The moment finally arrived when I knew it was time to go. I finally left an abusive marriage. I finally exited the burning building, unable to see, let alone breathe. I finally jumped out of the boiling water That is to say — on Friday, June 1, 2012, I presented my New Boss with my resignation. And on Tuesday, June 5th, the day of the Transition of Venus and following a new moon, she escorted me from the building with my personal effects at 11:30 a.m.
A lot happened in 12 weeks. Let me catch you up.
We left off in the story where Beloved Boss presented me with a title change to make me stay (which by the way, I later learned came without a salary increase), then a three-day suspension for a nostril piercing after I removed the jewelry, then the withdrawal of the title change due to the discipline, then a change in reporting structure. New Boss had been my peer and mentor, and the person ultimately in charge of the disastrous department I inherited a year ago. I was starting to notice shortcomings in Beloved Boss and New Boss I had failed to see before, yet my faith in them — if not in the organization — remained intact. At last writing, I believed Beloved Boss had my back and was fighting for me.
I was wrong.
So I was suspended without pay for three days the first week of April, just after being handed over to New Boss on April 1st in a hasty handoff that took even New Boss by surprise. There was no joint meeting, no formal announcement, no clarification of expectations, no division of duties or planning. I spent my unpaid days off cleaning, reflecting, and building my new business. I decided not to accept the discipline unchallenged, and filed a three-page grievance letter on the last day I could file. I laid out the timeline of events and cited the reasons I believed the suspension to be excessive and unfair: I took responsibility for my actions, others have not been disciplined at all for more serious violations (including of the same policies I had violated), I had indeed followed direct instructions, communication was unclear and inconsistent, and the additional circumstances surrounding the discipline (title change and withdrawal and change in reporting structure) were concerning. I stated I had shared the events with select medical school and community leaders who were also concerned, and I asked to be paid for two of the three days and given the new title.
I emailed Beloved Boss to let her know I had submitted the grievance, expressing regret at any pain or disruption this would cause her, but stating I needed to do what was right for me and the future of my Office. On the same day, I chaired a community meeting in which I let the group know of my new reporting structure. The attendees expressed concerns about what this meant in terms of the future of the Office, my position, and the importance of our work. I did my best to paint an optimistic picture without denying I also had questions.
Beloved Boss did not respond to my email, nor did I see her since she was no longer my boss, until two weeks later. I thought our scheduled meeting was to provide me with a response to my grievance, and I was prepared. I didn’t realize it was a hearing, and HR was there.
For this I was not prepared. Thrown off guard, I collected my thoughts for a few seconds, and began by telling Beloved Boss what she meant to me. How she had been my mentor, role model, big sister and friend. How I didn’t want to report to anyone else in the organization How this was painful for both of us. I talked about how the HR process is antagonistic and dehumanizing — for everyone involved — and that although I was upset and the grievance was written as if it were directed towards her, I didn’t really know who I was upset with, or who I was grieving (the CEO? HR administration?). She owned that it had all been her decisions.
This suprised and saddened me, given her sheepish, apologetic “they’re making me do this” demeanor in our previous conversations but I figured maybe she had to say this in front of HR. I continued, laying out the basics of what I remembered from my grievance letter, since I hadn’t brought anything or anyone with me. I still thought I was having a dialogue, and tried clarifying and asking questions. The meeting turned into her grievance. She was angry with me for calling the change in reporting a “demotion” and said going to the community was “a mistake”. I told her I needed to get support and perspective and pointed out that at least I didn’t go within the organization — she said I had (the medical school folks). She was angry about me making it look like she didn’t care or wasn’t committed. I tried to explain the difference between intent and impact and that I wasn’t questioning intent, but that this decision can and will have negative impact. She was angry with me for suggesting she could have invited dialogue about my piercing instead of ignoring it or disciplining me, and she told me I should have had a dialogue with her before doing it — that there is a process. I talked about processes not always working, and that sometimes people breaking rules is what causes change (I didn’t say this, but the Lovings just went and got married instead of spending years petitioning the courts to make interracial marriage legal, and Rosa Parks just “sat her Black ass down” [not my words] instead of heading for downtown Montgomery to lobby for equal seating on buses!). I talked about leadership versus management and that I felt I demonstrated the former. I didn’t tell her one of the reasons I didn’t tell her or consult with her beforehand was because I didn’t want to implicate her in a decision that was my own to make.
I could feel her, the situation, and our relationship passing through my fingers like sand that I tried to grasp as it followed gravity. I talked about this sitation having a broader context that needed to be considered, like the context of inconsistent accountability in the organization. She disagreed. She said “no, this is about YOU.” I talked about us having co-created the situation together. She disagreed. She said “this is on YOU.”
