Thursday, February 21, 2013

Do independent bookstores have a place in the ebook market?

It would be nice to think so. However, so far most ebooks are purchased from Amazon, B&N, and i-Tunes (with Amazon commanding the lion's share). 

This has led a coalition of independent bookstores to sue Amazon and the Big Six publishers:

"It’s been a while since booksellers sued publishers but that’s what’s just happened as three independent bookstores have filed an antitrust class action lawsuit against the big six houses and Amazon charging that by signing agreements that call for the use of DRM on e-books sold through the Kindle, the online retailer and the publishers have combined to restrict the sale of e-books. The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, contends that while Amazon and Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan signed contracts with Amazon for the sale of e-books with DRM that was “specifically designed to limit the use of digital content” to various Kindle devices, the publishers have not entered into any agreements with independent bricks-and-mortar or independent collectives to sell e-books. “Consequently,” the complaint states, “the vast majority of readers who wish to read an e-book published by the Big Six will purchase the e-book from Amazon.”
The superficial issue here is DRM; but the real issue is the survival of independent booksellers in a marketplace that has been conspiring against them for twenty years. Independent bookstores have been in trouble since pre-Internet times. One visit to a Borders in 1992 made me an addict of the book "super-store." But the Internet has made things much, much worse for independent bookstores. Since the late 1990s, Amazon's economies-of-scale have allowed it to offer customers a level of selection, pricing, and availability that is difficult for any smaller player to approach

And then the Kindle and widespread popularity of e-readers made things even worse for independent booksellers. Ebook transactions were born on the Internet, and they'll likely remain there. Once again, Amazon's economies-of-scale give it a unique advantage. 

I like the idea of independent booksellers--just like I like the idea of real estate agents, small headhunting agencies, and local newspapers that prosper by selling classified ad space. But I also know that these business models have been severely undercut by for-sale-by-owner real estate sites,, and Craigslist. The genie of disintermediation is out of the bottle, and it isn't going to go back in. 

The Internet has created a lot of opportunities for inventors, content creators, and others who possess or generate something to sell. It has mostly undermined those who function as intermediaries. 

Most of the intermediaries who thrive today do so by focusing on niche markets. In the case of booksellers, one example I can think of is the local secondhand book market. Within five miles of my front door, there are no fewer than four independent secondhand bookstores. The low margins and emphasis on "browsing" in this market are better suited to a brick-and-mortar setting--even in the Internet age.

But suppose you want to buy the latest John Grisham or Stephen King novel? The reader will almost certainly get the best deal at not at Walmart. It is difficult for an independent bookseller to add much to this sort of transaction.

I suspect that this will continue to be the case with ebooks. The relevant question is not: Can independent booksellers successfully sue Amazon and the Big Six publishers? The question is: Can independent booksellers bring something to the ebook buying experience that is currently not provided by Amazon?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The downside of collaboration

I'm currently reading Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking

There are many important ideas in this book (and I strongly suggest that you read it). One of the most important ones is:

"The New Groupthink elevates teamwork above all else." (page 75)

Despite evidence that the best ideas and innovations are produced in solitude, everyone--from our corporations to the online world-- is obsessed with the "hive concept." This is the notion that the best ideas are produced by forcing people to work together. 

The collaboration = better result approach is reflected in the overemphasis on "cross-pollinating" ideas in the workplace. Online, one can see it in the excessive attention given to collaborative sites like Wikipedia.

Collaboration has its place; but a blind faith in collaboration often results in mediocrity. Wikipedia, for example, is a serviceable enough tool; but I can't help but wonder what all those "Wikipedians" might have achieved if they had authored their own books, blogs, and online essays, instead of spending so many hours writing for Jimmy Wales. (At the end of the day, Wikipedia is little more than mediocre.) And anyone who has worked in a corporate environment has seen the mediocrity that collaboration can produce in the workplace.

These are points worth pondering. And I definitely recommend Ms. Cains' book--whether you consider yourself to be an introvert or not. If you aren't an introvert, Quiet might make you wish that you were one. 

Mailbag: Writers and the question of "free"

Following my recent post about Cory Doctorow, I received some questions from readers (whom I assume are writers) regarding my opinion on the "free" strategy that many authors (and publishers) have adopted in recent years.

As I stated previously, you can't can't sell a book nowadays without providing sample chapters online. (In 2013, that's true even for Stephen King and John Grisham.) But what about the strategy of giving away an entire book for free--as J.A. Konrath does on Amazon, or as Cory Doctorow does on his website? 

A few things to keep in mind: J.A. Konrath's books sell well; but the man has written a lot of books. Cory Doctorow's sales are uneven. If you examine his Amazon ranks on a book-by-book basis, you will see that some sell impressively, while others seem to barely sell at all. 

At the time of this writing, Doctorow's bestselling book is Homeland (ranked at a respectable 1,977 on Amazon). However, Homeland isn't available as a free download. Doctorow's publisher, Tor, does offer an excerpt of the novel online. But if you want to read the entire book, you've got to buy it. 

The lesson here is that "free" works best for multi-book authors who can use older and/or shorter titles as "loss leaders." 

A loss leader is when the the supermarket sells 2-litre bottles of Pepsi for $0.79. They do this in the hope that when you come in for the incredibly cheap Pepsi, you'll pick up a bag of chips and maybe a lunchmeat sandwich from the deli. The 2-litre bottle of Pepsi is a loss for the supermarket, but they are thinking in terms of the total value of the transaction. 

Writers need to adopt a similar mindset. The marketplace for books nowadays is crowded, and readers expect to sample your work before they plunk down real money for it. I often chide aspiring writers who are afraid to post anything online, for fear that it will be "pirated."

This isn't the same as posting every chapter of every book you've written on your website. "Free" can be profitable--but you still have to think strategically. You can't only think like an artist. You also have to think like a businessperson.

Recall the catastrophic failures of the dot coms more than a decade ago. From 1998 through 2000, Internet startups believed that "eyeballs" on websites would eventually lead to profits. They forgot that publicity and online traffic are only meaningful if you have something to sell. Lots of the dot coms had "traffic;" but the majority of them had no plan for converting that traffic into revenue. Those dotcoms all went bust. And most writers who give away everything they've written will never turn a profit, either. 

Authors should use "free" as part of a deliberate strategy to generate reader interest, name recognition--and eventually, sales. That means that as a writer, you should give a portion of your content away; and you also should hold a portion of your content back. The content that you hold back is what you eventually hope to sell--to those readers who have enjoyed your "free" content. 

As one publishing executive said, "Free isn't a business model." This is true; but "free" can be a part of your business model. 

That difference isn't merely semantic. It is strategic and deliberate--and it may make the difference between your success or failure as a writer.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why John Le Carré never liked James Bond

Surprise, surprise, John Le Carre, author of The Spy who Came in from the Cold was never much of a James Bond fan, as he revealed in an interview from 1966:

"To his millions of fans around the world, James Bond is the quintessential British spy. Yet to John Le Carré, 007 is a "neo-fascist gangster" who would ply his trade for any country provided he could get a plentiful supply of beautiful women and dry Martinis.

In a 1966 interview with Malcolm Muggeridge, newly re-discovered in the BBC archive, the author and creator of the decidedly unglamorous spy George Smiley was scathing in his assessment of Ian Fleming's suave secret agent. "I dislike Bond.

I'm not sure that Bond is a spy. I think that it's a great mistake if one's talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all," Le Carré said. "It seems to me he's more some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a licence to kill... he's a man entirely out of the political context. It's of no interest to Bond who, for instance, is president of the United States or of the Union of Soviet Republics."

I'm not sure that Le Carré is the most qualified critic of moral relativism in spy fiction. His own The Spy who Came in from the Cold draws no moral distinctions between the West and the totalitarian system of the Soviet Bloc countries. Le Carré's debut novel depicts a Cold War setting in which both sides are morally equivalent--and equally culpable for the state of the world. Le Carré's more recent A Most Wanted Man adopts a similarly ambivalent attitude toward Islamic terrorism. 

Le Carré is well known for his leftist slant on geopolitics, as one Telegraph editorial noted in 2003:

"Poor old John le Carré. First he lost his theme – the Cold War – and now he is losing his audience. Those who listened to the end of the embarrassing interview he gave to Jim Naughtie yesterday on the Today programme must have squirmed, as I did, when le Carré compared himself to Victor Klemperer, the great diarist who survived the Holocaust, and compared the Americans, by implication, to the Nazis....

Indeed, it is worse than that. The grand old man of the thriller has become a bit of a bore....

What gets his eye glittering is his belief that the United States is now controlled by a "neo-conservative junta", which is in league with "corporate media".Having "appointed the state of Israel as the purpose of practically all policy", the neo-cons will not stop their "war machine" from wreaking havoc "until they have quelled the world". This American junta's "minstrel" is Tony Blair, who apparently lied to his country out of a sycophantic desire to impress the Americans, than which there is "no bigger sin".

Le Carré has a new novel out, newspaper extracts of which suggest that the author, having pensioned off Smiley a decade ago, is rather lost without him. Absolute Friends recycles lots of familiar Cold War material. Its villains, however, are no longer KGB spymasters but those who defeated them. The West is the new Eastern bloc; the sinister Right is the new Left; loyalty to the Atlantic alliance is the new treachery.

Somehow, I doubt whether a tract for "these neo-conservative times" will have quite the popular appeal of Smiley and his people. Fear of and fascination with the Soviet threat ran deep for le Carré's generation, and rightly so.It was that threat which made the secret services seem both glamorous and dangerous. And it was that threat which made le Carré a household name. Anti-Americanism, by comparison, is shallow, because it is not based on a genuine threat. If there is a threat, the form it has taken, at least since September 11, 2001, is not American but Islamic.

Ah, yes: September 11. Odd that le Carré, of all people, should play down the significance of what happened on that day. The Russians, after all, never attacked America directly. If they had, the Cold War would have become very hot indeed. Might the attacks on New York and Washington not explain why the American people seem quite content with their "junta" and are as enthusiastic about their ally Tony Blair as they are about Churchill or Thatcher?

Rather than explain the American fear of terrorism, however, le Carré prefers to explain it away, as the "paranoia" of the "hyperpower", the "search to identify a new enemy". This seems a callous way to speak about the deaths of thousands of ordinary civilians, but then le Carré is, as he tells us, "extremely angry" - as if that somehow excused the violence of his sentiments."

But what about the novels of Ian Fleming? Certainly James Bond provides little in the way of a moral message--but that was not the objective of Ian Fleming's iconic creation. Ian Fleming was the Clive Cussler of the spy genre. His books were primarily about entertainment--not providing moral lessons about geopolitics.  

No wonder that Le Carre objects to the "beautiful women" in the Bond books and movies. Like most Lefties, John Le Carre is at heart a sanctimonious killjoy. While Le Carre has a gift for the English language, his protagonists are gloomy and unlikeable (case in point: Leamas, the main character of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.) 

