Monday, November 16, 2009

The Empty Cube

Mark the middle manager had just thrown up, flushed, washed his mouth out, and taken a sip of Coke syrup. The sink, the tub, the toilet -- they all sported a greenish tinge this morning. He tottered back to bed. The bedroom had been spinning before he let loose with the final bits of last night's meal, but at least now things were stationery. Maybe he could finally lie down and get some rest.

He knew he was going to be sick to his stomach and that he wouldn't be able to go in to work. It was so predictable, his MO. He
always managed to be out sick on days when people were going to be laid off. Which meant the rest of the team had to deal with the trauma without him. His job was to draw up a list of candidates for the axe, have it approved by HR, and then negotiate the packages. He liked determining the amount of pay severed employees were entitled to. It made him feel generous. You could afford to be generous when you were getting rid of people, and it was expected that a middle manager would behave in that way. It was also good for the general morale. Employees wanted to know that their former colleagues had been well taken care of. It made it easier for them to face the axe when their time came.

But there was no way in hell Mark was going to come in and fire the poor bastards in person. He remembered how messy firings could get, and how they sometimes forced him to show his true feelings. He vowed never to go through that again. After all, one's true feelings could undermine one's faith in the firm. So he got sick to his stomach instead and left the heavy lifting to the rest of the team.

Down in the city, the team huddled in the conference room. This was big, this was ten percent of the total workforce. You had to be a seasoned professional to execute this kind of operation. Their lips were white and their scalps were itchy. They left sweaty hand-prints on the manila personnel folders they were clutching. Everything was set to go at nine o'clock. Shana would start by firing Russ, then the dominoes would fall, one by one. If everything went according to plan, it would all be over by noon.

Peggy Kaiser got it right when she said, "Today we're gonna earn our money."

The Boss had stopped in for a brief touch-base at ten to nine. He explained to them how this was the hardest thing they would have to do as managers and how firing people had helped mold his character. "Without character, I wouldn't have achieved all the things I have. Without character, I would've been just another two-bit pencil-pusher stuck in a giant machine. When you look back, you'll see this as one of the defining moments of your career. A character-building moment. In some ways, I envy you guys. I really do." He shook hands all around, wished them luck, and said, "Remember, the company's profitability is in your hands. What you do today will help us meet our financial targets and secure our future. I'll see you tomorrow." With that, he turned with a flourish, took the elevator downstairs, and left the building for a meeting with an overseas investment group across town.

Shana Armbruster looked at her watch. 8:59. Time to go. D. pumped her fist into the air and said, "Go on, girl. Just do it." Anything to cut the tension. Shana left the room to deliver the news to Russ. She had practiced her breathing exercises and dressed in her most conservative suit. She took this business seriously. Her career and her character depended on it. She'd worry about her conscience later on. They all would.

She arrived at Russ's cubicle at nine sharp. She closed her eyes, composed herself and peered in, finally ready to invite him to her office where the actual firing would be done. The chair was empty, the computer screen was blank. No one home.
What's going on, she thought. Where is he? She couldn't believe her eyes. The whole operation depended on getting Russ out of the way first thing, so the other dominoes could start falling. But Russ wasn't there -- shite! What rotten luck! What should she do? She should wait to see if he showed up. But what if it got too late? -- it would throw the whole schedule off. What to do? Shana was no good at improvising. Her specialty was carrying out orders. Which is why she'd been picked to kick everything off. "Effin son-of-a-bitch," she muttered, trying to settle herself down. Two minutes had elapsed and still no sign of Russ. Damn damn damn. They'll be expecting me to call in soon and give them the green light to fan out and talk to the others. But she couldn't make the call, because Russ wasn't here. And she hadn't let him go yet.

Then she realized that she had forgotten to tell him to be there on time this morning. That was her job. She was supposed to do that yesterday, to impress on him the need to get in on time, so he could be promptly laid off, sent up to HR, and be out of the way when the rest of the dominoes fell. Damn. She forgot to tell him. Now he wasn't there and the clock was ticking. Soon the window of opportunity would pass, and everything would be messed up. All because of her. It was too humiliating, to screw up on a day like today. She began to feel her stomach turn over and the bile rise in her throat. Oh damn, she thought, I'm gonna be sick and I haven't even told Russ he's fired yet. I'm toast. This is the end of my career.

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