And no, they’re not on my LinkedIn.
The job seemed like a perfect fit. It was a bump up in title. The offices overlooked the water. The pay was about 40 percent more than I was earning and my commute would be reduced from an hour-and-twenty-minute one-way drive to a five-minute walk. I would be crazy not to take it.
I was crazy to have been there at all.
Eleven weeks is how long I lasted. The week I was fired, a sales guy, two production people and a designer were let go as well. The business was a hospitality industry trade publication run by a couple who seemed to excel only at infighting, fear mongering and pitting one employee against the other. I remember during my first one-on-one meeting with the boss, the wife/publisher, I was accused of stealing a pitch from my direct supervisor, the managing editor—a man I’d hardly met much less heard his ideas. I explained this and she said, “Well, I guess it’s just a coincidence then” in a dismissive tone. The next meeting I was told he took credit for something I did. I confronted him and he said he wasn’t even aware of the work in question.
We often got to travel, a sort of advertised “perk” of the job until my first expense report came back largely un-reimbursed with line notes from the husband/controller. It said things like “A Snickers and a water at the airport is your own snack.” And, “When you’re on these trips we don’t pay for meals, those should be taken care of by the host organization. Anything outside of that is on you.” Cabs were also my responsibility as were rental cars and gas fill ups, ditto cell phone service. There was little to no official travel policy in place and what rules there were amounted to a constantly moving goal post to suit the owners’ needs.
Most of these trips were rife with cocktail hours and receptions. Hospitality and service industry people are not shy about tying one on. As a reformed newspaper hack in my mid-twenties, I never turned down a free meal or drink, but on the advisement of a couple seasoned folks in the office, I chose to be a teetotaler my first few outings. “After a couple trips they will bring you in and accuse you of being an alcoholic or stepping out of line,” one sales rep told me. “They assume you’re going to drink and maybe too much at least one night. It gives them the upper hand.”
Sure enough, after I got back from my second trip, one to Palm Springs where I passed on the barrage of tiki cocktails, gin and tonics and even hotel bar beer nightcaps, I was told that the “director of the CVB there said you got a little out of control one night.” And, “Do you think you have a drinking problem?”
I told the wife/publisher that was funny, because I had been feeling a little under the weather that week and decided not to imbibe. Perhaps it was drowsiness from travel or effects from cold medication that made me seem a little off. Of course, there was no cold medication involved but, as I would later find out, when you’re in a culture of accusation and lies, you start lying yourself—for no reason.
Every new hire had the same trajectory. The group would gather in the main room to welcome them and they were described as some kind of savior. The new toy would soon lose its luster and you would be asked in private your thoughts about that person and fed leading questions like, “Do you think they’re putting in enough hours?” or “What do you see about their performance that might be a red flag?” They’d soon become the office pariah (better them than you) and eventually cast as the conspirator against the emperor or empress. Some fabricated final straw would lead to dismissal, often in tears; followed directly by another gathering of the remaining inhabitants in the main room. “____ had to go. They were no longer helping us on our mission.” Sometimes this would all transpire within the course of a single pay period.
Nothing was ever done satisfactorily or on time. There were always yell-whispers and doors slamming shut. It was a culture of walking through the parking lot on Monday morning ticking through the things you had done the week prior and whether or not any of it could be re-constructed in their narrative to be used against you.
I remember sitting with one of the designers for about four hours straight late in the day working on a feature spread. It was past seven o’clock at night and we assumed we were the only people left in the office. We took a break and discussed whether we should go grab a bite. He whipped a new handheld Sony PlayStation console out of his backpack to show me. Just then, the husband/controller happened by the room. “Oh, I didn’t know you guys were still here… Well, I’m on my way now. Keep it up.”
The next morning we were called in by the wife/publisher and read the riot act that this was a workplace, not a place to stay late and play video games. The designer packed up his things and quit right after the meeting.
The count of people who came and went during my eleven weeks was roughly 16, not including several who lasted less than a day or never showed up. There were two office assistants who lasted less than a week each. There were eight sales people who cycled through, most of whom were conveniently fired just before reaching their first commission goal. Three designers, not including the one who quit after the late night, came and went. Gone also were two production people, a web person, an associate editor and even the guy who came in to water the plants. He returned the next week to collect on his final invoice and both owners came out and accused him of trespassing. “You got fired, we gave you what we owed you. Now get out or we call the police.”
The wife/publisher had a mirror on her desk that said, “Beauty doesn’t blink” in puff paint on the bottom and the requisite shelf of self-help and business management books. She was fascinated with Psychology Today and religiously had an open copy on her desk. Next to that she kept a Post-it flagged copy of Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal.” She was a huge Apprentice fan.
I guess I should have recognized her philosophy’s origins early on because it came up in our interview. “Nobody is irreplaceable,” she said. “Every day is your first day. And if you’re not cutting it, you’re fired.” I took this as something someone would say during a courtship phase to show they’re dogged and persistent—and to assert power. I should have seen it as an early warning of the dysfunction to come.
The week before it was my turn to get booted off the island, I spent four nights collating and submitting for the prestigious “MAGGIE” awards, annual soccer trophies for consumer and trade publications. For the effort, alcoholic me was given a bottle of expensive champagne to take home and celebrate with. “One now, and a case when you win all those awards,” was what the note from the wife/publisher said. I felt good about myself, like I had done something right. Finally, some praise.
The next day, I was asked to return the bottle by the husband/controller. “We recognize your good work, but giving away alcohol is not who we are.” I told him I could fish the bottle out of the recycling and bring it back. He raised an eyebrow. “Oh, so you drank it last night …on a Tuesday?”
It sits on my shelf today as a reminder of how not to treat people.
…The morning they fired me, I arrived to find my computer disconnected and my desk cleared off. There was a note to see the controller/husband. He was in his office with my last work check in hand along with his morning espresso. My desk’s contents (clips, story ideas and some personal effects) were in a folding box at his feet. Everything had clearly been gone through.
“Don’t bother listing us as a reference,” he said. “Your services weren’t appreciated here.” He handed me the check. The editor, who I considered an honest guy and one I wish I’d gotten to know a little better, started to walk me out until he heard a throat clear. It was the wife/publisher standing in her office doorway. She called out his name then a signature, “…can I see you for a moment?”
He shrugged. “Good luck,” he said. “If you ever need anything…”
Turns out, I did. My unemployment claim was denied by the husband and wife. They said I had quit in a flurry, left in chaos and put them in a lurch. I called the editor and he contacted the unemployment case manager and vouched for me. Two weeks after that, my first check arrived. It was the most satisfying envelope I have ever opened.
He was let go a week later.