And also like most Lefties, John Le Carre suffers from a peculiar form of political and cultural masochism. No matter who the enemy might be--the now defunct Soviet Union or today's Islamic terrorists--the "grand old man of the thriller" cannot be convinced to see the virtues of the civilization that gave him his freedom and financial success. 

Seth Godin on blog comments

Business guru and bestselling author Seth Godin does not allow any reader comments at all on his blog

“Some of my readers are itching to find a comment field on my posts from now on. I can't do that for you, alas, and I thought I'd tell you why.I think comments are terrific, and they are the key attraction for some blogs and some bloggers.

Not for me, though. First, I feel compelled to clarify or to answer every objection or to point out every flaw in reasoning.

Second, it takes way too much of my time to even think about them, never mind curate them.

And finally, and most important for you, it permanently changes the way I write. Instead of writing for everyone, I find myself writing in anticipation of the commenters. I'm already itching to rewrite my traffic post below.

So, given a choice between a blog with comments or no blog at all, I think I'd have to choose the latter.So, bloggers who like comments, blog on. Commenters, feel free. But not here. Sorry.”

Having been on both Blogger and YouTube, I can relate to what Godin is saying. Seth Godin is not talking about trolls or spammers--which are completely separate topics. 

The Internet abounds with people who are intellectual nitpickers. These people aren’t trolls—in the traditional sense of the word—but they delight in petty one-upmanship. If you write a blog post asserting that the sky is blue, they will immediately submit a list of bullet points supporting the position that the sky is actually green. And what about those times when the sky is grey—because of smog or cloudy weather? What were you, the blogger, thinking—naively stating that the sky is blue?

It is then incumbent on you—the blogger—to debate each one of the points they have presented in your comments thread. 

Online debates with these commenters can quickly become an enormous time sink. Once you begin a back-and-forth exchange with a nitpicky reader, you can easily find yourself writing 2,000 words in a comment thread. 

This is an unreasonable expectation for a blog post. While a blogger should back up controversial arguments with some facts and data, it simply isn't possible to close every loophole, or explore every possible objection within the space of a 500-word blog post. That is a task for longer essays—and books.

Nevertheless, a blogger can acknowledge his or her limited time and energy for this sort of engagement without shutting off all comment threads. Not every comment on every blog needs to develop into a 2,000-word conversation. 

Sometimes it is okay to simply say, "This is my opinion--and that is yours. We'll agree to disagree for the time being." 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Beauty, envy, and the "genetic lottery"

Twenty-five year-old fashion model Cameron Russell makes some remarks about the nature of beauty that demonstrate a humility and insight beyond her years:

“The real way that I became a model is that I won a genetic lottery… I am not a uniquely accomplished 25-year-old. I've modeled for 10 years and I took six years to finish my undergraduate degree part-time, graduating this past June with honors from Columbia University. If I ever had needed to put together a CV it would be quite short. Like many young people I'd highlight my desire to work hard…But hard work is not why I have been successful as a model. I'm not saying I'm lazy. But the most important part of my job is to show up with a 23-inch waist, looking young, feminine and white. This shouldn't really shock anyone. Models are chosen solely based on looks. But what was shocking to me is that when I spoke, the way I look catapulted what I had to say on to the front page.”

Beauty is indeed the prize of a genetic lottery. An individual can do a lot to improve his or her appearance (staying in shape certainly helps); but the fact of the matter is that much of what we call beauty is God-given (or genes-given, if you prefer). 

I'm a 5'10", bald middle-aged man. No matter what I do, my looks will never give me the same degree of power that Ms. Cameron's looks give her. And that's the way it is. The genetic lottery is not egalitarian. 

This tends to lead to a lot of envy where beautiful people are concerned. Without denigrating the natural gifts of a person like Ms. Cameron, it is worth noting that beauty does not provide omnipotence. While beauty is somewhat rare--there are relatively few ways to channel beauty into megabucks or international fame. And most of these methods (acting, etc.) require a combination of other skills. Models might seem to have it made; but those jobs are relatively few and far between. And the fashion model tends to have a short shelf life.

Nor is beauty a gift that necessarily keeps on giving. It is highly dependent on youth--hence the dearth of 60- and 70-year-old fashion models. I have know a lot of physically attractive people who suffer later in life, when the attention that has been showered on them for years suddenly ceases. 

This is one benefit of being (very) average-looking. At 44, no one gives me any special favors because of my looks. But then, they didn't when I was 19 or 25, either! So being middle-aged isn't so bad, from my perspective. 

I suspect that people will always be fascinated by physical beauty, and I don't see anything especially nefarious about this. But we need not envy the beautiful too much. They, too, have their limitations. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Don't fall for the myth of the meritocracy at work

Let me begin with a disclaimer, lest I be misunderstood: It is rare to find a real dummy in a responsible position at a large organization. The current business environment is simply too competitive to allow blatant incompetence to prevail—even if the incompetent person is really good-looking, or related to one of the senior executives by marriage.
That having been said, promotions do not necessarily go to the most competent people. Moreover, many managers are no more marginally competent than the vast majority of people who work under them.
The word “marginally” is key here. I have found that within most organizations and departments, there is relatively little to separate the performance of individual employees in concrete, tangible terms. In other words, it would be difficult for anyone to say with exact precision who is the most competent, most knowledgeable, or most contributing employee. (One exception to this rule would be sales departments. But most salespeople are more concerned with bonuses and commissions—not titles and boxes on organization charts.)
Let’s take a closer look at that word “knowledgeable.”
Outside of engineering and R&D, the hard skills required to perform most corporate jobs are relatively low-level. No—a completely uninitiated person could not come in off the street and competently perform them. They require a certain body of knowledge. Nevertheless, few of these jobs are “rocket science,” either.
And what about “competence”? The vast majority of corporate jobs involve the performance of a large number of relatively low-level tasks, which are often administrative in nature. You might be processing customer claims, analyzing marketing data, or ordering mass-production components. Few of these individual tasks have a significant impact on the organization as a whole. Most are relatively unnoticeable and unmeasurable on a day-to-day basis. Therefore—aside from the extreme of really bad performance—it would be difficult for anyone to objectively and accurately assess “how good of a job you are doing” relative to others.
In a pure meritocracy, promotions would be based on competitive examinations (knowledge), or on quantifiable results (competence). Due to the above-stated factors, such criteria are elusive in corporate settings.  
Moreover, managers are not really interested in promoting the most technically astute employee in a group. In every organization, there is at least one know-it-all who has languished in the lower tiers of the company for years. Nor is performance a guarantor of promotion: A company may value the contribution of a hard-working, competent employee. The company will not necessarily promote her.
Who then, does management want to promote? Management wants to promote the employee who displays an acceptable level of knowledge and competence, while consistently demonstrating her support of management, and management’s stated goals.
(For more information about that, see this post.)

Friday, February 8, 2013

Free speech does not equal anonymity

I’m not the only commentator who has noticed the often bad behavior on social networking sites like YouTube, where discussion threads frequently contain gratuitous profanity, racist remarks, and pointless ad hominem attacks. 

One reader recently sent me an email asking why the tone of online comment threads is generally lacking in civility. (Yes, I have sounded off on this issue before.) The reader asked if the internet has somehow made people lose their sense of scruples. 

My answer to this question is a resounding no. The Internet is a technology. The Internet may influence a person’s behavior in certain ways----but it won’t turn a polite individual into a rude one. 

To put it succinctly, the problem is not the Internet itself---but the online community’s fetish for anonymity. Some people seem to believe that there is a magical wall between the Internet and the offline world, and they refuse to identify themselves online. 

If you read through the rude comment threads in any online forum (a blog, YouTube, etc.), you’ll find that 99% of the uncivil remarks come from anonymous posters: individuals hiding behind faceless screen names.  

We are often reminded that the right to free speech does not extend to shouting FIRE! in a crowded theater. The vast majority of the citizenry does not go around disrupting movie performances, because there would be consequences. Even if we leave out legal concerns, there would be the disincentives of shame and public humiliation. 

Accountability usually ensures responsible behavior. In the old days, the newspaper’s letters-to-the-editor page was the primary conduit for Joe and Jane Citizen to air their views in the public space. You didn’t have to be an accomplished writer or an ivory tower authority to get your letter published in the paper; but you did have to sign your name. (In most cases, the newspaper would not publish a letter-to-the editor until they had verified the identity of the author.) 

This practice did not prevent a diversity of opinions from appearing in the letters-to-the-editor section; but it did keep the tone civil. If you babbled like a madman or a madwoman, your neighbors were likely to know about it.    

But what about the “right” to anonymity? I don’t recall that clause in the Constitution. Anonymity is often incorrectly conflated with free speech.

You have a right to say anything you want; but you should be willing to stand behind what you say. This means using your real name online.  

Nor can anonymity be equated with privacy. The right to privacy, by definition, applies to what we say and do in private. If I post a hate-filled screed on YouTube or Blogger, that isn’t my private space. Online comments and essays are posted as messages to the world at large. There is a big distinction between online declarations and a telephone conversation, or the contents of your sock drawer---where claims of the right to privacy are legitimate.  

So say what you will online; but show your name and your face. 

