Wednesday, October 14, 2015

From the "Organization Man" to the "Termination Man"

Termination Man is a novel about the dark side of corporate human resources management.

Although the novel is a work of fiction, it contains numerous elements that anyone who has ever worked for a Fortune 500 company will immediately recognize.

Like references to bestselling business books. Several well-known non-fiction business books are cited in Termination Man, including William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man.

Below is an excerpt from a scene in which the book’s protagonist, Craig Walker, is threatened by Kurt Meyers, an executive of TP Automotive.

Craig recalls reading The Organization Man during his MBA days. He reflects how things have changed since the book was published in 1956:

I found myself momentarily without words. I was the corporate spy, the one accustomed to manipulating behind the scenes and leveraging other people’s secrets. But now my clients were openly spying on me. 

And there was more than spying involved here. Kurt was attempting to send a message. He had brought along his lawyer, and this other man whose presence was supposed to intimidate me. It was as if Kurt were informing me that there was more than one way he could exercise his will. He had any number of minions who could do his bidding in any number of ways. Whatever was required to get the job done. In all my years of internal security work and private consulting, I had occasionally encountered corporate employees who threatened me within the context of one of my assumed aliases. This was the first time that a client had ever threatened me in such a manner.

Nevertheless, I was determined to show Kurt that I was not impressed. I had to appear unflappable—even though this unexpected trio had thrown me off my balance.

“I work for TP Automotive during business hours,” I said. “What I do after five o’clock is my own business.”

Kurt laughed. “I don’t even need to dignify that one with a response, do I? Come on, now, Craig. You and I are both company men at heart. We don’t think like nine-to-fivers.”

Yes, we are both company men, I thought. We were members of the same tribe, even though I was not technically on the TP Automotive payroll. We both prided ourselves on our identities as professionals—members of that tribe of men and women who don suits and ties each morning rather than coveralls and work boots. Our loyalties were based not on patriotism, nor religion, nor even class affiliation. We were loyal to the abstract entity known as the corporation—for the corporation gave us our six-figure salaries, our security, and the titles that formed the cores of our individual self-worth.

But lately the price of that self-worth had risen, hadn’t it?

Years ago I had read a book called The Organization Man. Penned by a Fortune Magazine journalist named William H. Whyte and published in 1956, the book had decried the lockstep conformity in post-war corporate America. Whyte had written about men who gave eight or nine hours of their lives to behemoth corporations each day, at jobs that drained them of individuality, energy, and creativity.

The Organization Man had been a supplemental text in one of my MBA courses, a management science class. The book was critical of corporate culture, obviously, and the class instructor had assigned it as a source of “alternative viewpoints” about the principles that most of us—being rising stars in the corporate world—held dear.

I don’t know what sort of reaction the professor had been expecting. During the class discussion of The Organization Man, however, it became clear that few of us felt much sympathy for our Eisenhower-era counterparts. We had all spent some time in the professional workforce, and few of us had ever worked eight or nine hours per day. Instead we all worked eleven, twelve, or fourteen hours per day. On any given evening, one text message, email, or cell phone summons could yank us out of our homes and back into our offices—mentally if not physically as well. Our weekends were often filled with corporate-sponsored volunteer work. We exercised caution when posting personal photos to our Facebook accounts, lest we accidentally display a photo or a comment that might be misinterpreted by the roving eyes of our employers’ human resources departments, who routinely monitored employee activity on social networking sites.

 “Eight or nine hours, that’s it?” one woman in the class had asked. “What the hell were those guys complaining about?”

This comment had elicited cynical laughter, and a general murmur of agreement. The days of postwar hothouse capitalism had seemed quaint and gently paternalistic to most of us. Eight or nine hours per day were nothing. In today’s hypercompetitive marketplace, corporate players were corporate players twenty-four hours a day.

This was doubly true for me now, being an undercover consultant assigned to handle sensitive HR issues. It had been foolish of me to suggest that there was any real line between my work and my personal life. Nor could I take refuge in the platitudes of fair play that formed the boilerplate text of corporate employee handbooks. By his very presence here, Kurt was declaring that our business lay outside the bounds of ethical conduct. And I had placed myself permanently outside those bounds long ago.

“Here is what we’re going to do,” Kurt said. “Tomorrow morning, when I see you in the office, the two of us are going to pretend that this little conversation never took place. But you—” He pointed his finger at me. “You’re going to give this some serious thought. You’re going to think about your future. About which side you’re on.”