This was not the Beloved Boss I knew. I don’t know why I said “thank you” when it was over and I left her office — for the last time I’d later learn. The one thing that felt positive was her admitting that indeed the combination of the discipline, title change withdrawal and demotion “looked bad.” But it will take me years to forget her face during that meeting — angry and wanting to yell at me, sad and close to tears, eyes full of disappointment and betrayal. These were eyes that used to light up, smile, laugh and bathe me in warmth. I felt like my lover and I had just split after an ugly, avoidable quarrel. I felt sad, disappointed, and shocked. I hurt. I doubted myself. Had I done wrong after all? Was she right?
They (she) had two weeks to respond in writing to my grievance. In the meantime, I was realizing that New Boss was not a good fit for me. Her style was more controlling, mothering, and directive than I felt comfortable with. I could see I was not going to be treated like a professional, and that we were going to end up having it out at some point.
I had set a goal to be out by July. I felt that gave me enough time to be sufficiently prepared — psychologically and financially — to be out on by own. Originally I’d been eyeing May when I told Beloved Boss in February I was planning to leave, but things had changed. And now my goal each day was to avoid quitting. Things had truly disintegrated. The smoke was getting thicker and the water even hotter.
After hours on the day of the deadline, a Tuesday, I received an email from Beloved Boss requesting an extension to respond. I said no problem and thank you. I was heartened. Maybe they needed extra time to do the necessary paperwork in HR to grant my request!
Or maybe they needed time for their lawyers to look things over first. The following Monday May 14th, also after hours, I received the two-page written response. Reading it made my abdomen tense up, my chest and arms turn icy hot, and my brain go numb. Not only was my request denied, Beloved Boss asked me to “sincerely consider [my] ability to resume in a management capacity” given that my commitment to the organization had been affected. She cited the fact I had communicated with people in the community about my discipline which “casted [sic] doubt on the [organization’s] commitment” to diversity, and the minutes from the aforementioned community meeting, which could be considered retaliation and grounds for future discipline.
How the hell did she get those minutes, which I had not sent out yet?
Bu that wasn’t all — the summary of the hearing, based on the notes she and the HR representative took — misconstrued my words and left out key points. It stated I had taken no responsibility for my actions, and “continue to blame a ‘bad policy'”, which wasn’t true.
This was definitely a breakup letter. It was definitely over. I hurt all over again, and had a hard time grasping what was happening. The emails and text messages flew. I got support and indignation from my allies (“WHAT?!” and “they don’t have enough to fire you, get them to give you a nice severance package to shut you up”), but nothing soothed my heart.
On Wednesday I tried one more time. I’d considered one colleague’s suggestion on how I could try negotiating a severance. I didn’t believe that would fly, and the idea of me just carrying on with work if they refused me made my guts turn. I clung to the idea that Beloved Boss had been unable to be real with me with the HR rep in our meeting — maybe she could be more of her old self if we didn’t have an audience! Perhaps I could try a more “power with” tactic since going along with the “power over/against” process was not working nor feeling good for anyone. I’m a mediator for Chrissake! So I researched, then proposed we go to mediation. I wrote her: “I feel like I’m not being heard or understood, and it seems you feel the same way. Perhaps in a confidential, safe environment we can really talk to each other and come to some agreement on the best way to move forward. Are you open to a mediation with me?”
She forwarded my email (to the lawyers? HR? CEO?) then responded she was “not interested in going through mediation” and said if I didn’t agree with the grievance, I could proceed to Step II. Step II was to appeal to the CEO or HR Administrator. I knew either would be as open and supportive as a brick wall on fire on the other side of a moat filled with demon alligators. No thank you.
And so I pressed on, biding my time. I contemplated getting a lawyer and realized this would take more out of me than the organization, even if I won, and I was not going to get what I really wanted — understanding and fairness. In the meantime, Toxic Employee had filed another lengthy, detailed, crazy grievance against me for retaliation (I was still expecting her to work her full hours and follow rules). Also, my performance evaluation date came and went. New Boss said Beloved Boss (BB) was going to do it, and she was out that week. New Boss said she had no doubt I would pass. I doubted that was true. I began to think maybe something who knew The Bigger Picture was loudly trying to tell me to leave, and maybe I should just listen.