At work, be on the right side of the “us” vs. “them” equation

Many of us are rebels at heart. I confess to being one of this crowd. When I am placed in a situation beneath an authority figure, I have a tendency to associate myself with the rebels.
And the rebels are never hard to find. They are hanging around the water cooler, describing the latest outrage from management, the policies that are simply “stupid” or “arbitrary.” I have never been to your workplace, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that such a band of rebels exists.
In every organization, there is an “us” vs. “them” dynamic at work. In some cases this dynamic is subtle, a mere undertone. In other organizations, it is much more overt, a constant buzz in the workplace.
The “us,” of course, is the rank-and-file. The cubicle-dwellers, the folks who represent the lower tiers on the organization chart. And the “them” is the management—the suits, the bosses. Them.
I have never worked in an office where there wasn’t at least some degree of trash-talking about “them”—even in workplaces where the management was fundamentally benevolent. I ascribe this to the almost reflexive aversion to authority that is a part of Western culture.
That reflexive aversion to authority is arguably a positive force in civic life: It inoculates us against dictatorship. However, it is counterproductive in the workplace—which (unlike the relationship between government and citizens) is a voluntary association.
Here is the first thing that you must remember: Whenever there is a showdown between “us” and “them,” they always win. The rank-and-file always back down, no matter how tough the talk may be around the water cooler or in the break room.
Let me give you a concrete example. I once worked for a machine tool company in which a member of senior management decided to promote his 28-year-old son over three other employees who had been with the company for more than ten years, and who all had exemplary skills, qualifications, and work records.
The manager’s son, by contrast, as a bit of a dilettante. He had spent the first few years of his post-college adult life bumming around Arizona, where he attempted to become a professional golfer. Then, at the age of 25, his father had informed him that enough was enough, and he created a job for him at the company. (I should also note that this was not a family company—which would have been a different situation.) 
The son’s performance on the job was satisfactory but by no means exemplary. This did not, however, prevent his father from practicing blatant nepotism, promoting the young man over several others who had worked longer and harder.
When the son’s promotion was announced, there were the predictable cries of outrage. “This is unfair!” people declared in barely concealed whispers. One person even declared that he would refuse to work for the son, who would now be a low-level manager.
But guess what happened: The rank-and-file caved completely. Within a few weeks, the grumbling had completely subsided, and everyone was kowtowing to the son. The vociferous complaints of nepotism and vows of resistance turned out to be nothing more then empty talk.
These events occurred in 1998. At the time of this writing, the son of the senior manager it is no longer a green 28-year-old. He is himself a senior manager at the same company, now in his mid-40s. At least one of the more experienced people who was bypassed for that long-ago promotion continues to work for the son. Another one left the company within a few years of the incident. I am not sure about the third person who was passed over.
As I was barely 30 years old myself in 1998, these events left me disillusioned about the nature of corporate work for quite some time. However, it is important to remember that at the end of the day no law compels you to work in an unjust workplace. (More on this a bit later.)
Back to the us vs. them equation. You want to be on the “them” side—not the “us” side. Management never promotes “us”—the rebels. This is true even if the rebels are more competent, honest, or high-performing. Management promotes individuals who can be trusted to carry out company policy faithfully and loyally.
If you place yourself on the “us” side of the us versus them equation, you send a message to management. Your deliberate self-identification as a rebel indicates that you cannot be trusted to support company policy and management initiatives. This makes you unpromotable. Would you rather be right, or would you rather be promoted? This is a decision that you will have to make—and act accordingly.
Yes, there is an element of unfairness in all this. There are also elements of insincerity and phoniness involved. However, I would assert that this is the wrong way to view the situation.
When you accept a job in any organization, you are in effect agreeing to carry out the will of the company (with obvious exceptions for illegal or blatantly unethical behavior, of course), and management is the voice of the company’s will. This gets back to the realization that work is about business, and you are always in business for yourself, even if you happen to be on someone's payroll.
Looking back on it now, the promotion of that semi-prodigal son to a management position in 1998 was indeed unfair from a certain perspective. Other individuals were more deserving of the promotion. Nevertheless, this was what management had decided to do. Therefore, those of us in the rank-and-file had an obligation to accept the son's promotion, or to at least give him a chance. (By the way, the son is reasonably well liked and respected by his subordinates and colleagues today, nearly fifteen years later.)
Never forget your right to vote with your feet. Sometimes you will find—for any one of a variety of potential factors—that you simply can’t stomach being on the “them” side of the equation. Perhaps your company’s management is simply too obnoxious/unethical/arrogant (insert your pejorative of choice here) for you to handle. Perhaps you can’t even stand to look at your company’s management—much less aspire to be one of “them.”
If this is the situation, then you really have only one viable option: Hold your tongue, and look for another job. As I noted above, this was the course chosen by at least one of those employees who was bypassed in favor of the senior manager’s twenty-seven-year-old son back in 1998. The last I heard, he was thriving in his new situation, which eventually evolved into an entrepreneurial opportunity.
People often forget that employment at any particular organization is voluntary. Unless you are a CEO under contract (and you probably wouldn't be reading this post if that were the case) you can walk off the job at any time. Men with guns won’t show up at your house tomorrow and force you back to your cubicle. 

Understand the risks of office romance

There is a saying, “Don't get your honey where you get your money.” Yes, I know it's a cliché. Nevertheless, this cliché contains a lot of truth. Where office romance is concerned, there is a lot that can go wrong.
You could be accused of sexual harassment. You could spend the next two years working with a person whom you don't care for—who is nevertheless romantically obsessed with you. Where romantic relationships are concerned, the potential for trouble is open-ended.
On the other hand, I recognize that not all office romances turn out badly. We all know someone who met his or her truelove on the job. My own parents met at Procter & Gamble, where they were both employed for a time during the 1960s. So I guess it's fair to say that I owe my own existence to office romance. Nevertheless, I urge you to err on the side of caution. The workplace has changed since the 1960s; and many careers are derailed by romantic relationships that go awry.
To begin with, your company (that is, your management and HR department) probably wants to know if you are romantically involved with someone in your immediate work group. Most organizations require the disclosure of romantic relationships. On one hand, this sounds intrusive—but there is actually a perfectly reasonable explanation for it. Romantic relationships complicate hierarchies and reporting relationships. The presence of a romantic relationship within any department or work group can jeopardize the trustworthiness of the hierarchy.
Suppose that two employees are engaged in a romantic relationship, and one of them is promoted. The employee who has a sweetheart in the corner office will have an unfair advantage over his or her peers. Therefore, practically all organizations explicitly forbid romantic relationships between bosses and subordinates. Some organizations take this policy a step further, and separate romantic partners of the same rank.
In practice, this means that when two employees become romantically involved, one of them may have to transfer. This could create headaches for the organization, depending on how much it alters the organization chart, and how these changes affect the overall performance of the company. If your romantic relationship results in a transfer or a departmental shuffle that management doesn’t welcome, your romantic relationship won’t be viewed in a favorable light.
I should also provide an additional cautionary note regarding unrequited romantic attraction. Some people (mostly men—but some women, also) delight in the “chase”—the pursuit of a romantic partner who is aloof, uninterested, or otherwise committed. Any attempt to win over a resistant party can quickly become a sexual harassment issue in the office. Even if your pride, ego, or libido compels you to give chase, you should take the opposite of Nike’s famous advice and  “Just don’t do it.” Your job is on the line.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Do not confide in your employer's human resources department

I worked for one large company where the human resources department was routinely compared to the East German Stazi or the KGB in the former Soviet Union. This was a politically correct, hypersensitive Fortune 500 company that was very much in the public eye. The company had endured several high-profile public embarrassments (sexual harassment cases, etc.), and HR was charged with the task of preventing any additional ones. As a result, there were times when the human resources department did vaguely resemble the security branch of a totalitarian state. Seemingly any inconsequential remark could draw their attention. (I was once reprimanded for simply expressing my preference of the two Presidential candidates during the hotly contested election of 2000.)
No one was tempted to confide in this human resources department. On the contrary, people avoided them like the average taxpayer avoids the IRS. 
At the other extreme is the human resources department that goes out of its way to portray itself as "the voice of the employees” or as “a resource for employees.” Make no mistake about the true nature of any and all corporate HR departments: They exist to serve the needs of the company’s management, and to protect the company’s management from undesirable employee-related issues, including (but not limited to) sexual harassment claims, labor unrest, and wrongful termination lawsuits.
This doesn’t mean that the human resources department is necessarily out to get you. They aren’t. However, when given a choice, they will always err on the side of what is good for the company. At the end of the day, they will be loyal to the company’s management—not you. (And this makes perfect sense, when you think about it. Who signs their paychecks, after all?)
Many corporate employees project onto the HR department a series of associations that are always inaccurate and frequently dangerous. Rather than seeing the HR department as an arm of the company’s senior management, they view the HR department as a cross between the guidance department from their high school days, and some sort of peer support group. As a result, they reveal information that will be held against them: personal problems, addictions, their disdain for the company’s management, etc.
These comments are often fed directly to managers (including the managers that an employee may criticize, under the delusion that the conversation with HR was confidential). No law requires an HR representative to maintain the confidentiality of a conversation they have with you. HR representatives can generally be trusted not to engage in gossip with the rank-and-file (though I have even seen a few notable exceptions to this rule); but they will always report pertinent information to the company’s management. And they tend to take a very broad view regarding what is “pertinent.” 
Many HR representatives are superficially friendly—so that you feel inclined to trust them. This appearance may involve some degree of intentional artifice, or it may be that HR attracts individuals who are in fact more “people oriented.”
Do not allow such appearances to lull you to sleep, under the mistaken belief that the man or woman in HR is your personal advocate or buddy. To be safe, say nothing to an HR representative that you would not feel comfortable revealing to your company’s senior management.

All they need is one reason not to hire you

For any organization, the hiring of a new employee represents a substantial commitment of resources. These resources not only include direct compensation, but also health benefits, as well as the administrative costs involved in bringing someone into the organization.
There are also opportunity costs. If a company decides to hire you, it therefore follows that the organization will choose not to hire someone else. For all the company knows, that other candidate might have been a better choice. The company might be making a grave long-term mistake by extending you a job offer.

Of course, you know that this isn't the case. But they don't know that. Therefore, they will constantly be searching for one reason not to hire you.

In the pre-Internet days, they could only scrutinize your resume and your performance during the interview. Now they can also look online (a topic to which I will return in a subsequent post) for some excuse to put your application in the “do not hire” bin.

You must therefore adopt a defensive posture. Your defensiveness cannot be overt, lest you appear defensive––which will give them that one reason not to hire you. But you must never forget that you are constantly under the microscope. Don't be disarmed by overt friendliness on the company's side.

Don’t fall for the trick question.

Sooner or later in the course of every job interview, you will hear some version of the “trick question.” The standard rendition of the trick question goes like this:

“If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?”

This question is a trap. It's a ruse. The interviewer is attempting to lull you into lowering your guard. The phrasing of the question is vaguely positive. It is similar to the type of question you might be asked in a self-improvement seminar. However, this is merely a device with one objective: the interviewer wants you to tell her the one reason why the company should not hire you.

Notice that the trick question is a catch 22. On one hand, if you state that there is nothing that you would like to change about yourself, you come across as arrogant. On the other hand, if you state that there is something you would really like to change about yourself, then you will give the interviewer exactly what he is looking for: the one reason why his organization should not hire you.

And let's be clear: there is at least one reason why every job applicant should not be hired. Everyone is either short-tempered when faced with a difficult deadline, or impatient with the red tape that characterizes corporate bureaucracies. And if you assign one of these common characteristics to yourself, there is a very good chance that you will sink your opportunity at this company.

Therefore, what should you do? You can't simply ignore the question.

The solution is to reframe the interviewer's question in a positive light. Cite some extreme example of a positive characteristic, but in a slightly skewed way, so that it can reasonably be described as mildly negative.

Here is an example. “When I begin a task, I become so obsessive about it that I simply can't rest until it's complete.” Here is one more. “I am so driven to accomplish my goals that I sometimes become a bit of a perfectionist.”

These are not the only possibilities, of course. You can come up with your own, tailored to your particular line of work, and the organization that is interviewing you. Nevertheless, this is the only way that you should ever answer the trick question. Never be completely honest. If you are completely honest, you will achieve nothing but giving the company one good reason not to hire you.

Termination Man - the first three chapters

The first three chapters of my novel Termination Man.  For a general description of the book, visit the book's description page on this site.

Termination Man

a novel

Edward Trimnell

Termination Man is a work of fiction. TP Automotive, UP&S, GLFS, and Craig Walker Consulting are fictional entities. Any resemblance they might bear to actual organizations is wholly coincidental and unintended. The real organizations and institutions that are mentioned in this book (General Motors, Ford Motor Company, the Columbus Division of Police, The Columbus Dispatch, etc.) are used fictitiously, within the context of entirely imaginary events.
Likewise, all non-historical characters and incidents that appear in this book exist only in the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, either living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2012 by Edward Trimnell. All rights reserved.

