How to Kill Your Successful Business In Five Easy Steps: Step 4

For those just joining us, this is a series. There’s a series of links at the bottom of this post, so you can start at the beginning if you like.

Step 4: When the Money Gets Tight, Screw Your Workers (Or Try Your Darnedest) or, Kick Morale in the Teeth Even Harder

I’ve already traced through the process of bringing a company to the doorstep of ruin financially, and damaging morale irreparably. Now, the next step is much easier to pull off if your staff is easily divided in some arbitrary way — by race, for example, or sex. Another possibility, the one I experienced personally, was the in-group/out-group dynamic that is seemingly inescapable in a family business.

In early December, the boss decided that she would have to cut our hours. I’m not saying this was completely vindictive — a company in trouble reaches that point, inevitably. It was something we’d all known was coming. But the way she went about it, that was a little more problematic.

I was already getting a passport, as my friend Joleen had gotten me a teaching job in Korea, and I was merely biding my time before I would leave. That is to say, by this time, they’d already lost me as a worker, but didn’t know it yet. Even so, in that environment, I was feeling some of the stress that everyone else was feeling, too.

But there was one problem with how the hours had first been planned to be cut. Actually, call me naive, but what happened astonished me — so much so that my fantasy of whistleblowing her for failure to do due diligence returned with a powerful force behind it. The CEO had applied for government aid, to, ahem, basically to milk our Unemployment Insurance (as I think it was then called) to cover the missing part of our salary as we went to part time… in order to keep the company afloat.

She was shocked and horrified to discover that one of the rules governing such aid was that all employees had to be reduced by the same proportion of hours. Apparently she believed we didn’t know, or notice, but in fact her original plans for the hours breakdown had gotten past the inner circle, and the pattern was immediately recognizable: family members were working 4 days a week, while non-family were down to 2 days a week or 3 if lucky. (At that point, every non-family member who hadn’t yet found another job started looking real hard.)

And all of that, of course, was beyond the question of what benefit it would be to her employees to burn up all of the Unemployment Insurance subsidizing their position at the company, so that when it finally did crash, they would have fewer benefits on which to rely. This was something that gave everyone pause. Well, everyone but me… I knew I’d be leaving soon, so it wouldn’t matter.

This was when the staff very clearly and unmistakably — that is to say, irrevocably — split down the middle. This was the end, the point of no return. Even if the company had put out a big hit product, the staff would have still continued to bleed away from then on.

Lunchroom discussions had died, and we non-family members were all going out for lunch then, even though we were concerned about our next paycheque, because  things were just getting too tense in the lunchroom. When we brought lunch from home, we tended to eat at our desks, or together at one of our desks.

(There was also some ongoing “discussion” about bombing the Islamic world back to the stone age — this was December 2001, before the horror of Afghanistan and Iraq had really hit the West full in the face — and this annoyed me to no end, sadly, because the programmer who was making the jokes, also a “family member,” was actually someone I quite liked and got along with well — we even talked about SF novels from time to time. It was frustrating to hear the things he was saying over and over. I wonder if he remembers all those jokes, and sees now why I thought they were so unfunny.)

By the by, my passport arrived, and by then I had already booked a ticket to visit my friend Charlie in Cyprus before going on to Korea. I’d had to cancel my plans, and change the ticket, because I had not enough time, and too little money left. I swapped the ticket for one from Vancouver (where I would have to get a work visa — it took six weeks in Montreal, and one day in Vancouver) to Korea; my sister helped pay for my trip from Montreal to Vancouver (with a stopover in Saskatoon for Christmas, which surprised my parents — they’d thought I was going straight to Korea). So once everythying was set to go, I gave my final notice a week or so later, on a Friday afternoon not too long before Christmas:

Me: “So, there’s something I need to tell you. I meant to tell you a little earlier today, but you were busy. I’ve spent today organizing my stuff. I won’t be back on Monday. I’m moving to Korea, where I already have a new job as a teacher.”

Boss: “Really?” She let her surprise settle in for a moment. “You know I don’t have to pay you severance pay if you don’t come back, yes?”

Me: “Well, for one thing, I also know you don’t have money for my severance pay do you? And I’ve banked a week of overtime in the last year, which I’m pretty sure you won’t be paying me for, either… right? And I need the time from tomorrow to next Tuersday to pack up all my stuff. I’m moving abroad, like I said.”

Boss: Okay, thank you for your work. And we’ll have a little goodbye party in your office before you go, okay?

I think she believed that there needed to be some kind of ritual goodbye for the staff to handle my departure as anything but a morale-crash — like the one we’d experienced when the PR woman had left, like when Astrid had been fired.

The fact was, though, that all the non-family staff had already known I was leaving. We’d said all our goodbyes already. The goodbye party was weird because it was the executives who betrayed most clearly how alarmed they were. The CIO cried. The CEO seemed really uncomfortable behind her usual facade of calm and assurance. And I know, from what everyone said to me afterward, that all the non-family members were busy thinking about their next move in their own individual job hunts, into which they were all — except, I think, for the techie skater guy who worked there part-time — very deeply occupied by then.

On to Step 5, tomorrow!

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