Vocational Adjustment and The Indispensable Man
That they had misspelled Asher Littlefield Sr’s name on his retirement watch was disappointing, but not surprising. It was, in fact, a kind of left-handed tribute to his corporate longevity and his determination to remain virtually invisible so that he might slip through the years totally unnoticed by the gods of employee downsizing.
Several years after his retirement, Asher had an epiphany that he felt compelled to share with his son, Asher Littlefield, Jr., whose employment with the Car Company had begun to look tenuous, if not terminal. “In addition to all the advice I've given you," Asher began, "if you want to survive in the corporate world, you’ve got to find a way to make yourself indispensable.”
“Keep a low profile and make myself indispensable? In a company with over two thousand employees. How do I do that?”
His father smiled. “I wish I had an answer, but I’m afraid, my boy, that’s something you have to figure out for yourself.”
Asher Littlefield, Jr. did figure it out for himself, but it wasn’t easy. The process began the day he felt her presence outside his office cubical. When he turned around and looked up, he saw an intensely thin, boney-looking woman dressed in a white blazer, with a small insignia on her breast pocket that he could not read. She wore a white skirt, white stockings, white shoes, and her hair was white, not grey white, but silky white. Even her skin had an albino-like whiteness to it.
She smiled down at him with suspect benevolence. “My name is Felicity Truehart, and I’d like to have you pick up all your personal belongings and follow me.”
She continued smiling at him, but he did not find her smile the kind of smile one would expect of someone who was about to sit down for a pleasant chat. What was it with her smile? It didn’t look real. It was almost as if she’d been the victim of a bad face-lift that deadened the nerves around her mouth and left her with a ridiculous grin permanently plastered over her teeth. She repeated her instructions, “I’d like to have you pick up all your personal belongings and follow me.”
“Why?” Asher asked blankly.
“That will be made clear to you in a few moments,” the woman in white said.
She held out her hand in the same way she might have offered it to a small child before crossing a busy street. He stared at her fingers. They were as boney, white, and as unappetizing as the rest of her. Asher tacitly declined the offer.
“Please, just come with me, and we’ll do our best to make this as painless as possible.”
Painless did she say? Why are we talking about pain? He wondered.
“I’m waiting, Mr. Littlefield.” Her voice was now laced with impatience.
Sonnavabitch! I’m being canned. That’s what this is all about. They're firing me. His stomach dropped somewhere just above his shoe tops, leaving a hollow place in his mid-section for panic to run rampant.
“We are on a schedule, Mr. Littlefield.” There was urgency in her voice.
“They operate like a swat team,” he’d been told by a neighbor who’d been the victim of downsizing at his plastics company. “Their tactic is to sneak onto an office floor, target the victims, and then surprise ‘em, strip ‘em, and slip ‘em out fast, before they can do any damage or alert other employees to what’s going down.”
“Please, just your personal things,” she repeated.
The woman is a broken record, Asher thought.
“We’ll take care of the rest.”
“I’ve been fired, right?”
“Let’s just say that you have been ...” She paused as if intent on finding the right term. She found one. “Vocationally Adjusted.”
“Which is another way of saying I’ve been fired,” Asher responded, making no attempt to suppress his obvious disdain for the euphemism.
“We would like you to think of this experience as being given the opportunity to reset your career horizon.” The plastic surgeon’s mistake remained fixed in place.
“Is there any reason the word ‘fired’ seems to be missing from your vocabulary?”
“It’s not a pretty word,” she said.
“It’s not a pretty act, either,” Asher retorted.
“Now, Mr. Littlefield,” she said, avoiding eye contact and addressing herself to a point high above his head as though she expected her words to rise, then cascade over him like a warm shower, “the first rule of successful career redirection is to adopt a positive mental attitude.”
Screw a positive mental attitude. Asher was angry. What had he done to deserve this? Was this just some random act that he had fallen victim to? Or was there someone upstairs that had it in for him? He took a deep breath and stared at the desk that had been his office home for over four years. He picked up his briefcase, the picture of his wife and young daughter, a couple of books, and then glanced around to see if there was anything else he should be taking with him.
“Just the personal items,” Felicity Truehart reminded him in a voice that did little to mask the authority she was prepared to exercise. “Try and think of this as an old door closing, and that I’m here to help you open a new door in your life.”
The thought of having to face his wife with the news of his firing weighed heavily on him. The fact that he would be without a paycheck was bad enough, but first he had to endure the humiliation of having to walk past all his fellow employees knowing that they knew he was being carted off to Outplacementville.