Prologue: 1996

Columbus, Ohio, November 1996

The man seated at the bar was making Carla Marsh more than a little nervous, even as she studiously tried to ignore him. Go away, she thought. Just leave me alone. The last thing I need tonight is to attract the attention of a weirdo.
It had been a rough week at school. Carla’s GPA was hovering perilously close to the lower threshold of the 3.0 mark. She had promised her parents that she would maintain a GPA of at least 3.1. Maybe I’ve been going out a bit too much this semester, she thought. She wasn’t a heavy drinker—not compared to some people, at least—but it was hard not to get swept up in the hubbub of campus social life. More than 50,000 students attended the Ohio State University. There were so many people to meet. So much going on.
Of course, there were some bad apples in that cast of fifty thousand. Carla looked up from the glass of beer that she had purchased with a fake ID, the one that gave her age as twenty-one—rather than her true age of twenty.
The weirdo was still giving her the eye.
She considered glaring at him or even giving him the finger, and then thought better of it. Sooner or later he would find another target to obsess upon. She wasn’t the only unescorted woman in the room, after all. Far from it. The Buckeye Lounge was an off-campus drinking establishment, and by definition, therefore, a meet market. Young men and women in their late teens and early twenties milled about everywhere. Lots of mingling going on. Dozens of young men hoping to get lucky tonight. Carla reflected—not for the first time since men had starting noticing her—that the entire bar and entertainment industry would probably collapse if not for horny young men.
That was really what it was all about, wasn’t it? Practically all of the young men here were on the prowl in one way or another.
And that explained the noise—the sheer excess of it: When college-aged men wanted to impress women, Carla had noticed, they seldom did it quietly. A few tables away, a guy wearing an Ohio State sweatshirt was responding to one of his companion’s jokes with exaggerated laughter. As if playing the role of a loud drunk were the best way to make yourself attractive to the opposite sex. You aren’t going to get laid that way, buddy, Carla thought.
She returned her gaze to the bar: The young man—the weirdo—was still looking at her.
Since he was looking at her, she took a moment to look back at him, to assess him: He had the generally tall and broad-shouldered build of an athlete. But something told Carla that this one was no member of the football or basketball team. He didn’t look like the type to associate himself with teams or groups, and he was definitely alone tonight. Jocks usually traveled in packs; and come to think of it—so did most everyone else. On the campus bar scene, loners were rare. And the weirdo was obviously a loner.
This wasn't the first time that Carla had been ogled by an anonymous male in such a venue, and probably not the hundredth time, either. That much went with the territory––especially when you were twenty years old, female, and more than a little attractive.
But something about the lone man seated at the bar was different. Unlike other would-be campus lotharios, he was making no effort to be either furtive or flirtatious. He simply stared at her over the rim of his beer mug, fixing her with half-lidded eyes, and a smile that was somehow knowing. He seemed to be claiming his possession of her, even though they had never even met. He definitely wasn’t her type. Not that he was a bad-looking guy—not really. But he was creepy. Way too creepy.
“Carla, what the hell's up with you?” Jill Johnson asked her, having noticed her distraction. “Have you had too much to drink?” Jill was seated across from her at the small table that the two of them shared. But Jill was seated with her back to the weirdo. She couldn’t see him.
“Are you drunk?” Jill persisted.
Jill was half-drunk herself, but she knew that something was up. Jill always seemed to know when something was up with her. Jill was Carla's best friend in the world, and a fellow native of Cleveland. Less than two years ago, the two of them had headed off for OSU together. They were roommates and shared many of the same classes. Watch out for Jill at college, the other girl’s mother had told Carla. Make sure that she doesn’t get into trouble at OSU. Both sets of parents acknowledged that Carla was the more responsible member of the pair.
But now Carla was the one with a problem, and he was seated at the bar only a few yards from their table. Since Carla had known Jill forever, her friend was able to discern that she was seriously spooked. They seemed to share a wordless sense of mutual understanding.
In her Japanese 101 class, Carla had learned that the Japanese referred to this as inshin-denshin—“an unconscious sharing of the minds between two individuals”—or something like that. She had taught Jill the term and it had become a running joke between them.
“I’m getting those inshin-denshin vibes from you,” Jill said. “So what’s up? Is something wrong?”
Carla reached across the little barroom table and placed her hand gently atop Jill's wrist. For some reason that she could not completely identify, it seemed necessary to play it cool, to conceal her alarm from the man at the bar. Carla was suddenly certain that if she revealed her fear, the young man would exploit it to his advantage.
“Don't make a big deal of it,” Carla said. “But take a casual look at that guy seated at the bar.” For once Carla was grateful for the excessive noise in the Buckeye Lounge. The blare of the jukebox and the incessant clamor of voices gave her more freedom to talk. The constant din assured that the man at the bar would not overhear her—even if he was able to maintain his surveillance.
Jill turned around—less discreetly than Carla would have preferred—and then turned back.
“Oh, I’ve seen him around campus,” Jill said, nonchalant. Apparently the weirdo didn’t disturb her as much as he disturbed Carla.
“You know him?”
“No, not exactly. I think I had a class with him last semester.” Jill paused for a moment to think, with the deliberate effort that intoxicated people often require. “Yeah—that’s it. Someone mentioned that his father is rich. A big executive at some company. I never got his name, though. But, oh—now I remember—he was in my abnormal psychology class.”
“How apropos,” Carla said.
“He really isn’t a bad-looking guy,” Jill said. “Just a little weird. Very intense.”
And now that she got a better look at him, Carla noticed once again that he wasn't all that bad-looking. No, not at all. He was seated; but she imagined that he would be more than six feet tall when standing. She had always had a weakness for tall men.
But not this one.
“He might not be bad-looking,” Carla said in a low voice. “But that staring routine of his is kind of a deal killer. And something about him looks, well—mean, too.”
Mean? Carla thought, wondering if that was the right word. Lots of her girlfriends were mean. She was mean sometimes herself. But the weirdo looked capable of physically hurting someone. That represented a different level of mean.
She felt a chill begin to creep up her spine and stopped herself: Don’t let your imagination get the best of you, girl. This guy is definitely an oddball; but that doesn’t make him dangerous.
Jill merely shrugged at the suggestion that the stranger might have a truly dark side. Carla sighed: her friend had always had a soft spot for the bad boy types.
Their conversation was suddenly interrupted by a burst of feminine laughter. Then their drinks nearly slid onto the floor as someone practically fell upon their table.
“Tina!” Carla said—half in amusement, half in annoyance. Only a quick reaction on her part kept the table from tipping over. Carla was gripping both sides of the table now, feeling like an Atlas trying to hold the world aloft. The young woman leaning on the wooden surface weighed perhaps ninety pounds soaking wet; but it was difficult to keep the table righted with all of her weight on it. “Tina, stand up! I can’t hold you and the table both.”
Tina responded by moving to a crouching position. Carla was now supporting perhaps a third of her weight.
Tina Shields was a young woman with whom she had shared a number of classes. The two of them had gotten to be casual friends. Not close friends, though. Tina moved in wilder circles than either Carla or Jill. There were persistent rumors about her sleeping around a lot—and she had a reputation as a bit of a drunk. Well, more than a bit of a drunk. Carla didn’t know about the sleeping around; but Tina Shields most definitely had a drinking problem.
“Tina! You’ve got to watch where you’re going!” Carla said, helping the other young woman lift her head from the table. 
The baby-faced coed didn’t look old enough to be legally drinking in the state of Ohio. In fact, she barely looked old enough to have a high school diploma.
Carla didn’t want to play the prude; but it seemed incumbent on her to impart a word of caution. As Jill’s mother had long recognized, she was the responsible one, after all.
“My God, Tina. You look so sweet and innocent,” Carla said. “You keep stumbling around like that, and one of these guys in here is going to take advantage of you.”
“Maybe so,” Tina said, smiling vacantly. She righted herself onto wobbly legs. She gave Carla and Jill a little mock salute, and then moved on, becoming lost in the crowd.
“Who was that?” Jill asked.
“Tina Shields.” Carla shook her head and smiled. “Tina likes to party.”
“You think?
They laughed, because there was nothing else to do about Tina Shields but shake your head and laugh. But the situation really wasn’t funny, Carla reflected. A girl like Tina Shields could come to a bad end in all sorts of ways. She needed help.
“Am I interrupting something?” a male voice said.
Disrupted by Tina Shields, Carla had almost forgotten about the weirdo at the bar. But when she looked up, there he was—no longer at the bar—but standing at their table. She had been too distracted to notice his approach.
He smiled—though it wasn’t a friendly smile. Nor did he appear to be the least bit nervous, as most men would be when approaching two unfamiliar females in a drinking establishment.
“What do you want?” Carla asked. “We’ve both noticed that you’ve been staring at us for the entire night.”
“What do I want?” he repeated. “Well, let me tell you.”
He proceeded to describe a sexual act that involved both of them—along with him, of course. This, too, was delivered deadpan, without the slightest hint of humor, shame, or empathy.
“I think that would hurt,” Carla said. “Not to mention the fact that it would be more than a little disgusting. Especially with you involved.”
There, Carla thought. That should be enough to get rid of him.
However, he did not seem to be content to take no for an answer.
“I’ll give you one chance to take that back,” he said.
Oh, the nerve of this guy. Who did he think he was? Jill had said something about his father being a rich big shot. Well, Carla didn’t care.
When a couple walked by—a man and a woman—she was suddenly seized by an inspiration.
“Excuse me!” she called out, catching their attention. The age and dress of the couple revealed them to be students, although she did not recognize them. No matter. “This guy here—” She indicated the man standing at their table. “He seems to get off on approaching unknown women and making perverted suggestions. What do you think of that?”
The male half of the couple took one look at Carla and Jill’s unwanted visitor. He shook his head and said, “That is so not cool.” The woman advised the intruder not to be a “loser.” The young couple showed no interest in involving themselves any further. After making these brief remarks they continued on.
But Carla could tell that the exchange had produced its desired effect. No young man wants to be called a “loser”—especially when the person assigning the label is an attractive young female. The word “loser” had made him flinch, like a slap across the face.
There, she thought. Humiliate him in front of all these others, make him feel like a total asshole. That’ll teach him a lesson.
Now Carla and Jill were alone with him again. Carla could see that the young man was shaking—not with fear, but with rage. His cheeks were crimson, and his hands were balled into fists. He stared first at her, then at Jill, his eyes seeming to bore through them.
“You ungrateful bitches,” he finally said.
“Oh, why don’t you get over yourself?” Carla shot back. She was still afraid, sure—but she felt her courage returning. This guy had been trying to play some serious head games with them. And clearly she had found a chink in his armor: the threat of public humiliation. Let him try to play the physical intimidation card. Let him just try. What could he really do to them, here in the middle of all these people? The bar was crowded, and she could easily humiliate him even more if necessary.
“You’ll regret this,” he said, just loud enough for both of them to hear.
“I already do,” Carla said. “Believe me.”
“Hey,” Jill said, speaking to their unwanted visitor for the first time. “Why don’t you go back to the bar, huh? Leave us alone. Can’t you see you’re not wanted here?”
And then—somewhat to Carla’s surprise—he did exactly that. He abruptly turned his back on them and walked away, though he didn’t return to his spot at the bar. They watched him disappear into the crowd.
“That was spooky,” Jill said when he was finally gone.
“That was annoying,” Carla said. In truth, she had also found the incident more than a little spooky. But she didn’t want to acknowledge the fear that was making her tremble right now; that would only be a way of giving the young man more power over them. He had surprised them—caught them both when they were off guard; that was all. He was nothing but an essentially harmless creep who had shrunk away at the first sign of determined resistance. “But he’s gone now.”
“You think so?” Jill asked. “You think that’s the end of it?”
Jill had a point. The stalker types often disappeared momentarily when rebuffed, only to make an unexpected appearance at a later time. You could never be sure. However, Carla had no intention of allowing the young man to afflict her with a lingering case of the heebie-jeebies. He would not get under her skin.
“We’ll never see him again,” she said. “Come on, let’s get out of here. I’ve had enough social intercourse for one night.”
“I think it’s safe to say that that guy had more than social intercourse on his mind,” Jill said. And Carla thought: Yes, I suppose it’s good that we can make light of it. Joking about it diminishes that creep’s power over us.
They stood up; the atmosphere of the Buckeye Lounge had been ruined for them—at least for tonight. As Carla pushed her empty chair under the table, she noticed the heavily intoxicated coed who had nearly fallen into their laps only a few minutes ago. Tina Shields nodded at her when their eyes met. Tina was seated in a beanbag chair that was pushed against the adjacent wall, giving her an unobstructed view of the table that she and Jill were vacating. Tina Shields probably observed the entire exchange between them and the weirdo.
Take care of yourself, Tina, Carla thought. But I have a feeling that you’re destined to come to a bad end. And then to Jill she said: “I think I need to lay off of the drinking for a while.”

