As I See It: The Corporate Perp Walk
March 11, 2019 Victor Rozek
Ever do the corporate perp walk? No, not the one with the handcuffs and the coat thrown over the wrists. That’s reserved for guys with lawyers who think the coat will distract us from the reality that their client is getting arrested. I mean the one reserved for the little guys where they give you a cardboard box for your stuff, 10 minutes to pack it, take your badge, and have security escort you in a walk of shame through the building while your colleagues pretend not to notice. Then they dump you at the curb like yesterday’s garbage, left to wonder how long you can survive without a paycheck.
If you haven’t experienced it, you’ve probably seen it. Granted, some people richly deserve to be fired, and seeing them take the perp walk is an acknowledgement that the company finally came to its senses. But many lose their jobs through circumstance and whether you’ve been laid off, or separated, or downsized, or rightsized, or offshored, or any other euphemism for getting fired, the net result is the same: You’ve transitioned from being a trusted employee, to being something akin to a stage four cancer that must be removed from the body with all possible haste.
Treating people who have been loyal employees – sometimes for decades – like suspected criminals, is tacit proof that corporations understand they’re doing something hurtful enough to inspire vindictiveness. But then they double down on the hurtful behavior by inflicting a final humiliation on the departing person.
There is an obvious financial component to being fired, but there is also a psychological one. The loss of employment can certainly be devastating, especially for single parents and family breadwinners, but it’s the underlying message that can haunt people long after they find another job.
Whether you’re fired for cause or circumstance, you’re essentially given the same parting message, with one small variation. If you’re fired for cause, the message is: “You’re not good enough.” If you’re fired due to circumstance, the message is: “You’re no longer good enough.”
Being fired for cause usually equates to job performance, although behavior may also be a factor. Setting aside willful incompetence or boorish behavior, it’s possible to be miscast for a job or to have the job morph into areas beyond your specific capabilities. There are two other possibilities: Misrepresenting yourself at the time of hire, and simply not being a good fit. Or, having no passion for the work at hand and being neither brave enough – nor financially solvent enough – to quit. People who hate their jobs often perform down to a level guaranteed to get them booted, avoiding having to make the decision themselves.
If you happen to be working at something that sucks the life energy from your body; a job where you get increasingly weary the closer you get to the workplace, it may not be too disconcerting to be told “You’re not good enough.” But there is an old adage to consider when being fired for cause: “How you do anything is how you do everything.”
That’s not necessarily true in every instance; people are full of contradictions and will not put as much effort and enthusiasm into something they tolerate as opposed to something they love. But it does seem to have a broader contextual validity. If you’re easily discouraged by the challenges of one job, you will tend to be easily discouraged by another. If your work, as a matter of habit, is not impeccable, it won’t morph into reliable excellence simply because you changed employers. If you blame others for your failures in one context, you will likely do so in another.
The value of being fired for cause is that it provides an opportunity to perform a rigorous self-examination to determine two things. First, what was my part in getting fired? Second, what can I do to change that?
It may be normal when feeling wronged to place all blame on the other party, but that’s not what adults do. Avoiding self-analysis is evidence of a petulant immaturity and thus gives credence to the underlying message that you’re not good enough. (See White House. . . .) Of course scrupulous self-analysis is about as much fun as intestinal flu, but it’s less painful than attempting to navigate a career based on self-delusion and chronic resentment.
Being fired because of circumstance, like downsizing or reorganization, means that your performance was acceptable at one time, but given the new reality, is no longer suitable. There are other more productive candidates the company wishes to keep. Your work was tolerable during better times, but you didn’t make the final cut. Perhaps it’s a matter of seniority, but maybe you got lazy, or careless, or perhaps you’re older and the company figures it can replace you with a younger, cheaper employee and uses the circumstances at hand to cull the workforce. You may never know the entire truth because layoffs allow companies to fire people without specific cause.
The implications of losing a job due to circumstance will be particularly frustrating if you regard your job as a higher calling. You don’t want to stub your toe if you’re feeding the hungry, working to end war or slow global warming. Failing at a job is not as dire as failing to save the world.
Regardless, the underlying message of no longer being good enough is in some ways more discouraging than simply not being good enough. It’s like making the team but then getting cut.
Whether they are received through cause or circumstance, the reason the implied messages can be so devastating is that they are interpreted as identity-level judgments. Ostensibly, it is the work not the person being judged. But we in Western cultures are so identified by our jobs, that if our performance is not good enough then, by extension, we must not be good enough.
The status garnered by virtue of occupation and job title, or the prestige of working for a leading edge company, are coveted for being integral to social stratification and a sense of self-importance. It’s humiliating to be asked: “What do you do?” and having to answer, “Nothing.”
Perhaps, in the end, the value of having done the corporate perp walk is being forced to confront the following question: “Who am I without my job?”
It’s a question worth pondering even if you haven’t been fired.