Getting fired: Boss' niceties never soften it

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 10, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The company man sits behind a great big desk the other day and rubs his hands together briskly. He's done this before. Leaning back, eyes drifting randomly, he manages to affect this weird, energetic manner as he breaks the news to his salesman that his career is about to be over.

Nothing personal, the company man assures him, as if that matters. It's just the economy, he says. Everyone has to compromise. The firm has to cut back positions. Yours is one of them.

The salesman finds himself editing certain phrases, looking for the least hurtful ones, the ones that will ease the pain later, the ones he can repeat to himself and his family when he tries to convince everyone that it isn't his fault.

The supervisor's words become a blur. He is one week shy of his 47th birthday and wondering where he can go now. The unemployment office, certainly, and then maybe one of those bread lines downtown where people stand in the cold.

He realizes he is panicking. He wants to stay in this room forever, or at least filibuster until the supervisor changes his mind. He cannot leave and face the people in the outer office who will find out his fate soon enough, and maybe share it one day soon.

And the blur of the supervisor's words becomes a physical thing, a feeling of humiliation, as though he's done something shameful that should be hidden from the rest of the world.

A man his age, a man who's spent all these years doing the same thing, and now they're telling him he isn't good enough. He wonders if the supervisor understands the hurt beyond any money, and decides it does not matter.

Face red, heat rising through him, he wants to bolt from the room but remembers his age. He's too old for shows of weakness. The adult in him says: Hang in there, show them you're mature,

maybe they'll change their minds.

"We can write you a letter," the supervisor says. He wants to smash the supervisor's smug face. The supervisor still has a job, and a master's degree from some college to make him look like he knows what he's doing, even when he does not.

"We'll certainly say you were a good worker," the supervisor says. He files away the phrase, something to tell his family to show it isn't his fault. He will echo the words in his head until they become a kind of a mantra.

He knows it has come to him the way it has come to so many in this country now: the cool, brisk supervisor, with his practiced concern, his choreographed gestures of sympathy. Did they send him to some school for that, where they teach these guys how to kill people nicely?

He thinks of the steel workers who have watched their industry teeter, and all the government workers laid off in the recession that does not end. They were just numbers until now. Now, he's become one of them.

"I could work for less," he hears himself saying. "I know these are tough times. Maybe a $3,000 cut in pay."

"No," the supervisor says softly.

"Or $5,000," he says now. "It'd be tough, but I could cut a few corners to help the company."

"No."

And now the embarrassment he feels is joined by something else: a kind of rage, not just for himself but for this system of ours. This smug young supervisor who let him humiliate himself, and still says he'll have to go.

What do all the years count for, he wonders. It's why the American dream has faded. Time was, you hooked on with some company and rode it through the generations, and then they handed you not only a watch but a pension at the end.

But it didn't work that way anymore. Now there was something else happening in the country, the creation of jobs meant to last only a little while. They had a planned obsolescence to them. The pay was nothing much, and the benefits were dwindling, and now he was going to be 47 years old with those kinds of jobs the only ones left for a man his age.

It's why the country was turning mean, he decided. The companies were cutting back, and so labor was grasping for whatever they could get. The idea now was simple: Grab as much as you can, and try to live off the residuals the rest of your life. Impermanence was here to stay.

"Take care of yourself," the supervisor says with practiced warmth.

"Thank you," he says, too defeated for anything more.

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