I talked with my administrative assistant and New Boss about how ex-Beloved Boss (BB) had gotten a hold of those minutes. My administrative assistant said New Boss (who she also supported) had asked her for them. I explained why I was asking — that they had gotten to BB and were being used in an unhelpful way — and problem solved about how to handle the communication going forward. When I talked to New Boss about it, it turned out she’d also wanted to discuss them with me, since she’d been listening to the tape (!?) and also had concerns. I told her I hadn’t wanted to involved her in the situation between me and BB, but that my words were being misconstued and taken out of context. I shared a little about my piercing and if I’m forced to choose between the organization and the community, and the organization and my integrity or reputation, I know where I stand. I talked about BB not wanting to own her part, and that she’s angry because I’m not ashamed or afraid and I set boundaries. I felt yucky being this honest, but it was good for me. New Boss seemed to listen, and asked about my commitment and whether I could get on board. I was flabbergasted that she was actually asking this question and thought I could be. I said no, and that I would be leaving soon. I told her that since I told her in December I’d started looking, I’d only stopped looking briefly when the title change emerged. She thanked me for being honest.
It was Friday of the following week that I resigned and gave three weeks’ notice. I still had not received my performance appraisal, and the retaliation grievance filed by Toxic Employee was still not resolved. It felt like we had all been under water holding our breath in some twisted contest to see who would give, and I bobbed to the surface first. That lungful of air felt so good to my lungs.
New Boss read the two-page letter and cried — she had seen me in my element and called me a “rockstar” just the day before. She was most concerned about New Employee. She was also concerned about how the community would react. She wanted time to build a relationship with them, and to craft a message. I asked who “community” was (I think she said local external contacts). I agreed to her request to hold off on communicating my departure to them until she and I could meet again Tuesday morning. I reminded her that some community folks already knew, since I’d been talking to them. Yet again she thanked me for my honesty.
On Monday I sent an email to multiple national colleagues informing them of my imminent departure. I included a line about having “revived my former company and will be pursuing client and projects that are a better fit for my talents.” The email recipients included a listserv which BB was on — I knew this but didn’t think I was dong anything inappropriate.
On Tuesday I rolled into the office late after informing a crowd of 10-12 students in gray scrubs smoking not 15 feet from the entrance that they were too close to the building. I suggested that maybe no one had told them, pointed out the smoking area on yonder side of the parking lot, and quietly fumed over yet one more example of the insanity of the place.
I went into my meeting with New Boss at 9:30 with a one-and a half-page list of single spaced bullet points describing all the most crucial items to be discussed and handed off in my transition. We talked a little about this and that for a few minutes. I asked about how we should communicate my leaving to my staff. She suggested I send an email that day. I was surprised — shouldn’t we do a meeting? No, she said, actually today would be my last day.
W … T … F??? Why wasn’t this the first thing we talked about? Was she trying to get all the important transition information from me before telling me?
Apparently the email I’d sent the day before was “concerning” and “cast doubt on the commitment” of the organization. Two people at the medical school were included on the listserv I’d copied. Oh yeah. I’d truly forgotten about that. (But wait, aren’t medical school people considered part of the organization and not the community? That’s what BB said in my hearing.)
I did what I tend to do in these situations — freeze and caretake. My mind started blanking out. We decided to cancel a meeting I was supposed to chair that afternoon. New Boss stuck her head out of her door to ask our administrative assistant to send out an email. I thought that was odd, since I was going to do that as soon as I went to my office. I talked about having to complete two employee performance appraisals. She said she didn’t know what time my computer access would be shut down, so if I didn’t get to it, she’d pick up.
OMG! I finally got it, this was happening! Now.
I asked her to put her offer to pay me through the period of my resignation in writing. She said “you don’t trust me?” (Really!?) About halfway through my list she said her heart was racing (from the overwhelm) — not a good thing for a morbidly obese person. I touched her and gently said something I’d wanted to say to her for a long time: “You also deserve to be happy and healthy.” Wiping away a tear, and without pausing, she said “I have two kids in college.”
We’d agreed to meet again 1:00 to go over and visit the staff together. As soon as I got to my office I executed Emergency Escape Plan. I sent two emails I’d composed and been holding in “drafts” for weeks. One to internal folks, one to external folks, saying goodbye and providing my contact information and website address (just activated the day before in fact). On the external email I included the line about “better fit for my talents” and on the internal one I added “values” after “talents” and a line about “I find myself unable to effect meaningful change, or lead with integrity, given the organization’s current culture and priorities.” I felt people had a right to get a personal goodbye and hear at least a tiny part of the truth. I didn’t want to leave people in the lurch or feeling abandoned. I also composed an email to my staff, letting them know I was leaving and that the abruptness was not my preference. I thanked them for this and that, wished them well, reminded them of the crucialness of their work and asked them to keep asking the tough questions and holding their leaders accountable.
