Editor’s Note: The Starving Artist shares a narrative that explains how modern corporate culture is in need of reform.
It’s 4 am and I am up in the dead stillness of the morning. There is a tight knot in my stomach. My head is pounding, and I feel like I am ready to puke. My alarm is not set to go off until 7am, yet trying to get sleep at is pointless. I might as well get the day going.
Into the shower I go, get dressed, and out the door I slip in the dark of the morning. No food, just black coffee. No goodbyes to my family. I don’t want to eat, nor do I want to face my family.
I am now at the office and its 5:40am, and today I have to end 2 people’s careers at my current company. My first discussion is at 7:30am with John, our service guy.
Time slips by as I address some emails from the prior day, and then bury my head in a spreadsheet. 7:15am comes, and the HR manager Kelly comes into my office.
“You ready?” she asks.
“I guess. Let’s get this over with,” I respond.
John pulls into the office at 7:30am. I pull him into my office and ask him to take a seat. He immediately looks over at Kelly, and you can see the dread develop in his face. Over the next hour, we explain to him his position has been eliminated. The HR manager goes over his separation package, how long his benefits will be provided, and what services we can provide to him to help him find another job.
John is blindsided by all of this. Within a space of an hour, I have just upended this man’s life, and it’s due to circumstances he never saw coming nor could do anything about.
“John, I will provide you any references you need to find another position,” I state.
“I just want to go back to the house,” John requests. You can see the color drained in his face. This has been a cold thing to do to a man that has been loyal.
“I understand. Let’s just get Kelly what she needs, and I will see to it your personal stuff is sent to you,” I explained.
John hands over his computer, travel card, access badge, and tools. We shake hands, and I send him on his way. I desperately want to say I am sorry, as this situation deeply unfair, but I can’t. Kelly is right next to me and has given me strict instructions to not apologize.
It’s now 8:45am, and now I have to do the same thing with Glenda. Same story of shock, bewilderment. Same story of fear and dread. Same useless platitudes. Same feeling that I have betrayed a person that has been a solid performer for years. Same desire to apologize for the situation, but I can’t while I am under the icy gaze of human resources.
It’s now 10:30am and it’s over. I am numb and lightheaded.
I head over to the cafeteria to pick out a granola bar and pull a cold bottle of orange juice out of the ice.
I plop down at an empty table off in a quiet corner and begin to chomp down on the bar. I am midway through taking a swig of the orange juice, when my director shows up. How nice of him to show up after the fact.
“How did it go?” he inquires.
“A bout as good as you could hope for. Kelly is currently with Glenda helping her clean out her desk, and John just wanted to go home,” I explained.
“Layoffs are a nasty business. I am glad nobody got angry,” he mumbled.
I have had to terminate people on multiple occasions, and it’s never been a pleasant experience. I have had people pleasantly shake my hand and leave on good terms, and I have had people threaten harm to me and my family. But in almost every situation, the reasons were justified through performance or to keep the business afloat. Today, however, marked a genuinely dark turn of sacking folks for greed.
“You know, this is the first time I had to reduce staff, to make up for margin. Having to terminate two good people because marketing killed a viable product is horseshit!” I growled at my director.
At the heart of this little horror show was a product my company has been making for nearly 30 years. This product, which we will call the Wiggle-Bob, allows people to see how much water is in their process through several inches of steel. The Wiggle-Bob is a great product from an engineer’s point of view. It works in rain, snow or shine. You can drop it from a tall building, pick it up, knock off the dust, put it back and it still works perfectly. All the bugs have been worked out years ago, and due to our design, nobody has been able to come up with a competitor for it to date.
So what’s wrong with the Wiggle-Bob? Why did we need to kill it, and why did we need to terminate the people who supported the Wiggle-Bob? Profitabilit,y or the amount of margin, wasn’t enough for us to make our numbers for “growth”. The Wiggle-Bob had a profit margin of about 50%, so if it cost you about $10,000 to make the Wiggle-Bob, you could sell it for $15,000, earning you a nice $5000. That’s pretty darn good for a product that takes next to nothing to maintain. But 50% apparently isn’t enough.
“I know it sucks, but we gotta make our profitability numbers or else we lose out on next year’s budget!” he retorted.
Here is where the grand deception of “growth” gets laid bare. Like most tech companies, we rely heavily on being able to borrow money. Borrowing money is a complicated game, and is heavily reliant on whether or not you can demonstrate if you are a growing company. Solid and steady is an anathema to lenders, who want “dynamic” returns on their investments. In laymen’s terms, the more “growth” you can demonstrate, the lower the interest rate you will get on a loan.
But like a crack whore hooked on that bit of white rock, every company that takes loans will do anything short of illegal to boost that growth number, and a fair portion of them will dip their toes into the illicit from time to time. And just like every crack addict can tell you, it takes more of the rock to just break even, thus chasing the “growth” number for loans is a never ending pursuit. The addiction just keeps demanding more and more.
We killed a product line that was profitable and stable because it was dragging our growth numbers down. We didn’t actually improve anything from a tangible material point of view; we just played games with numbers and people’s lives because we are hooked on substance that in the end devours and destroys.
The day has been a bitter lesson in usury. She is a cruel bitch who will turn you into a strung out predator to stay in her embrace.