Risking Getting Fired

In an article I wrote in the 1990’s, I referred to coming close to being fired three times in my career.  I have been asked more than once about those close calls.  So here goes.

One:  The first close call occurred in my first job after college.  I was one of a cadre of technology management trainees hired by a large corporation.  We worked in a facility that operated 24/7, 365 days a year.  In our training, we rotated through the day shift, the evening shift, and the night shift, changing schedules every two weeks.  We were to learn about all the work before we became managers.  The evening and night staffing was lean.  On those shifts we trainees got to do real work, learning fast.  On the day shift, however, the computer room was crawling with staff – twice as many as worked other hours.  Managers walked in and out, the occasional vice president showed up.   The person who oversaw our training sat at her desk in the office area.

I loved the off-hours shifts.  But working days meant standing around watching others work – boring! A month or so into our training, I was called into my manager’s office and told that I had violated the company sick leave policy.  This was the first I had heard about any such policy.  Indeed, my manager may not have known about the policy before the personnel department brought my record to her attention.  She certainly had not conveyed to me and fellow trainees what the policy was.  I had called in sick (for the day shift) more times than was acceptable.  I was guilty.  If I woke in the morning with a bit of a headache or perhaps a slight hangover, I didn’t have much incentive to get out of bed.  My manager gave me a warning – one more undocumented sick day and I would be let go – and my expected pay raise was delayed.

I was able to recover from this inauspicious start.  At an all-staff retreat soon after my run-in with personnel, we management trainees had to make 5-minute presentations to the 150 or so members of our division.  My presentation was on how support staff positions were graded.  I saw new high school graduates who had never seen a computer except in a science fiction movie being put to work as computer operaters.  The learning curve was steep, but once they mastered the intricacies of the process they glowed with pride.  When they got really good, they were promoted to desk jobs as glorified file clerks.  They became bored and dispirited.  My short presentation recommended changing the rankings of the positions, starting new hires in the file clerk jobs and promoting them to the more complex and interesting positions.

The division management implemented the change!  In the next few months, I was promoted and some months later, was myself assigned to supervise the next batch of management trainees.  I made a practice of checking in with my trainees on every shift.   I would mostly work the day shift but would sometimes come in early to have breakfast in the company cafeteria with the night shift trainees and stay late to spend some time with those on the evening shift.  And, I made sure that sharing company policies was part of the training.

Two:  I was working in a library where the senior leadership was stunningly dysfunctional.  The team was a combination of lifers and brash young hires.  The lifers were just mediocre enough to keep their jobs.  And the young hires were anxious for personal power without the experience or skill that would allow them to use that power well.  A few of us lower-ranked librarians were appalled at what we saw happening – staff grading systems jiggled to promote favorites, solid staff working for pittances, technology applied without adequate knowledge or support –  and much more. 

My colleagues and I were probably a little too energetic in our efforts to improve things and too obvious in our disdain for some members of the leadership team.  Two of us – in the view of our supervisors – crossed the line for insubordination.  One was fired by her boss.  She was hired immediately at a sister institution – in higher level position.  To our delight she got the position that her boss had expected tod be filled by his new wife.  A second colleague was fired by our director but quickly reinstated through the influence of the concerned faculty advisory committee.   We all ultimately left that university for higher positions elsewhere.

Three:  In the first half of my career, librarians were on a collision course – between our exquisite fine-tuning of bibliographic control procedures and the explosion in scholarly publishing.  As procedures were made more elegant, cataloging backlogs grew.  One research library had 150,000 volumes in their backlog.  Acquisitions staff  periodically checked the backlog, culling books no longer desirable for the collection; these went into the library’s annual book sale.

The increasingly complex procedures affected vendors.  At least one integrated library system vendor went out of business trying to meet the demands of its prestigious customers, working to make the system do everything a cataloger might ever want rather than focusing on the key processes all research libraries needed.   As an ex-computer programmer, this software development process was painful to watch.

In this national climate, I walked into a management team where the true power lay with the perfectionists.  In our library, a $500 business reference source aged in the backlog; when it finally reached the reference shelf, it was out of date.  We did not have an approval plan for acquiring books bfor lack of a central space where approval books could be reviewed by subject librarians before adding them to the collections.  And subject librarians submitting orders for new books were required to do careful investigation before submitting their orders to acquisitions.  We had a manual for subject librarians on how to prepare an order; it was more than 20 pages long.  Each of the subject libraries had its own staff for this careful order preparation so that central acquisitions and cataloging would not have to deal with possible ambiguities.

We were very slowly implementing an integrated library system.  The process suffered from our predilection for drafting complete documentation for everything that might possibly happen.  At one point it became obvious that six of us were carefully writing on a multipage procedure for something that might happen once in two years.

As a member of the management team, I thought I was honoring our highly valued system, but I must have asked some unwelcome questions.  Perhaps I inadvertently expressed dismay that the items in the bottom of the piles of unresolved problems on some librarians’ desks were more than a decade old?  Or that the three-foot-high stack of problem journal issues on a branch library office floor had toppled to the side; it had been that way long enough to have a serious layer of dust on all the exposed surfaces.

Eventually I realized some colleagues perceived me as a threat.  Some team members’ conversations stopped when I came into the room.  I suspected that my mail was being read and discussed.  I began to lose confidence in myself – to hesitate to trust my own judgement.  One member of the management team – admittedly a weak contributor – had been leveraged out soon after I arrived.  In retrospect, I realize that I was supposed to go next.  Luckily for me, the team member who had the unyielding commitment to perfection was offered a position elsewhere that, for personal reasons, could not be turned down.

Quite quickly, the ice in the air melted, coolly neutral parties became friendly colleagues, indeed backlogs even melted, and my belief in myself returned.  When I moved on several years later, my staff had to decide which of my commonly voiced comments to put on the T-shirt they gave me.  If I remember correctly, Tolerate Ambiguity won out over Ask Forgiveness, Not Permission.