Friday, December 12, 2014

“Managing out” problem employees—the fictional version

A reader of my novel Termination Man recently asked, via email:

“Ed, I know you spent a lot of years in the corporate world, and that Termination Man is based somewhat on your experiences. But what gave you the specific idea for an undercover consultant who entraps ‘marked’ employees into self-incriminating behavior?”

A good question. Many of my novels and stories contain some elements of my real-life experiences; but these are usually buried under so many layers of fiction that they would be unrecognizable even to people who have known me for twenty or thirty years.

Termination Man is different in this regard. Termination Man is a corporate thriller set in the automotive industry, where I worked—in various roles and capacities—between 1990 and 2011.

I had always wanted to write a corporate novel, but I held off for many years. My first published novel, Blood Flats, is a crime thriller; and my short story collection, Hay Moon, is filled with horror tales and other short works of speculative fiction. I didn't want my third book to be a dull, fictionalized version of corporate politics. What the marketplace didn't need, I decided, was another “the corporate workplace is an impersonal, soul-draining salt mine” novel—which is what I would have written at that time.

Nevertheless, I knew that there were stories worth telling in the workplace. Although corporate life can be quite dull, there is actually a lot of human drama there—including the occasional moments of sex and violence.

But how to turn that into a novel? I needed a specific angle—a hook, if you will.

And then I found one, quite serendipitously. While I was still a corporate employee, I would often read nonfiction books from the “how-to-get-ahead-at-work” genre.

The idea for Termination Man came to me after I read Cynthia Shapiro’s excellent nonfiction title in this field: Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company Doesn't Want You to Know---and What to Do About Them. In this book, Shapiro, a former human resources insider, disabuses readers of their paternalistic notions about company life. For example, she points out that there is “no right to free speech in the workplace”.

I found myself getting many “ah-hah” moments while reading Corporate Confidential—but especially when I read the sections about the practice of “managing out”.

“Managing out” is basically a tactic that employers will use to avoid legal liabilities: Suppose that an employee isn’t a good “fit” for an organization, but there are no real grounds for firing him or her. Management will often place the employee in a no-win situation so as to encourage a voluntary departure.

For example, a chronic complainer might be given an excessively difficult workload, or placed in a dead-end position. In many cases, the problem employee will “fire himself” by simply leaving the organization. This obviates the need for the employer to provide a severance package. More importantly, it usually removes any legal liabilities. After all, the employee wasn't terminated; he or she voluntarily resigned!

Termination Man involves a sinister interpretation of the practice of managing out: Suppose that employers attempted to lure problem employees into explicitly self-incriminating behavior—like casual drug use, sexual misconduct, and even embezzlement. Then it would be even easier to get rid of them. The employer wouldn't have to wait for a problem child to give up and send out resumes. They could fire the problem employees at will—with no legal repercussions (so long as their methods were never discovered, of course).

Now suppose that an independent management consultant specialized in this unique form of “managing out” problem employees. I knew from my years in the workplace that within the highly specialized world of management consulting, there are consultants for practically every purpose. Why not a management consultant who specializes in doing the dirty work of human resources departments?

If such a management consultant did exist, I decided, he or she would likely work by going undercover in organizations. The consultant would have to befriend the targeted employee, then convince him or her to engage in the offending behavior.

This is the premise behind Termination Man. Craig Walker is a consultant who—for a price—will find a way to remove any problem employee from an organization without the risk of legal fallout. Like a rogue CIA operative, Craig Walker works unofficially and off-the-books. So if anything goes wrong, his corporate clients will be shielded by plausible deniability.

Early in the novel, Craig Walker describes his work:

“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…”

Now for the inevitable questions: Is any of this real? Is it even plausible?

To the best of my knowledge, consulting firms like Craig Walker Consulting don’t really exist.

(I should also note that nonfiction author Cynthia Shapiro had nothing to do with Termination Man. I haven’t even corresponded with her. A few passages in her nonfiction book became the germs of my novel; but her involvement ends there.)

While the practice of “managing out” is well known in management and HR circles, it is generally done informally, and well within the bounds of the law.

Nevertheless, we all know that the Big Corporation—just like Big Government and Joe and Jane Citizen—occasionally breaks the law. Moreover, the firing of unwanted employees is a legal, and often a public relations—nightmare for private-sector employers.

As Craig Walker notes:

“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.”

So no, the main premise of this book isn’t real—strictly speaking.

But it is plausible. If an organization did choose to resort to marginally legal (or outright illegal) means in order to manage someone out, I believe that the results would look a lot like what is depicted in Termination Man.

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