As he left his cubicle, he felt like one of those criminals he’d seen on the television news being led off to the police station. The perp walk. Only they always seemed to be carrying raincoats that they used to hide their faces. But he didn’t have a raincoat. There was no cover, no way to hide his face. He would have to bear the full shame of having been selected for Vocational Adjustment. Barely a dozen steps out of his office, he realized that he didn’t need a raincoat.
As Asher looked out over the sea of cubicles, he saw dozens of Felicity Truehart clones, both male and female, each delivering a personalized and smiling coup de grace. At least he was not alone. Blood was everywhere. It was now evident that his selection had been just the luck, the bad luck, of the downsizing draw.
The elevator carrying Felicity Truehart and Asher sank to the lowest floor in the building. To the best of his recollection, he had never ventured into the sub-basement. The woman in white was talking at Asher. Not with him. At him. He was doing his best to ignore the litany of little reassurances and simple platitudes presumably programmed into her training to help facilitate the acceptance and adjustment phase. He wanted her to stop talking. No, he wanted God to strike her dumb. And if God wouldn’t accommodate him, he was prepared to take matters into his own hands. If management had intended that he direct his anger toward her, and not toward them, they were succeeding.
The elevator released them into a long, dimly lit passageway that looked foreign and strange to Asher. For a moment, he was convinced that somehow they had passed out of the building altogether. At the end of the hall, he saw double doors begin to open, slowly, filing the corridor with a bright, white light. A man appeared, silhouetted in the doorway.
Felicity Truehart stopped and moved aside, gesturing for him to continue. “I will rejoin you later,” she said. Her voice was hushed, as though they had entered a funeral chapel.
As Asher approached, the man in the doorway spoke to him in the same genteel tone and manner as the woman in white. Clearly, their training involved some type of procedural cloning. “My name is Bob, and I’m here to help you through this.”
“Bob? Just Bob?” Asher expected him to have a more imposing name.
“Just Bob,” Bob affirmed.
Asher was immediately struck by how big Bob was. He had been handed off to what appeared to be a bar bouncer turned outplacement specialist. Asher imagined that he could, and possibly would, use his size to deal conclusively with any of those being Vocationally Adjusted who might decide to rebel or express their displeasure in some aggressive manner. Asher could not make out Bob’s facial features as he was still silhouetted by the bright white light behind him. He could, however, see that Bob’s head was large, and that there had been a long interval since his last visit to a barber. Asher found himself involuntarily amused that this large, faceless, hairy man was the angel assigned to escort him to the way station of unemployment. He was wrong. The Angel Bob simply pointed him into a large room filled with chairs and an assemblage of employees who had suffered the same fate as he.
It was a corporate Purgatory of despondent rejects. A grey cloud of humiliation hung heavy in the room. Asher noticed that a few of the people were openly voicing their anger, two were crying, and several others stared blankly at the floor. He found a seat, leaned back, and stared at the ceiling, wishing that somewhere in the acoustic tiles, he might find some answers. What now? What would he do? He had to have a paycheck. He had a mortgage, car payments, a three-year-old daughter with an asthmatic condition, and his wife was expecting their second child in less than two months. Maybe there would be severance pay, but how long would it last? To the next job?
An hour passed. Two hours. Asher looked up every time another unfortunate arrived. It wasn’t long until all the chairs were filled. Those who straggled in last were resigned to sitting on the floor or holding up a wall. More time passed and he wondered why someone hadn’t appeared to talk to them. Where were Felicity Truehart and the Angel Bob? Was he supposed to sign something? Meet with an outplacement specialist? Leave?
At first, he wasn’t sure what it was that had been placed on his shoulder. But a quick glance revealed the pressure had come from one of Angel Bob’s enormous paws. His other handheld out a folded piece of paper.
“Apparently, you will not be going on with us. Another time, perhaps, but not today.” The Angel Bob sounded as if he regretted having to disappoint him. “You’ve been called back.” He handed him the message. “It appears a Mr. Axel McPherson has plans for you. He’s a VP. He can do that.”
At first, Asher was just happy to have survived the purge. He felt reasonably secure knowing that his job was protected under Axel’s VP umbrella. But as more employees from various departments found themselves meeting with clones of Felicity Truehart and the Angel Bob, and as it became clear that no one’s job was totally secure, Asher decided he had to find some way to protect himself. He made up his mind to take his father’s advice and create an aspect of his job that was so important, so indispensable to the company as to make him immune to layoffs, budget cuts, or the caprice of some bean counter. An idea began to form and take shape in his mind ... a plan was born. It rolled out in front of his eyes like a red carpet bearing weekly paychecks leading all the way to retirement. And, hopefully, maybe even to a promotion. Maybe several promotions. An unobstructed route to the executive floor. Yes! Yes! Yes! That’s it!
