Saturday, November 30, 2013

The idea behind the novel "Termination Man"

Several of you have asked me recently where the idea for the novel Termination Man came from. 

This is a topic that I address at some length in the novel's afterward section. 

So without further ado, the "Afterward" of Termination Man.


Not everyone is interested in the experiences and insights that form the basis of a novel. (Hint: You can feel free to skip this part if you want to; my feelings won’t be hurt.) However, as a reader, I have always found that this sort of background information interests me; I therefore assume that it might be of interest to others as well. So here goes.
One axiom of novel writing is that autobiography makes for poor fiction; and Termination Man is in no way autobiographical. However, autobiography can usefully inform fiction. Prior to writing this novel, I spent the better part of twenty years working in various salaried positions within the automotive industry. My first “real” (i.e., post-college) job was in the purchasing department of an automotive components company that shares many superficial similarities with UP&S. The history, management, (and yes, conflicts) of that workplace were very different from the ones that appear in this novel. However, many details—like tedious inventory reports, blue-collar workers who call you College Boy, and high-pressure monthly meetings—come directly from my own experiences and observations.
For many years I had wanted to write a novel about that first job; but I lacked a central theme or conflict that could bring it to life. My own work experience was instructive, in minor ways; but I had no narrative that could begin to approach something like Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker. In real life, the average day in the automotive industry is about as exciting as a trip to the dentist—and often about as painful.
Nor did I want to write yet another book decrying the Soul-Crushing Force of the Toxic Workplace. Everyone knows that corporate environments can be characterized by arbitrary bosses, backstabbing coworkers, and scheming management factions. I didn’t see these subjects as “novel worthy,” in and of themselves.
Then one day I read a book that gave me the missing link that I needed. In an effort to improve my own abilities at corporate politicking (an endeavor that was never my strong suit, I’ll readily admit) I purchased a copy of Cynthia Shapiro’s book, Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company Doesn't Want You to Know—and What to Do About Them.
As the name implies, Shapiro’s book is a politically incorrect, no-holds-barred manual of the cold realities that exist in many (if not most) workplaces. For example, Shapiro points out that “there is no right to free speech in the workplace,” and “age discrimination exists.” Over the years, I had read many “career advice” books; but most of them struck me as far too Pollyannaish regarding the factors that drive some people up the corporate ladder, and push others down. Shapiro, I could tell, was giving readers the straight truth—and some of that truth wasn’t pretty.
While Corporate Confidential was fascinating reading throughout, not all of its content was necessarily news to me. By the time I read this book, I was already well into my forties; and I was already aware that conformity is just as important as excellence if you want to land a corner office at the Fortune 500. For me, the real revelation was a practice that Shapiro refers to as “managing out.” This is a practice whereby companies use subtle (and not so subtle) means to deliberately and methodically speed the departures of employees who have fallen from grace. In essence, the companies convince unwanted employees that quitting is “in their best interest.”
At the time, I worked for one of the large automakers; and I recognized many HR practices in my own workplace that could fairly be called tactics of “managing out.” Suffice it to say that I had one of those “ah-hah” moments that you’ve heard about. My ah-hah moment led to a series of what-if questions; and these questions eventually led to this novel.
While the “managing out” that Shapiro describes generally stays within legal and ethical lines, what if some employers were willing to step outside those lines? And what if a consulting firm specialized in managing out employees, using a variety of undercover operations and entrapment? What if such a consulting firm was also willing to skirt the law, dangling sex, drugs, and easy money in front of its clients’ human targets?
Once I had this key idea, the main elements of the plot came together fairly quickly. I threw in (with substantial embellishments, of course) a few other misdeeds and scandals that I had witnessed during my years on the job. For example, what you’ve heard about nepotism in the Fortune 500 boardroom isn’t fiction. Shawn Myers’s undeserved boost up the corporate ladder of TP Automotive is loosely based on an actual case of blatant father-son nepotism that I saw at another point in my career (though neither the father nor the son were anything like their fictional counterparts). I must also report that embezzlement schemes like the one carried out by Nick King and Michael O’Rourke are not uncommon. Sad but true.
This is how a fundamentally dull day job becomes the plot for a novel that contains corporate conspiracies, illicit sex, and violence. I hope that you, Dear Reader, have enjoyed this altered journey through my resume. And remember: You should think twice before you divulge too many personal details to that new coworker who shows up one day in the adjacent cubicle. He (or she) might be more than meets the eye.

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