*    *     *

From the Columbus Dispatch, November, 1996

Two OSU Students found Bludgeoned to Death in Apartment Near Campus

Jill Johnson and Carla Marsh, both 20, were found dead Sunday morning in their off-campus apartment on North High Street in Columbus. A spokesperson from the Columbus Police Division (CPD) stated that both young women died from multiple blunt force trauma wounds.
CPD investigators believe that the women were killed the previous Friday night. As the investigation is ongoing, the CPD has declined to give additional details regarding either the murders or the crime scene.
Johnson and Marsh were both Cleveland natives. Both were students at the Ohio State University. 
The landlord of the two young women, 57-year-old Leonard Gates, discovered the bodies at approximately 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, after using his master key to enter their apartment.
Gates had received a series of concerned phone calls from one of the young women’s parents, who were concerned because their daughter was not answering her telephone or responding to voice messages. 

Chapter 1

Cleveland, Ohio, 2011

Kevin Lang had no idea that I was anyone other than who I purported to be. In the days before I approached him at the Backstop Bar & Grill, I had let my beard stubble grow. Sitting in my rented car in the parking lot of the bar, I deliberately mussed my hair a bit, so that it looked like it had been covered by a safety helmet all day.
My assistant and sometime lover, Claire Turner, says that even when I try to look disheveled, I still look like a Calvin Klein underwear model. When I step into a role like this, I try to remember that the average 35-year-old factory worker already looks like his best years are far behind him. Well, if I looked like a Calvin Klein underwear model, then at least I looked like one who had been operating industrial machinery for the last eight or nine hours. And I was wearing the uniform of the average Joe: jeans, a tee shirt, a denim jacket, and a “Union Yes” baseball cap.
I certainly didn’t look like what I actually was: a highly paid corporate consultant, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, and a former employee of a major East Coast consulting firm.
I stepped out of my car into the damp, cold air of an early winter afternoon in Cleveland, Ohio. I had driven to this spot in a 1999 Chevrolet Cavalier. The vehicle had 123,576 miles on its odometer, rust around the wheel wells, and a busted exterior mirror on the passenger side. The sort of transportation that a semi-employed welder named “Ben” might drive. A far cry from the Lexus LS 460 that Craig Walker owned. But then, at this moment I wasn’t Craig Walker anymore. And I would not be for the next hour or so.

I had no trouble locating Kevin Lang inside the Backstop Bar & Grill. He was seated at the bar, right where I expected him to be. I had studied Kevin’s picture dozens of times: He was an early middle-aged guy with a receding hairline, goatee, and the beginnings of a beer gut. He had a distinctive birthmark on his right cheek. Kevin’s evening routine seldom varied. I knew that from the research and surveillance work that I had paid for. Everyday he headed to the Backstop following the end of his shift. He ordered either a pizza sub or a Reuben, usually with fries or onion rings. He also downed an average of two to three beers before finally heading home for the night.
The barstool beside him was vacant, so I took it. I ordered a beer; and after a suitable amount of time I gestured to the television set above the bar and said to him:
“This is too painful to watch.”
ESPN was replaying highlights from the previous Monday’s Browns game. Cleveland had been clobbered by Cincinnati—the town that every self-respecting Clevelander loves to hate. Cleveland and Cincinnati are at opposite ends of Ohio, and the sports rivalries between the two cities are the stuff of legend.
He turned around and looked at me and gave me a double take: It was an expression that I’ve seen from a lot of women over the years, and yes, more than a few men. One of the items noted in my file on Kevin Lang was his “ambiguous sexuality.” Kevin was thirty-six and unmarried. He had no girlfriend, and we had never observed him contracting the services of an escort, picking up a streetwalker, or entering a strip bar. We had discovered that Kevin maintained a profile on a bisexual Internet dating site—a site for “bi curious” males. My researchers had been unable to confirm if this aspect of his life had progressed beyond online activity. Kevin had not logged on to the site for a number of weeks.
I resisted my reflex reaction—which was to flinch when another man appraises me like that. A key element of my success is my ability to get underneath people’s skin, to expose their weaknesses. This means that I sometimes have to be adaptable. Within limits, of course.
“I’ll say,” Kevin said. He recovered himself, and seemed vaguely embarrassed that his eyes had lingered on me a few seconds too long. He returned his attention to the television set. Like my character of the day, Kevin was a blue-collar working stiff. But whereas “Ben” was a fabrication, Kevin was the genuine article. He lifted his sandwich and took a large bite from it.
“I turned the game off during the third quarter. Not worth the time,” he said through a mouthful of food.
Kevin was an employee of a medium-sized manufacturing company called Great Lakes Fuel Systems, or GLFS for short. GLFS had recently been bought out by TP Automotive, a large automotive components conglomerate that owned various factories in twenty-three countries. TP Automotive was the company that had hired me to be here on this barstool beside Kevin.
“That’s okay,” I said, taking a sip of my beer. “At least the Monsters are doing well.” The Lake Erie Monsters are the hockey team that everyone in Cleveland follows. “I’m more into hockey, anyway.”
I noticed that Kevin was wearing a United Autoworkers tee shirt beneath his Cleveland Browns windbreaker. Although I had a job to do, I wished for Kevin’s sake that he had not embraced the UAW. TP Automotive’s management team had immediately pegged Kevin as one of the troublemakers at GLFS; but his decision to support the union had been his real undoing.
Truth be told, I didn’t like assignments like this. Most of the time, my clients hired me to go after white-collar agitators and malcontents: people who were hauling down high five-figure and even six-figure salaries, but still weren’t happy with their lot in life. I didn’t relish the idea of taking down a man like Kevin. There was an aspect of him that reminded me of my father, who had spent thirty years as a machinist in a grimy industrial plant near Dayton. Dad had been a lot like Kevin in some ways: he worked long hours in a job he tolerated, and he took his pleasures in simple pastimes like following professional sports. Nothing like my life.
But merely tolerating your job is one thing; hating it is another. Acting on your resentments and grievances is another thing still. Practically every person who I have ever targeted is one of that 71% of the population who, according to pollsters, “hates their jobs.” It is rare for a truly satisfied and dedicated employee to run afoul of their management to the degree that my services would be required. My clients pay me to handle the most intractable elements of the unhappy 71%. Employees like Kevin Lang.

They call me the Termination Man. I never really cared for that nickname; but once the moniker arose in client circles, it sort of stuck. The Termination Man inevitably calls to mind that series of movies from the 1980s and 1990s, in which a future governor of California portrays a homicidal android who goes about blasting hapless mortals to kingdom come.
There is nothing even remotely science fiction-esque about the services performed by Craig Walker Consulting, LLC. In my job, I am part lawyer, part private investigator, and part crisis management specialist.
I am called when a company wants to terminate an employee for reasons that cannot be strictly traced to job performance issues. This is more common than you might imagine—unless you have ever worked in corporate human resources, or in one of the corner offices of company management. There is a wide range of factors that might drive a corporate employer to oust one of its own.
A few years ago, every CEO and CEO-wannabe was reading a management book entitled Good to Great, by Jim Collins. The author stated that in order to succeed, a company has to “get the right people on the bus.” Otherwise, the bus—the organization—won’t go in the desired direction.
The corollary here is that a company sometimes has to get the wrong people off the bus. This is where my services become essential. I get the wrong people off the bus.
The target employee can fit a variety of profiles. He might be a rank-and-file staff professional who poisons the atmosphere with his bad attitude, turning his colleagues against management. She might be a first-tier manager who has made veiled threats about filing a frivolous sexual harassment or discrimination claim. Or he might be a union agitator, like Kevin Lang.