To implement his plan, Asher got his name inserted on the distribution list for the manufacturing division's daily production standards compliance reports. Each day, the foremen on the several production lines would record endless columns of figures and production details that would numb the faculties and stifle the discernment of even the most fanatical production manager. In truth, ninety-five percent of the information in these reports was unnecessary. Like many things in corporations, the reports had long since become part of the daily fabric. Asher organized the minutiae and numbers, reformatted the reports, and added pages of commentary which only restated in words that which was immediately apparent in the numbers. The result of his effort was a several hundred-page document that he titled the Company Eyes Only report. Soon, management referred to it simply as the CEO.
Asher was sure that someone would see the CEO for what it was and a clone of Felicity Truehart would knock at his cubicle and send him to outplacementville. Months passed and no knock came. He continued to look for ways to enhance his report.
He decided it would add impact if he had a large rubber stamp made with red ink that read: “Private Information--–Approved Distribution List Only.” Soon to be included on the CEO distribution list, became a status symbol that the chosen managers who could point to their copy of the CEO as one more testament to their importance. So highly regarded was his publication that upper management moved him up four floors, gave him an office with a door, a raise and assigned him a secretary.
As time went by and no one questioned what he was doing, or why, or even who had authorized the publication, he began to add reports and documents from other departments - marketing, sales, finance. Within less than two years, virtually everyone in the company assumed that copies of all documents and reports, whatever the subject, should be sent to Asher.
Once all the information was in Asher’s hands, he would sort and sift and evaluate for inclusion. His monthly reports were masterpieces of dull reading. He worked hard to be sure that it would be literally impossible for any of those on the distribution list to read more than the first page without having their eyes glaze over. Unlike most people who create reports, Asher’s goal was not to inspire praise for the content, but to create awe at the poundage. He understood that the larger the document, the greater its perceived importance, but the lower its actual readership. The last thing he wanted was for someone to read, really read, the CEO for fear they might begin to ask questions: “Do we really need this?” or “Aren’t we wasting a lot of paper duplicating reports we already have? Should the company be wasting its time on this?” Yes, a perceptive reader could have well been his undoing. But the odds were against that ever happening. One thing Asher had learned during his years with the corporation: The company was long on egos, but short on perceptive readers.
During the third year of the CEO’s publication, he conceived a truly brilliant idea. He decided to add a summary page to the front of the report. It proved to be a masterstroke. As he explained to his father during a visit to Sun City, "You’re an executive and a report crosses your desk. What's the one thing you'd really like to see in that summary?"
"That the company is making money.”.
"That's secondary. What you really want to see is ... your name. But only if it’s associated with something positive, praiseworthy, or even heroic. When people see their names praised in a report, they feel good about themselves and more importantly, they feel good about the person who put their name there in the first place.”
That was the essence and brilliance of his summary page. Asher never found fault, never criticized, never questioned production decisions or noted declines in productivity or sales. He made sure his reports praised, lauded, commended, complemented, and extolled leadership. He created high profile heroes of dozens of men, if not in the eyes of their underlings who knew better, at least in the summary pages of his report.
His success with the CEO aside, he nevertheless lived in fear that his bogus publication would be exposed. One day, the company president, Charles Fair came to him with a complement and a suggestion. He loved the Company Eyes Only. "But wouldn’t it be an even better publication if each monthly report contained a note, a quote, and a pithy bit of industry insight from the president?"
Talk about validating the weekly report and assuring its longevity. Asher was more than happy to accommodate him. The Fair Opinion from the company’s president became a featured segment in Company Eyes Only. The president's sycophants loved it. And, Asher was told, so did members of the board of directors. Charlie decided to move Asher up to the executive floor and give him a raise and VP title. Charlie also made a point at one of his quarterly management meetings to declare that the CEO report was an indispensable component of inner company communications. And by inference, so was its creator.
There was only one problem: He was doing both his job as sales training manager and CEO publisher too well. He had, in the eyes of upper management, become exactly what he had aspired to become - indispensable. For that reason, no one wanted to see him promoted. He was simply too valuable to indispensable where he was. All his hard work had done nothing more than to leave him stranded in the same job for almost fifteen years. He was like the mountain climber who chooses the wrong route to the summit and finds himself on a ledge with but two options: hang on or jump off.