Independence Day, by Susan Lindsey
Independence Day, by Susan Lindsey
Maybe they won’t fire me. Maybe I’ll have to keep working here.
It was my greatest fear as I entered the elevator that morning and pushed the button for the fifth floor. For weeks, I had been taking my personal belongings home, a few things each night. Today, I would learn if I would be packing up the rest of my stuff.
It wouldn’t be a firing; not really. Those in power would call it a budget-related restructuring, a layoff, a downsizing, or some other euphemism, but the reality was that by the end of the day dozens of people in the building would no longer have paychecks.
I hoped to be one of them—an odd thing to say, except that I was bone tired, weary to my soul of working for a woman I considered abusive and mentally unbalanced. I was hoping to be on the list of names summoned by human resources that day; then at least I would get a severance package, unused vacation days, and a short extension of benefits. It was better than quitting.
I had worked full-time almost non-stop since I was eighteen. There were jobs and bosses I loved, some I disliked, and some that I hated. The department head at this particular job (let’s call her Ms. Stalin) fell into the latter category.
She seemed to be a lonely, miserable human being who enjoyed venting on those in positions below her. She prided herself on being “direct” (i.e. blunt to the point of rudeness).
Her title was her sole wisp of self-esteem and she made the most of it. She bullied and bellowed, pitched tantrums, and pouted. She demanded respect from others, without extending it in return. She refused to clarify work assignments and then was furious when the results didn’t match her expectations. She fluctuated between being condescending, and being an imperious and unreasonable dictator.
I believe the correct mental health terminology is “crazy pants.”
Everyone who reported to her walked on eggshells. We tried to look out for one another, issuing cautions when she was in a particularly foul mood. She regularly arrived at the office hours after everyone else had, left early, and found excuses to work from home. We all watched her office, happy when it remained dark for the day, signaling her absence. We all breathed a little easier then, plunging into our work with energy and sometimes even a smile.
Lest I appear to be a whiner, let me clarify that, with the exception of this woman, I liked the rest of the staff. I respected the organization, and enjoyed the workplace in general. Unfortunately, my job required close and daily interaction with Ms. Stalin.
I tried to get along—really I did. I worked hard to produce high-quality work, meet deadlines, and keep the lines of communication open. I was unfailingly polite and professional. I maintained a positive facade when I had to deal with her, and challenged myself to find things I could compliment her on. I even dredged up a smile in response to her lame attempts at humor.
I expressed my desire for a good working relationship to her, and asked for and followed up on suggestions for improving our relationship. I had discussions with my immediate supervisor and representatives of the human resources department. When all else failed, I filed formal complaints against her and talked to corporate counsel. But to no avail.
Belatedly, I realized two things. First, HR wasn’t going to do anything about her. And second, it wasn’t about me. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Ms. Stalin was just a miserable person who liked to be sure everyone else was equally unhappy. There literally was no pleasing her.
Then, a glimmer of hope. I started to notice all those signs of an impending job loss so often discussed in newspaper career columns: some of my work assignments were given to others; I was excluded from meetings I had previously attended; and I had difficulty getting responses to questions about assignments.
Hallelujah! Maybe I was going to be let go, released from hell.
The staff knew that layoffs were coming. We had been told that affected individuals would be informed on Friday. All day, I watched a trail of people head into meetings with HR and their supervisors, then watched them return to their offices (sometimes teary-eyed) with an empty copy paper box in hand, to begin packing up.
Hours passed and still no call from HR. Maybe I had misread the signs. Maybe I was being paranoid. I tried to continue working. I had enough professional pride to want to conclude outstanding work assignments, and leave my files and records in good order.
Finally, when I had nearly given up hope, my supervisor called. “Would you meet me and the HR director in the small conference room by the elevator?”
It was as I expected, as I hoped. I was handed a thick packet of paperwork from HR as my boss recited the lines he had obviously memorized. I worked hard to keep a straight face (no silly grins). I wanted to exit with my professional reputation intact.
I walked back to my office, spent an hour or so filing and finalizing work. I put the last few remaining personal items into my bag, walked through the office hugging co-workers and exchanging phone numbers, and then headed to the elevator. I punched the button for the ground floor, descended, and walked out the door—free at last and ready to celebrate my own personal independence day.
The author lives in Louisville, Kentucky. After the severance pay fairy quit leaving deposits in her bank account, she launched her own successful business (www.Savvy-Comm.com), and is now living happily ever after. Ms. Stalin eventually “resigned” her position and left town.