Kevin and I had both downed several beers when I finally made my first reference to the marijuana cigarette that was in the breast pocket of my shirt. We had already exhausted the full gamut of working-man-at-the-bar topics: professional sports, the best places to drink after work, our respective trades. I had studied up on the basics of welding the week prior; and as usual, my thoroughness paid off: It turned out that Kevin knew a thing or two about welding himself. If I hadn’t prepared, Kevin would have been able to see through my cover in a heartbeat.
“Just out of curiosity,” I began when the conversation reached a lull. “Are you 420 friendly?”
Four-twenty is a codeword for smoking marijuana, known universally within the cannabis subculture, and sporadically throughout the general population. I don’t move in cannabis circles, but a cursory Internet search informed me that the term had originated in California in 1971, when a group of high school students developed the habit of lighting up just outside the grounds of their school at 4:20 p.m.
Kevin made a perfunctory display of being mildly shocked.
“Why would you ask me something like that?”
I shrugged. “Just curious. I’ve been known to light up myself every now and then. Nothing heavy. A joint here and there. You know?”
In fact, I knew from my file that Kevin Lang was more than a little 420-friendly, though he had apparently been abstaining of late. Great Lakes Fuel Systems had tried to nail him through their ostensibly random drug testing program twice in the past three months. The results were negative both times.
“Yeah,” Kevin said with a reluctant smile. “I know. But I haven’t smoked any weed in years now. My employer is aggressive with the drug testing. By number has come up two times in the past three months.”
“Doesn’t sound very random to me,” I said.
Kevin placed his beer mug on the bar. It made a loud clapping sound. “When did I say it was random? My company doesn’t much care for me. They’d be glad to see me quit. They’d be even happier if they could can me for toking. Say—what’s the real reason why you’re asking me this? I don’t even know you, after all.”
Kevin was giving me a long, slow stare. I would have to be very careful now if I wanted to avoid arousing his suspicion.
“Okay,” I said, laying my hands flat on the bar. Luckily, the buzz of a dozen conversations and the blare of the television made our discussion virtually inaudible to others. “I’m not much of a smoker myself. But I like to dabble with it. From time to time.”
“Yeah. Keep going.”
“Well, I got my hands on some Citral the other day.”
“Citral!” Kevin said. I could tell that I had pushed the right button. Kevin’s natural sense of apprehension was weakening. “Been a long time since I’ve had any of that stuff. Where’d it come from?”
Citral is a sweet, high-grade form of marijuana that is grown mostly in Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. A favorite of European potheads, Citral is rare in the United States. And expensive.
“Bought it from a friend of a friend,” I said. “Kind of on impulse.”
“Potent?” Kevin asked.
“That’s what those little green men told me. It stretched my limits.”
Kevin laughed. “I might have seen a few green men in my smoking days. How much did you buy?”
“Well that’s the thing,” I said. “I bought two joints. The first one I smoked already. And like I said, it was a little too much for one person. I overdid it. I’ve got one left.”
“How much did you pay for them?”
“Forty for both,” I said.
“Geez,” Kevin said, wincing. “You got taken.”
“I know, I know. But I’ve still got this one left, and—”
“You were wondering if I might like to buy it,” Kevin said. “I’ve got to tell you, man: I’m not used to dropping a twenty for a single joint. A bit too rich for my blood.”
“I was thinking we might share it,” I said. “And you could give me five or ten bucks—whatever you can spare. That will defray some of my costs—and I won’t have to smoke it alone.”
I was worried for a moment that the use of a word like “defray” might be a bit out of character. But this had apparently escaped Kevin’s notice.
“It’s tempting,” he said, nodding contemplatively. “Citral is really good weed. But still—I’ve got to think about that drug testing thing.”
And now I inserted a piece of logic that would be almost impossible to argue with: “You say they already tested you twice in the last three months? And you came up negative both times? No way they’re going to hit you again in the near future. That would make them liable for harassment charges.”
“Unless I come up positive on their third try,” Kevin said.
“Yeah,” I allowed. “But it’s not like somebody from your company’s HR department is going to smoke it with us.”
Kevin paused for a moment and gave this some more thought. As I had anticipated, my argument was bulletproof.
“Sure,” he said, smiling anew. “What the hell? I may not get another chance to smoke Citral for a long time.”

Chapter 2

Before we exited the bar, I discreetly reached into my pocket and speed-dialed Claire Turner on my cell phone, then immediately disconnected the call. This was Claire’s signal to call me in thirty minutes—more than enough time to get the job done with Kevin.
There was a wooded area behind the Backstop Bar & Grill that was shielded from view by trees and a pair of dumpsters. Needless to say, I had already staked the area out in advance. I didn’t believe that we would be interrupted here, and I hadn’t noticed any police cars in the vicinity. This was a working-class, but relatively low-crime area of Cleveland. Even if someone happened to see us walking back into the woods, our presence by itself was unlikely to trigger any red flags. And from a distance, it would look like we were sharing an ordinary cigarette.
I led him back to a clearing, where the lights of the bar were barely visible through the sparse mid-November foliage. Only the pines were green this late in the season. It had rained the previous night, and the ground was still damp and muddy.
I removed the joint from my pocket and held it up for him. “Damn good stuff,” I said.
“It looks good,” he replied. “So what did you say your name was?”
“I’m not sure I did. My name’s Ben.”
“My name’s Kevin.”
“Good to meet you, Kevin.”
I placed the joint between my lips and pulled a lighter from my pants pocket. Drugs never were my thing—I’m not even much of a drinker. However, the occasional hit on a joint is an occupational requirement for my line of work. Pot is as far as I go, though. And I don’t do any more of it than is absolutely necessary to establish my credibility when I’m undercover.
“So you’re a welder?” Kevin asked, though we had already covered this point in the bar.
“That’s right. I’m a welder.” Then I gave him my pre-rehearsed biographical sketch: “I’m from Toledo. My wife and I moved here about a month ago after I got laid off. We’re staying with her brother on a temporary basis. I’m looking for work in the area.”
“Ah, so you’re married,” he said.
“Yep.” I couldn’t really tell if his face registered disappointment or not. The exact nature of Kevin Lang’s sexual orientation was no longer even relevant. Right now, I only wanted him to smoke as much of that joint as possible. I handed it to him. “How’s the local job market?”
“Sucks,” he said, taking a hit. “Places closing everyday. Places that aren’t closing are downsizing.”
He handed the burning stick of leaves and paper wrapper to me and I took a very shallow hit before handing it right back.
“Say,” I said. I decided that I had established enough rapport with him to allow me to broach the subject of his job at Great Lakes Fuels Systems.  And for some reason, I was curious. “Why do you think that your employer has it out for you?”
“I know they do,” Kevin said.
 “Think you could be a little more specific?”
“Well,” Kevin paused and took an extra puff on the joint. I didn’t hold my hand out for it. He was lost in his own thoughts, so he kept smoking it. Maybe he was already a little buzzed by this time, too. As I had promised him, the Citral was pretty strong stuff.
“I’m what you’d call an agitator,” he finally said. “At least that’s the way my employer sees it.”
“You mean a union agitator? I couldn’t help noticing that you’re wearing a UAW tee shirt.”
“Naw, not really. I mean, if the union can get us better working conditions, fine. But I realize that the union has drawbacks, too. Three years ago you’d have asked me, and I would have told you that I’d never support a union in a million years. I was happy at my job.”
“So what changed?” I asked. I was keeping him talking and keeping him smoking.
“For nine years I was a production line operator at this fuel pump company. Great Lakes Fuel Systems. It was originally a family-owned company. Great place to work. The president of the company, Joe Mentzel, was the grandson of the original founder. He was an old German named Klaus Mentzel. Good man.”
“Joe or Klaus?”
“Both of them. Of course I never knew the old man. Klaus Mentzel founded the company back in like 1952 or 1953. Been dead for years. His grandson, Joe, though, he was a prince to work for. Cared about his employees. Knew each one of us by name. He used to walk the factory floor, stopping here and there to ask questions. Yeah, he cared about the bottom line. He also cared about making sure that Great Lakes Fuel Systems was the sort of company where people would want to work.”
“I sense a ‘but’ coming here.” 
“You got that right. One day Joe Mentzel has a stroke. He’s sixty-four years old and he has to retire, all of a sudden like. His only child is a married daughter who lives in another state. So he has to sell the company to this big conglomerate. At least that's what he ended up doing.”
I nodded. I couldn’t tell Kevin that I knew all about the “big conglomerate” that had purchased the family-run business where he had worked for most of a decade.
“And how are things going under the conglomerate?”
Kevin took a deep hit on the joint, then laughed as he exhaled, coughing halfway through.
“You alright, man?” I asked.
He waved me away. “I’m fine, I’m fine.” He righted himself and smoked some more Citral. “Things have totally changed under the conglomerate.”
How have they changed?”
“Well, on the very first day that the new ownership became official, the new management called us into a meeting. They told us outright that the company that the Mentzels had run for sixty years was a thing of the past.”
“They said that?”
“In so many words. They said that now Great Lakes Fuel Systems was a part of a much larger company, one that was responsible to stockholders. So that meant that margins would have to improve.”
“Wasn’t the company profitable under the Mentzels?”
I knew the answer to this question, needless to say. GLFS had been a moderately profitable operation when it was a family-run concern. The company couldn’t have stayed in business since the Eisenhower years if it had been losing money, after all.
But there is a difference between profitability at the family-run company level, and profitability at the publicly traded, Fortune 500 level. Under independent management, the company is the company. Under Fortune 500 management, the company is the balance sheet. Fortune 500 managers earn their six- and seven-figure salaries based on their abilities to maximize share prices and shareholder earnings. They have to measure profitability against every other company in their industries—including companies that pay workers a dollar an hour in Mexico or China. “Good enough” becomes no longer good enough. That is just the nature of global big business in the twenty-first century. Don’t like it? Then don’t work for a big company—or for a smaller company that has been acquired by one.
“It wasn’t profitable enough for TP Automotive,” Kevin said.
“Is that the name of the conglomerate that bought out your employer?”
Kevin nodded and passed the joint to me. I held it without inhaling as I listened to him respond. I didn’t have to bother smoking it any further. Kevin wasn’t even looking at me: he was staring out into the steel-grey sky, in the direction of Lake Erie. We were only a few miles from the water, and its dampness permeated the air. Kevin shivered as he began to speak.
“They brought in a team of what they called ‘efficiency experts,’” Kevin began. “People who had never even worked in a factory before. They were from one of the big consulting firms like—McKinney and Company—or something like that.”
I didn’t bother to tell him that the correct name of the consulting firm was McKinsey & Company. Ben the Welder wouldn’t have that sort of knowledge at his mental fingertips.
“And what did the efficiency experts do?” I asked, prompting him to continue.
“They created a spreadsheet that told them how many workers should be at each station, and how much production should flow through each workstation in a shift. Then they proceeded to cut our manpower and increase our production quotas.”
“And then we started having all sorts of quality problems. Some of us who had been around for a while complained to the new management team. We knew damn well that this would never have happened under Joe Mentzel. But they wouldn’t listen. One of the new suits asked me point-blank if I had an MBA. And I said of course I didn’t—would I be working on a production line if I had some fancy degree? But I also pointed out that the hot-shot MBA who recalculated our manpower and our production quotas had probably never spent a single hour working on a production line.”
“Sounds like a productive conversation,” I said, smiling at my impromptu pun in spite of myself.
Kevin looked at me. “You get the picture, right? I walked out of that office of theirs, seeing that they weren’t even remotely interested in listening to reason.”
“What did you do then?”
Kevin shrugged. “I went back to the production line. What else could I do?”
“And you think they want to fire you just because of that?”
“No,” he said. “Not just because to that. Things changed again, after Eileen Cosgrove—one of my coworkers—got hurt.”
I was going to prompt him to tell me about Eileen Cosgrove’s accident. This was another piece of background information that TP Automotive had given me. Eileen Cosgrove was a production worker who had suffered a crushed hand when her sleeve became caught in a press-fitting machine. There was more than a little bit of controversy regarding the root cause of her injury. TP Automotive had told me that Eileen Cosgrove was careless, and had been written up for poor safety practices even before the new lean and mean regimen had been implemented. I knew that Kevin Lang would have a different interpretation, of course.
But I never got to hear Kevin’s side of it—not that day, at least. My cell phone began chirping in my pocket before Kevin could speak.
I pulled my phone from my pocket.
“Where the hell are you, honey?” Claire asked. If her voice carried to Kevin at all, he would have entirely missed the slight tinge of irony in her tone.
“I’ll be home in about fifteen minutes,” I said, sounding like a henpecked husband who had once again lingered too long in the bar after work. “Bye.” I pushed the call termination button and returned the phone to my pocket.
Kevin gave me an inquiring look. I shrugged.
“The wife,” I said. “Got to get going.”
“Okay,” he replied. He held the joint up. We—mostly he—had smoked it down to tiny fraction of its original length. “Not much left on this thing, anyway. You want to take the roach with you?”
“You keep it,” I said. “I’m going to be lucky if my old lady doesn't get suspicious as it is.”
“All right. Thanks, Ben.” He dug into his back pocket for his wallet. He removed a crisp ten-dollar bill and handed it over to me. “Take care,” he said. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”
Kevin didn’t know how prophetic that statement was.

