I was fired. Now what?
Why didn’t I leave? The same reasons anyone doesn’t leave a bad job, I suppose. Fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of not finding another one. Fear that maybe it was just me, and not that place.
I’d spend hours, at home, unable to sleep. Googling. Looking for advice on how to co-exist with the culture. The culture of that large state agency. One that I had thought was led by true public servants.
I tried multiple strategies. Each one seeming to fail harder than the last. I couldn’t understand why every day felt more like junior high than work. And, then, one day I finally realized that the culture was just plain toxic.
So, I decided to switch divisions. Move from the legal division. Take a promotion to be a director in human resources. I even had this whole analysis of how the move would help me build my skills. How I’d be in a position to advocate for the employees. Help improve the culture.
Well, the joke was on me.
It wasn’t long after I moved to HR that I learned I had been given access to the agency’s closet. It was packed full of skeletons.
In just a few months, I figured out that the toxic culture was actually the byproduct of a rampant sense of entitlement. A fierce determination to maintain the power structure.
The workplace rules were unevenly enforced. If you knew the right people, all kinds of things were overlooked. Like, how some people could enjoy lunch while still on the clock. Others were fired. Even prosecuted. For the exact same thing.
Unqualified people were promoted. Inaccuracies in applications were overlooked, for some. For those not “connected” to the right people — discipline.
The department in charge of investigating fraud by beneficiaries was routinely commandeered to spend their time and equipment covertly monitoring the activities of any employee someone wanted to fire.
You get the idea.
At some point, you’d think, that I’d figure out how to keep my head down, just do the work. But, it was a daily battle. More with myself than anyone else. Was I wrong? Was everyone else right? Maybe this is the way the world of state employment actually works?
So, I’d read the statutes, the case law, the inspector general reports. And, they’d tell me I was right. But, there seemed to be a huge difference between what the law said and what everyone else wanted to do.
Then one day, there was a moment. A moment when I had to choose. Would I participate in the culture? Would I help a fellow HR director get a promotion? Would I overlook her misuse of her position as she attempted to overcome her lack of qualifications?
In that moment, I chose no.
Ten days later, I was fired. Escorted out by security. I wasn’t even given the ubiquitous box to pack my stuff. I was told it had to be inventoried first. My own stuff.
As horrible as the place was, you’d think I’d be relieved. Truth was, for months afterward, I still felt as if somehow I were to blame. That I hadn’t figured out how to just get along.
Despite my wisdom and experience (otherwise known as age), and despite the fact that I’m a seasoned attorney, I still felt as if I could have kept myself from getting fired.
I look back now, over a year later, and it seems impossible. Impossible that I didn’t see the people in charge for what they were. Afraid of change. Afraid of having to actually do the work. Fear of having to actually prove they were capable of the jobs they had been given.
That fear drove people to do whatever they could to maintain their status. Keep the power in their possession. Like Gollum with his precious ring. It was frightening and pathetic all at the same time.
So, what does any of this have to do with Tomorrow’s Workers? This business I’m building?
It’s my story. My “why,” as people say. It’s my insistence that today’s kids, tomorrow’s workers, know their own value. As confidently as they know their own shoe size.
They should enter the world of work knowing that they can take a risk to speak up when things aren’t right. That bad bosses can’t coerce them with fear. They should know they have marketable skills. That they can solve problems for someone else. Someone who will appreciate them.
Once we started working for organizations, we unknowingly sacrificed pieces of ourselves. We gave up our ability to think critically. We gave up our ability to negotiate. The list goes on and on.
But, in this digital age. In this age of automation and AI, when jobs will be lost and new ones created, there will be opportunity. Opportunity for our kids to think critically. Be creative and innovative. Businesses will seek those traits in workers. Those businesses will thrive. While, those trying to maintain the status quo, manage their employees with fear, will fall behind.
So, we have to teach our kids to think about themselves and their work differently. Differently than we ever have. At least, since we left the farms and hit the factory floor. We have to teach them they are not cogs in some giant machine. That they’re humans. Creative, innovative, problem-solving humans that bring great value to the work that needs done.