investigation if no one steps forward.”
As I was considering the best course of action, my boss relieved me of that burden by telling the senior VP herself.
Twenty minutes later, the HR honcho’s assistant—more of a male secretary, a kind of winged monkey to her Wicked Witch—gleefully summoned me to her office. I’d been in there several times before: to be lectured about my “adolescent” unwillingness to unconditionally endorse her insipid office propaganda, to be told how “playing the game”—handshaking, bullshitting, and backslapping—was more important than talent or even competence, to be informed that “good” was preferable to “excellent.” One memorable exchange had ended with her rhetorically asking me, “You think I’m stupid, don’t you?” She’d been visibly taken aback when I shrugged and answered, “Well, yeah.”
There were no such lectures this time. She got right to the point. She’d “had it up to here.” I was terminated. She held up a sheet of paper that seemed to have my signature on it.
“Do you know what this is? This is our harassment policy, which you signed when you started here.”
Like most people, I don’t really read things before I sign them, so I had to take her word for it. But harassment? That was new to me.
“Who exactly have I harassed?” I asked. “Will anyone step forward to accuse me of harassment?”
This question seemed irrelevant to her. “We’re going to register the reason for your firing as sexual harassment, so you won’t be getting unemployment.” I knew they’d been wanting to fire me for months; they just needed a pretense, and now they had one, albeit fabricated. In the 10 months I worked there, that was the first time I’d ever seen her smile sincerely.
During my commute home, my last ever, I felt something close to exhilaration. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. One of the more unfortunate aspects of human nature is that you never feel more yourself than when you’re surrounded by that which you despise. Nietzsche and Freud both felt the personality to be a hostile, reactionary impulse, and I learned that firsthand. For weeks after my firing, I had a horrible psychological hangover as I realized I had become dependent on the clarity afforded by being constantly surrounded by spineless yes-men and superficial ladder-climbers. Working in a cesspool of venal idiocy not only made me feel like a modern-day Ubermensch in comparison, it had actually prodded me to strive in the opposite direction. When that stimulus was suddenly removed, I backslid into self-doubt and, before long, bathrobed, around-the-clock drunkenness. I was fired at 10 a.m., was drunk by noon, and didn’t sober up for a month.
True to her word, the senior VP registered me as a sexual harasser and filed to block my unemployment. But can an uninvolved third party make an allegation of sexual harassment over the objections of the alleged “victim”?
My boss told me recently that she was puzzled to hear that the reason for my dismissal was recorded as sexual harassment. While she says that she was mildly offended by the drawing, she says she never felt harassed, intimidated, or threatened by it and never discussed filing a sexual-harassment complaint with management.
I go before a judge to argue for my unemployment in January. I’ve been told that the court generally sides with the worker, and the facts in this case seem to be on my side. But contacts at the old office tell me that the company wants to “make an example of me” and is going to send its pit bull of a lawyer down to the courthouse to do a job on me. I’m going to have to come on like Johnnie Cochran just to get my measly unemployment checks. And even if I prevail in the end, the bureaucracy is infuriatingly slow, and, the unemployment office tells me, I won’t receive a cent until all appeals are exhausted.
In the meantime, I’m subsisting on malt liquor and macaroni and cheese.CP