Once back in my rented car, I sent a text message to Beth Fisk. Beth was the HR manager whom TP Automotive had placed at GLFS on a provisional basis. She was their traveling human resources rep, the one whom they usually dispatched to newly acquired companies.
From what I had gathered, Beth had done time at a slew of acquired companies in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. This meant that she had to move every three to twelve months, depending on the duration of each assignment. It wasn’t much of a life, shifting from one sleepy rural town or rustbelt backwater to another. (Automotive components plants are seldom located in glamorous or picturesque places.) But I had immediately recognized Beth as a climber. I was sure that she had a long-term plan to make all of this sacrifice pay off. 
My communications with Beth were always efficient and to the point. Once or twice I had attempted to establish a rapport with her by cracking a few jokes, asking her how her weekend went—that sort of thing. I might as well have tried to establish a rapport with a KGB agent in the former Soviet Union. Beth probably had a personality buried somewhere underneath all that corporate protocol, but she wasn’t going to reveal it for my benefit. Typical HR at a big company.
The text message that I sent to Beth Fisk was even shorter than most, not to mention cryptic. My consulting work seldom required me to step too far outside the law; but plenty of my activities—if revealed to the wrong people—would make my clients and me liable for civil actions. This realization necessitated an extra level of caution. I didn’t want to get caught with my pants down someday, holding on to a batch of incriminating emails or text messages.
 For the sake of plausible deniability in the event that our phone records were ever subpoenaed, I sent my message to Beth in code: “The market is up,” it read. If Kevin had failed to take the bait, I would have sent the message: “The market is down.” Simple. And idiotproof.
Beth would now know to arrange a drug test for Kevin Lang first thing the following morning. His system would be full of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical footprint of marijuana use. After passing the test two times, Kevin would fail the third one.
What I had told Kevin had been correct: A third passing result would put him in a position for some sort of harassment lawsuit. At that point it would be easy for even a halfway competent attorney to build the case that Kevin’s employer was going out of its way to entrap an innocent man. But a positive test result would change everything. A positive test result would mean that he wasn’t an innocent man anymore.
If all this sounds complicated, well—that’s because it is. But so are the politically correct, overly litigated times in which we live. Demand for my services exists because employment law has become such a minefield. Every year private-sector employers spend billions of dollars combating wrongful termination lawsuits. Despite the doctrine of employment-at-will in corporate America, a discharged employee can still create problems for his or her former employer.
And in the Internet Age, a lawsuit might be only the beginning. Sometimes disgruntled ex-employees also take to the Internet, telling their tales of real or imagined mistreatment to anyone who will listen. This not only encourages add-on and class action lawsuits, it can also cost a company millions in lost revenues from sympathetic consumers.
Thanks to that joint we smoked in the woods, TP Automotive would be able to eliminate a real threat to its operations. Kevin would survive and land on his feet, I told myself. We all do what we have to do.