New Boss appeared in my doorway. I don’t remember what she said, but she was upset about the emails I’d sent (?!) — something about making her look bad. I genuinely asked “why?” and she said “because I’m your boss!” I threw up my hands and made a gesture like “what did you expect!?”. She had me shut down my computer and pack up my things. I was prepared — as part of Emergency Escape Plan I had been preparing to leave for weeks, just like I prepared to leave my ex-husband almost exactly ten years before. Important files, my books, other effects, were already at home. I had cleaned up my computer drives too, after those meeting minutes got to BB. Now I just had one more bag to fill with my desk toys, and my artwork and lamps to take down.
I drove my car up; got in a few hugs to a couple bewildered staff; loaded up, handed over my badge, keys, pager, and parking permits; single-arm hugged New Boss — whose face was like a silent scream — and said “until we meet again.” I drove away, free. By that time my computer and email access had already been revoked, and the emails I had sent had been retracted from those who hadn’t opened them yet (I have since sent a pile of messages from my personal email). They tried to take away not only my leaving, but how I left and who I told. But I was free.
I am going to be processing this story for a long time. Even just writing it now has been difficult, and a rollercoaster of emotion. It still doesn’t feel entirely real, and my fired-up brainstem hasn’t completely relaxed yet. It’s almost like a dream. I am relieved to be free of Toxic Employee and the majority of my job. But I do miss some things. I miss New Employee. I miss structure. I miss reliable money and power and my ego being stroked. But these are things I can live without, and things that were twisting me anyway. And New Employee and I will still be friends.
What is interesting and disturbing to me is how few people have been outraged by my story. People who know my organization — or even work there — are sometimes slightly disappointed, but not surprised. Others who don’t know my organization, but know the corporate world, often have their own, similar stories. The normalcy of this is disturbing — the banality of evil rears its head once again (see post on The White Ribon 12/19/11). I have been reading a couple wonderful books lately on power that I will be writing about soon and one of them — Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times — suggests that one thing that causes certain people to stand alone and do the “right” or “moral” thing (e.g., breaking the law and risking one’s life to save Jews during Nazism) is actually believing in the stated ideals of a nation or organization. Perhaps it’s not naïveté or blind idealism that make me tend to believe that people and organizations and nations actually mean to be who they say they are, and hold them to that. Maybe it’s just about integrity, and a good trait. Perhaps belief is subversive when apathy is the norm, and numbness the new evil. Perhaps we need more believers, and more outrage, and more feeling.
Still, I have learned a lot. If I had it to do over again, I like to think I would have left earlier before it got ugly, or turned down the offer of the title change and stayed on a path out. I like to think I could have done something to preserve the relationship with BB and leave on good terms.
And maybe things happened exactly the way they had to for me, and for her as well. Who knows what repercussions this story will have on how things play out moving forward. I hope me taking a stand pushes the organization and change forward, raises important questions, or inspires others to be better, happier, healthier, and more alive.
I learned that me taking a stand pushed some people away, and others towards me. I learned I was not alone. I learned I was loved, respected, admired and appreciated even more than I knew. I learned that when the warning signs start to appear, I should listen instead of bargaining and doubting myself. I learned that when I’m not listening to the Universe, she starts to speak louder, then shouts and hits me with a 2×4 until I get it. I learned that I really can’t avoid messes if I’m going to be true to myself more. I learned I still have some control issues and self love issues to work on. I learned I need to get in better touch with my anger, sooner.
I learned that in a hierarchical organization, the culture really is driven, and the tone set, by those above. Despite my insistence on the power of individual agency, ultimately this is the truth. In an organization headed by a numbers man who is devoutly Catholic, lacking in emotional intelligence, fearful and intolerant of anything perceived as criticism, this orientation trickles down. New Boss was protecting BB who was protecting him. Both were afraid and trying to protect their jobs. BB was copying his pattern of maintaining a small, close inner circle of trusted and protected people who could do no wrong until their “loyalty” came into question — when their toes started pulling back from the party line. Because I was in BB’s inner circle (of which I was not aware), I was seen as even more of a traitor and punished even more harshly than someone not as close or trusted — like White allies during Civil Rights and light skinned “half breeds” in Indian boarding schools.
Also, I’ve realized that in a hierarchical “power over” institution, those above are always under someone else, with Almighty God being the Ultimate Boss. Fear, compliance and control are the drivers. And in a “power over” paradigm all manifestations of power are interpreted through that lense. So those who exercise other forms of power — like “power with”” or power within”– are not recognized as such, but as players in a “power over” game trying to win and dominate others. In making decisions true to myself, being honest, and raising questions, I was perceived as trying to assert “power over” and therefore neutralized as a threat instead of being recognized and engaged.
But more on power later.
While this is the end of this particular saga, I don’t know that I’m quite a Jedi knight. 🙂 But I am happily “single” and safe. I swim in healthy, comfortable water. And I can breathe again. Hallelujah.
What came up for you as you read this post? Insights or feedback?