Lawyers and others who deal in confidences place these mouse-type disclaimers at the bottoms of their emails (one assumes by default) to the effect of “This is privileged communication. If you’re reading it and not the intended addressee, stop, and discard the email. Notify the sender.” And such-like. Over the years, I had thought maybe we at Otto should have such a disclaimer on our stuff, but never did anything about it. It probably wouldn’t have helped me in my terminal situation, but I might have had at worst one leg to stand on, instead of having them both cut out from under me.
In the middle of a work week last December, I was, among my other tasks and duties, engaged in an exchange of emails with a person who was very thoroughly playing the asshole. They were jerking my chain and generally revealing themselves to be someone with whom I would never have a comfortable relationship. There have been others like that down the years. You meet lots of them in life … But this person was an unique specimen of the breed.
Watching a documentary on Netflix over the weekend: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — Running Down a Dream, I found myself nodding in agreement with Benmont Tench (at least I think he was the one who said this), relating of a time he found himself disillusioned with the music business — how sleazy it is and how many slimey and corrupt, individuals — how many malignant narcissists — there are in it… and then allowing that he came to the realization that most business, indeed most of life, is like that and the music business is hardly unique in that way.
Well, moving along, I was begging to be relieved of the burden of dealing with this particular individual. But it’s matter of policy (one I myself can lay claim to, as a matter of fact) that we didn’t say, “No.” That there was always a way we would try to meet a prospective customer’s needs or demands, no matter how unreasonable they might seem. And, as it had been my prospecting efforts which had brought this person to light, I was kinda stuck with them. Nevertheless, I bitched. And there were sympathetic ears in the office for me to bitch to, as it was agreed that, good customer service aside, this person was pushing the outside of the envelope.
One morning, I found a message from them in my InBox. It was insulting in the extreme, full-on unearned condescension and a good deal of malign spew. I probably would have been justified in simply ignoring it. And, if I had, you probably would not be reading this sad tale. I forwarded it to one of those sympathetic ears with a note asserting that it was not our place as a business to tell a customer not to behave like that, but…
At least, I thought I did.
Turned out that, instead of hitting Alt-W to forward the message, I must have hit Alt-R to reply, because it seems my little mini rant, couched in terms virtually guaranteed to inflame your garden variety malignant narcissist, was actually sent to the person in question. I called a spade a spade, making no bones about it, albeit laying out said calling in a way that was not truly actionable. I didn’t say, “You, (sir or madam) are a douchebag,” I said, “It’s not our place to tell people not to behave like a douchebag.” Nevertheless, they threatened to sue if I weren’t fired. I’m at all not certain how libel can be shown to be the case in a private communication, but … whatever. My defense, pretty lame as it was was that I had not intended the message for the individual, but for my coworker, and, in my view, they had improperly intercepted a privileged communication. But I was quickly persuaded that wouldn’t fly. Although the matter clearly was not actionable, the mere bringing of a suit and the cost of defending it could prove ruinous, so, I had to — so to speak — lean in and take one for the team.
Of course, it would have been nice if my employers had said, “Scroom. You’ve been a loyal employee for 35 years and nobody dictates our personnel policy — NO BODY.” But it’s business and they didn’t. In fact, they couldn’t get me out the door fast enough.
None of which is the point of this plaint. After a tearful goodbye to my work wife, I cleared out my desk, changed what passwords I reasonably could, and handed over the rest, and rode the elevator down and out of the world that had been my life for 35 years, spanning five decades, three cities in two states, my marriage, and all the rest.
Last fall, a video crew from Kentucky Educational Television had been shooting in the loft and, in a conversational moment, I asserted to the producer/reporter that “Most of what’s on the walls here (framed passes and RIAA platinum disc awards) is mine.” In the course of my exit, my work wife repeated that back to me. I hadn’t even realized she’d heard me. How could 35 years of a life simply be thrown on the scrap heap like that? I still cry in the night.
Tonight I lay awake, thinking about it — running over the sound track of the aforementioned documentary in my mind — and wondered how many, of all the hundreds and thousands of people I’ve met and worked with over the years even know I’m gone? How many, when they find out, will even care? Will any of them miss me — miss the things I did for them? Over the years, I’ve tried to teach the front line folk that their job is first and foremost to be the customer’s advocate. Will that ethos survive in a bottom-line kind of atmosphere?
I think, in the intervening months, I’ve heard from two of my former clients: one the touring director for a top country act, the other the tour manager for a Mexican folk singer. Both I have known since the early eighties. I’m still active on LinkedIn and Facebook. You’d think SOMEbody would write or call to ask, “What happened to you?” But: crickets. I sometimes wonder if the person who got me fired (Do they know they ruined my life?) is glad of their kill and wears my figurative scalp on their belt with pride.
I guess it’s true, what Orwell said. In a time of universal deceit, truth-telling may be seen as a revolutionary (or criminal) act. Be careful who you tell the truth to. They may not like hearing it.