Chapter 3

When I walked into Great Lakes Fuel Systems around ten o’clock the next morning, the trappings of Ben the Welder were gone. I had shaved, showered, and combed my hair. My jeans and denim jacket were gone. I was clad in a Giorgio Armani suit, $1,200 off the peg. I grew up poor; and I still experienced a mild sense of disorientation when I dropped that kind of green for a pair of pants and a blazer. But image counts for a lot in the consulting field. My clients literally entrusted me with the fate of their operations. They knew me as the Termination Man, the guy who could get them the results they needed. I had to look the part.
I entered the GLFS facility through the rear entrance, using a temporary keycard that Beth Fisk had issued to me. TP Automotive didn’t want my name in the visitor’s log. They didn’t want my image showing up on the lobby cameras. I saw this as a bit of overkill on their part; but it was their dime. If they wanted me to creep in through the back door, that was fine by me. 
Kevin didn’t even notice me as I walked by him on my way through the plant. To begin with, an automotive components plant is a noisy place. Everyone wears hearing protection, with the constant whirring, chugging, and pounding of all the machinery. I heard my wingtips clicking on the cement floor of the plant; but practically no one else did. Nor did my expensive suit draw undue attention. Since TP Automotive had acquired GLFS, the place had been crawling with suits. A few workers glanced briefly at me, then turned their attention back to their machinery. As far as they knew, I was just another TP Automotive manager or a hired efficiency expert.
I saw Kevin operating his press-fitting machine. It was a big device—about the size of a compact car. Kevin placed one half of a fuel pump housing into the machine’s lower jaw, inserted some additional components, and then pressed the red cycle-start button. The machine’s upper jaw descended, mating the bottom half of the housing with a top half that had been loaded into the machine from above.
I could tell that Kevin was distracted. The look on his face told me everything I needed to know: He had already been called for the drug test. He knew that it would show a positive result for marijuana use. He was waiting for the hammer to fall.
At the far edge of the factory area, I passed through a metal door, once again using the temporary keycard. I ascended a concrete staircase: This was a back entrance to the plant’s executive office space.
They were already gathered in the boardroom, seated around a big mahogany table in a semicircle. Beth Fisk from HR, Bernie Chapman from legal, and Chuck Gaskins—the new CEO installed by TP Automotive. Kurt and Shawn Myers were also present at the table. As usual, Kurt dominated the room, both because of his position, and also because of the man he was. Are Fortune 500 executive types born or made? In Kurt’s case, I would have argued for the former: He probably came out of the womb in formal attire, clutching a handful of business cards.
Kurt Myers had thick silver hair, broad shoulders, and a flat stomach that is extremely unusual on a man past sixty. In the early nineteen-seventies he had been a college football player of some renown—or so I’d been told.  Kurt happened to be seated; but I knew that the man towered to a height of nearly six-feet-four. One thing they won’t teach you in business school is that there is a measured correlation between height and the rate at which people move up the corporate ladder. All things being equal, the tall man or woman will always be promoted over his or her shorter counterparts. This is not exactly logical—and not exactly ethical—but that’s the way it works. Group dynamics favor the tall and the physically imposing.
Kurt’s ne’er-do-well son, Shawn Myers, slouched back against his chair. He seemed to be bored and mildly amused by the proceedings. How old was Shawn? In his early to mid-thirties, I guessed. Around my age. He wouldn’t have been in this room if not for his father, and everyone present knew it—though no one would have dared to voice this realization.
“Craig, Craig,” Kurt Myers said. He was the first to rise and shake my hand. “You’ve done an excellent job,” he declared with an ear-to-hear smile.
“Thank you,” I said, submitting to Kurt’s viselike handshake. As if on cue, the other members of the TP Automotive management team rose in unison, and I began shaking their hands as well.
“The test came up positive,” Beth Fisk informed me. Of course it had.
“More than positive, actually,” she went on. “Kevin Lang’s THC reading was unequivocal. Off the charts, you might say.”
This was the sort of thing a person might say when gloating; but Beth did not permit herself the slightest hint of a smile. I knew from our earlier consultations that Beth had arranged to have the test results completed within an hour. For a routine, run-of-the-mill drug test, two to five business days is the norm. But most labs can have the tests complete within an hour—if you pay an additional surcharge and arrange to have the blood, urine, and hair samples transported to the lab via courier. This keeps the advantages of time on the company’s side. It prevents an employee who knows that he’s going to come up positive from lawyering up or contacting his local civil rights organization.
A printout of the lab results—probably emailed to Beth in PDF format—was placed face-up on the surface of the table. There was manila file folder as well. I knew that TP Automotive had even nastier—and more personal—surprises in store for Kevin if he decided to put up a fight. 
“The case against Kevin Lang is absolutely airtight,” Bernie Chapman added, referring to the printout from the lab. “He has absolutely no leg to stand on.” The corporate lawyer was a weak-chinned man with a beard that looked incongruous in a TP Automotive setting, where clean-cut male faces were the unofficial rule. 
Chuck Gaskins merely nodded at all of this. He was a figurehead at Great Lakes Fuel Systems and everyone knew it. Chuck was past his prime and would retire within five years, as soon as the market recovered and TP Automotive shares regained their pre-2008 values. Two thousand-eight was the year that the automotive industry—along with housing, banking and almost everything else—had gone to hell.
They sat back down, and Bernie gestured to one of the empty chairs to his left.
“Craig,” Bernie said. “We would like you to remain, but only as an observer.”
This was the polite corporate way of telling me that I should shut up and let my client do the talking. This was fine with me, in fact. It wasn’t my job to speak in a meeting like this. My sole purpose in this meeting was to assess Kevin Lang as a future security risk. There was no way to do that without sitting here in the meeting and actually observing him. I would estimate the likelihood that Kevin would do something stupid in the wake of his firing. In a worst-case scenario, that would mean violence—the sort of incident that dominates the news for weeks afterward, and produces a lot of handwringing about the dangers of the modern American workplace. Some men live one step away from the edge of their mental breaking points; and the loss of their jobs can be the trigger that sends them over that edge.
Fortunately, few workers actually go that far. But not all troublemakers become fatalistic, mass-murdering shooters. Kevin might show up in the GLFS parking lot some afternoon after a few too many beers at the Backstop Bar & Grill, and simply try to make trouble.
The last part of this job would be a post-firing surveillance of Kevin. I would subcontract this out to someone else, probably a freelance private investigator. I would only do this part of the job myself if I had reason to believe that Kevin constituted an imminent threat. Then my work at GLFS—and my involvement with Kevin Lang—would be complete.
I had no real qualms about remaining in the room during the actual firing. I didn’t think that Kevin would recognize me as long as I didn’t speak. I would be one of seven people in the room; and the last person Kevin would expect to see in this meeting would be Ben the Welder, his pot-smoking buddy and fellow patron of the Backstop Bar & Grill. Moreover, I was sitting at the far end of the table, placing me at an angle where it would be difficult for Kevin to catch a full view of my face. You’ve no doubt heard the expression “hiding in plain sight.” If someone isn’t actively looking for you, it can be easier than you might imagine.
“I think we’re ready,” Beth said.
Kurt Myers nodded, and Beth dialed a number on her cell phone. Plant security. It was obvious from the context of the conversation that she had made previous arrangements to have Kevin escorted out of the facility following his termination notice. This was just a confirmation call, a last-minute check to make sure that the security guards would be ready.
Next Beth called Kevin’s immediate supervisor. If my memory serves me correctly, his name was Gus Traynor. TP Automotive hadn’t brought him into the loop. Gus had been part of the pre-buyout GLFS management team, and his loyalties were uncertain. He wouldn’t be informed of the situation until Kevin had signed his papers and was safely out the door.
“Hello, Gus? Beth Fisk here. Could you please ask Kevin Lang to come to Room 107?” she said. “Thank you.” Beth terminated the phone call before Gus could ask any questions.
Kurt Myers nodded approvingly and Beth looked away before smiling. Not a smile of humor, of course, but rather a smile of satisfaction. True, I had done most of the footwork and the dirty work, but Beth was going to claim most of the credit internally. That’s the way it works with consultants. Whatever they do—either good or bad—ends up on the shoulders of the internal corporate employee who hired them.
Beth had hired me and approved my plan for ensnaring Kevin Lang. She had shopped the proposal around and sold it up through the management ranks, all the way to the executive board—all the way to Kurt Myers. Kurt Myers was a vice president of strategic planning at the TP Automotive headquarters, and the board member who had ultimate authority over the GLFS buyout.
This would be another feather in Beth’s cap, no doubt one of many. She was probably aiming for a spot on the board herself before she turned forty. If her run of luck continued, that might come to pass.
When the doorknob turned, we all snapped to attention. A firing is always a nerve-wracking experience, even if security guards are just a few paces away. A firing is like an execution. You never know what the terminated employee might do when informed of his or her fate. I once attended a termination meeting in which the employee lunged at the presiding HR manager with a letter opener. Three security guards were required to disarm and restrain him. One of the guards was taken to the emergency room for stitches, after he was stabbed with the letter opener that had been intended for the human resources manager. And that guard had counted himself as lucky. The letter opener had come within a hair’s breadth of puncturing his carotid artery.
Kevin stood in the doorway.
“Please come in, Kevin,” Beth said.
Kevin did as instructed. “Should I stand or sit?” he asked.
“Why don’t you remain standing,” Beth replied. “We won’t need much of your time.”
Kevin’s eyes swept the people assembled before him. I had leaned back so that I was mostly obscured by Bernie’s profile. There was no immediate sign of recognition in Kevin’s face. At least not that I could tell. But he did recognize Kurt Myers.
“I suppose I should be flattered,” Kevin said. “I rated a time slot on the schedule of Mr. Kurt Myers. Not to mention Kurt Junior.”
Shawn snorted before replying. “Tough talk for a dumbass pothead.”
Kurt, Beth, and Bernie Chapman simultaneously glared at Shawn Myers. I was aware of some of the history here, but not all of it. Beth had already had to cover for Shawn Myers at least once in the past. And from what I had heard, Bernie Chapman had been cleaning up Shawn’s messes for years. Bernie had been the Myers family’s attorney before he was hired by TP Automotive.
As the human resources manager present, Beth Fisk took it upon herself to lead the meeting. “We have the results of your drug test here. You tested positive for marijuana use. I’m sure you realize what that means, Kevin.”
Kevin had apparently decided that they had him, and there was no use in attempting to deny the basic facts.
“Yeah, I smoked some weed,” Kevin said. “You know it and I know it. But the important question is—how did you know it? And how did my name come up on the roster for a supposedly random drug test three times in three months? Doesn’t sound very random to me. And even if that unlikely series of events did occur, I think we all know that ethics would have demanded my being excused from the second—and certainly the third—test.”
I could tell that the raw shock of the situation was wearing off. Kevin was no longer afraid. He was gathering his strength, inspired by what he perceived as the grand injustice of it all.
“Something is going on here,” he continued. “And we all know that, just like we all know what those lab results say. And I want you to know that as soon as I leave here, I’m going to proceed directly to the office of Howard Steinkeller, attorney-at-law.
Kevin had hoped that this would rattle the TP Automotive management team. Howard Steinkeller was a Cleveland-area labor attorney who specialized in supporting union causes and standing up to big business concerns. Steinkeller was also an attention hog; he had a lot of clout with reporters at the local television stations. If Steinkeller decided to take up Kevin’s cause, he could easily expose TP Automotive’s alleged skullduggery on CNN and MSNBC within forty-eight hours. The Republican-leaning Fox News would likely carry the story as well. Big money’s mistreatment of the working man was a theme that struck populist chords with red- and blue-state audiences alike.  
And when Kurt Myers smiled calmly back at him, I almost felt sorry for Kevin. He had no idea of what was coming.
“I don’t think you’re going to do that,” Kurt said.
“And why is that, Mr. Myers?” Kevin asked. His termination now a more or less done deal, Kevin saw no reason to avoid burning any bridges.
“I wish you hadn’t made it come to this,” Beth began. She opened the manila file folder and removed a small, stapled stack of papers.
Beth was shaking her head—partly in regret, partly in disappointment. Why was Kevin Lang insisting on making this even more painful for himself, she was no doubt thinking. The man did have skeletons in his closet, after all. And the truth was that Beth really hadn’t wanted it to come to this. She had displayed few qualms regarding the marijuana entrapment scheme. I remember her saying: “If Kevin Lang willingly smokes pot, then he deserves everything that will happen to him as a result of that decision.” But this next surprise was a boundary-pushing tactic even for her.
Kurt Myers might have sensed Beth’s hesitation. He reached out and took the papers from her. “May I, Beth? Please,” he said—as if Beth actually might protest. Beth nodded silently.
“Mr. Lang,” Kurt Myers said. He made a great display of reading through the two or three papers in his hands, even though he had already absorbed the pertinent information.
“Says here that you’re from rural Iowa. Is that true?”
“Yes it is. Any law against being from Iowa? Did I break any company regulations? I’m from a little town called—”
“Darcyville,” Kurt cut him off.
“I’m impressed,” Kevin retorted. “The resources of TP Automotive, a global corporation with plants on every continent, have been mobilized to determine that I hail from Darcyville, Iowa. Do you have a copy of my high school transcripts as well? Did you see my ‘C’ in chemistry?”
“No,” Kurt replied. “But I see here that you got an ‘A’ in drama.”
Kurt leaned back in his chair and laughed at Kevin’s astonished expression.
“Gotcha there, didn’t I?” Kurt asked, as if the two of them were old buddies hanging around on a Saturday afternoon. I knew that Kurt Myers hated unions with a passion. Even more, he hated employees who had the temerity to bring unions or any other form of outside agitation into a TP Automotive facility.
Kurt had thrown me for a loop as well: Had Kevin Lang really received an A in a high school drama course? Had Kurt’s barb been a lucky guess? Or did the file really contain a copy of Kevin’s high school academic records? The papers in Kurt’s hands had not come from me: TP Automotive had obtained these from another corporate security consultant—a man whose sole bailiwick is digging up dirt for employers. Few corporate managers have even met this consultant; he does all of his work via the Internet.
“What’s this all about?” Kevin asked. Perhaps he was beginning to piece things together by this time. Perhaps not.
“It seems that your father,” Kurt went on. “A Reverend Bradley Thomas Lang, is the pastor of the Darcyville Baptist Church. Is that correct, Mr. Lang?”
“That’s right,” Kevin said. “Are you going to threaten my father? Is that what this is about?”
“Please, please, Kevin.” Kurt flashed his million-dollar smile. This was a smile that had appeared on the front page of the Detroit Automotive Gazette only last week. The automotive industry’s chief publication was impressed with the work that Myers was doing at TP Automotive—how he was turning so many plants around, saving American jobs.
“You’re being melodramatic again,” Kurt went on. “We wouldn't think of threatening your father. In fact, I’m shocked that you would even suggest that.”
Kevin just stood there, saying nothing. I am no mind reader; but I knew that over the preceding weeks and months, Kevin had been mentally rehearsing a confrontation of this sort. This is a petty indulgence that practically every disgruntled employee permits himself; and for Kevin, the indulgence would have been compulsive and irresistible. He had no doubt been scripting what he would say, and imagining what Myers would say in response.
But Kevin had probably not imagined the conversation going quite like this. Kurt was toying with him now. And Kevin knew it. But he still didn't know where Kurt Myers ultimately planned to lead him.    
“I think you’ll agree then, Kevin, that your father would be very dismayed to find out that his son had been terminated from a job for drug use.”
“You son-of-bitch,” Kevin said. “How dare you. How dare you! You’re threatening to tell my father that you busted me for smoking weed? That’s a violation of my—”
“Oh, I’m not threatening anything, Kevin. And let me tell you, lest you harbor any doubts, that TP Automotive would not engage in—and never has engaged in—a willful disclosure of an employee’s private information. That would violate numerous clauses of our code of ethics, which is posted on our company’s website. But the problem is, Kevin, that information wants to be free. And there are a lot of factors in this chain: not only TP automotive personnel, but lab employees, security service personnel, and others as well. Despite our best efforts to protect your privacy, there would be no way for us to completely guarantee that Reverend Lang wouldn't receive word of your indiscretion.”
Kurt had obviously thrown Kevin off balance. He was standing in the middle of the floor with his hands folded at his waist, looking down at the floor.
“I can't believe this. I absolutely cannot believe this,” he said.
“But there's more. Isn't there, Kevin?” Kurt Myers seemed to be having a difficult time in restraining what I can only describe as a sense of absolute, unalloyed glee. I was reminded of a quote I once heard, words that have been attributed to Genghis Khan: “A man’s greatest work is to break his enemies, to drive them before him, to take from them all the things that have been theirs, to hear the weeping of those who cherished them.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Kevin asked.
Then Beth interjected. “Kurt, maybe we don't need to––”
“No, no, Beth. Kevin leads a very colorful lifestyle. I'm sure that he's very proud of it.” Kurt began to rifle through the papers in his hands. “Tell me, Kevin: How much does it cost to take out a personal ad on a bisexual dating website? Or would that sort of service be found for free on the Internet nowadays?”
Kurt detached one of the papers and held it up so that Kevin could see it. I already knew that it was a photocopy of a personal ad that Kevin had indeed taken out on a website called I didn't know anything else about this aspect of Kevin's life. I didn't know if this was just an exploratory thing for him, or if he had actually met men from this website. But for the son of a Baptist preacher, details like this wouldn't matter. The revelation contained in that single printout would be sufficient to destroy Kevin Lang—or at least his relationship with his father.
Kevin’s swagger was completely gone now. He was incredulous. He had anticipated that he would be the belligerent one in the room––the one who was pulling no punches, and maybe even skirting the rules of fair play. But now TP Automotive had completely turned the tables. Kevin wasn't just on the defensive—he was on his back.
“You would actually do that?” Kevin asked. The implied threat did not have to be spelled out.
Now Beth spoke up again. “I can assure you Kevin, that no one here wants to harm you in any way. TP Automotive is a family-friendly company, after all. The last thing we want is some sort of scandal.”
“Which is why,” Bernie Chapman broke in—the lawyer held up a printed sheet of paper in one hand; in the other he brandished a pen. “You would do everyone in this room a favor––and most of all yourself––if you would sign this voluntary resignation agreement.”