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To read Part 1 of this 3 part series, click here
They say good employees don’t quit bad companies, they quit bad managers.
The last meeting I attended as an employee wasn’t a meeting at all—it was an ambush. My former manager, [who we’ll call Michelle] scheduled it to catch up on a project and as I strolled in prepared to provide the update, I was taken aback by Michelle’s demeanor and the attendance of our HR business partner. I knew immediately what was happening and I wasn’t surprised at all. It was a tumultuous time and the company was missing several of it’s performance targets. We were on the tail end of a yet another massive re-organization and leadership was feeling the pressure to show quick and substantial results. And since they couldn’t produce them, Michelle chose me to fall on the sword.
There were a series of events that lead up to this incident. Months earlier, I was re-assigned into the position—one I was uniquely qualified for. Will, Michelle and the entire leadership team expressed confidence in my abilities to get the job done; and I was genuinely excited about the challenge. Finally, I thought—I get to work on a project that allowed me to tap into every ounce of my skillset. There was just one problem, we didn’t have the funding or cross-functional alignment to get any of it done. Basically, we were being asked to deliver big results in a fraction of the time, with limited budget and strained resources. It was impossible and Michelle knew it.
As her direct report and project lead I was required to provide updates on all aspects of the project so that she had what she needed to convey the appropriate messages up the corporate ladder. But she had her own issues to deal with; none more glaring than her gross incompetence. Look, I’d worked with insecure managers before, but Michelle was different. Instead of privately owning up to her lack of understanding, she tried to cover it up with intense likeability. If I said I had a problem like a client in need, instead of trying to actually help, she’d ask me to take them out to dinner to smooth over their frustrations. When I told her we needed to address the leadership of a sister-organization—a group we were reliant on and whose leader was openly working against our interests—she skirted the hard work and scheduled recurring weekly coffee chats with them.
No matter the size or complexity of the problem we were tasked with solving, her solution was a heaping dose of southern pleasantries and a trip to Starbucks. And over time, as she repeatedly ignored the real problems we were facing, things got worse.
The straw that broke the camel’s back
By 2018, I’d been at the company for just under a decade and had progressed consistently. Michelle, on the other hand, had only been there a few months but managed to charm her way into a leadership position. As the stakes grew higher, our colleagues began to openly question whether she was suited for the role she was in. People would make suggestive glances towards me in meetings whenever she’d stumble over her words or whenever she’d deflect accountability to camouflage her incompetence. Things got so bad that co-workers, including members of our team, would openly mock and imitate her the moment she’d leave the room. I’d routinely find myself stuck between trying to make progress on the project, defend our team, protect my own reputation or make up for her shortcomings.
But things changed after a key project milestone. After returning from a week long cross-country trip, I reported back on all we’d learned and was prepared to jump back into moving the ball down the field. While I was away, a flurry of inquiries from executive leadership rolled in and Michelle couldn’t handle it all. So when leaders began reaching out to her looking for answers, rather than admit she didn’t have the answers, she blamed me. In fact, I’d soon come to learn that she’d been slowly building a case against me for months in an effort to fire me. And to ensure her claims were taken seriously, she threw gasoline on the fire.
Michelle somehow persuaded two of my white female co-workers to go on record saying that I’d made them feel “uncomfortable” at work. I know this because as I sat down for my surprise meeting with her and our HR representative, she read a laundry list of false claims, accusations, infractions, and warnings from a formal written statement she’d drafted. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was her best attempt to formally put me on notice that my time was up. In my opinion, she knew precisely how well-respected and well-known I was, so the only way she could get people to see that I was the problem—not her—was to paint an undeniably negative picture of me, even if it was false.
Her plan was simple. First, put me on a formal Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), then make the bar for my improvement so unreasonably high and uncomfortable that I can’t achieve it which leaves her with no choice but to terminate my employment. It was a Friday afternoon, my head was spinning and my heart was racing because I’d never been falsely accused of such a gross and serious act before. I could wrap my head around missing deadlines and miscommunications but being accused of making women feel uncomfortable was over-the-top. I’d never dealt with someone legitimately trying to destroy my reputation before so I took the rest of the day to process what was happening.
I’d never dealt with someone legitimately trying to destroy my reputation before so I took the rest of the day to process what was happening.
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What’s really at stake here?
First, I thought about my wife and the fact that we worked together in the same building and for the same company. What impact would these accusations have on how she’s perceived by coworkers. Like me, she was well-respected and next-in-line for a major promotion. Would rumors of her husband making women feel uncomfortable impact her growth potential? More importantly…would she believe me or would she “stand by her man” in public all while questioning who she really married?
Then, I thought about my son who’d just turned one. What impact would my acceptance of these accusations have on his upbringing? If I convinced myself that it was possible to rise to the occasion and tough it out despite the odds, what message would I really be teaching him? When he got older and I offered career advice to him, would he interpret my situation as an acceptance of abuse or as an act of courage? And would my willingness to tolerate this misuse of power lead me to pass on the tainted wisdom and warnings that older Black men had offered to me early on in my career?
… would my willingness to tolerate this misuse of power lead me to pass on the tainted wisdom and warnings that older Black men had offered to me early on in my career?
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It didn’t take long for me to make a decision. The next day, I refused to sign the PIP and instead submitted my letter of resignation. The next week, I was already slated to take a vacation and when I returned, I’d spend my final days transferring files to whoever wanted them. And just like that, my tenure and corporate career was done.
Perhaps, the most heartbreaking element of this experience is that Michelle [a white woman] reported upward to another woman [a Latina], who then reported to Will [a Black man]. Did no one sense an inconsistency here? Did anyone hear the racist dog-whistle that was ringing loudly in my ear? I couldn’t help but envision the number of times throughout history I’d read stories of white women making false claims against a Black man and here I was in 2018, staring down the barrel of her naturally presumed innocence.
I couldn’t help but envision the number of times throughout history I’d read stories of white women making false claims against a Black man and here I was in 2018, staring down the barrel of her naturally presumed innocence.
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Most importantly, I couldn’t help but think about Will. For years, I thought we knew each other. After all, we’d sat next to each other watching The Black Panther. We swapped stories about the experience, exchanged memories of our separate but similar upbringings and had discussed how we should spend time together outside of work. In fact, he’d told me on numerous occasions that he was a huge fan of our blog, curious to learn more about the FIRE movement and it’s implications on the future of work. In my mind, a brotherhood was brewing but now…I wasn’t so sure.
For a PIP to be formally executed it required Will’s stamp-of-approval which meant, he knew this was happening and approved the action. He didn’t reach out to me privately to compare notes, discuss the project’s performance, or question Michelle’s story. Instead, he allowed Michelle, someone he’d just met to outrank a ten-year personal and professional relationship in the name of corporate politics. He wanted the problem to go away. He wanted me to fall in line. She wanted me to kiss the ring and I refused.
Over the weekend, and in response to my abrupt resignation, Will called me because he was confused by my decision to resign. He acknowledged that he was aware of the PIP and considered it a professional development exercise. In his mind, it was unfortunate but necessary; harsh but valuable. “I’m rooting for you” he said, as if all I needed was a dose of encouragement to not let my ego get in the way of a good opportunity.
But as I explained my side of the story, I could feel the pressure mounting on the other end of the phone. He wasn’t really listening to me. All Will wanted was to make the problem go away so we could all go back to focusing on the work. But for me, that was impossible. My trust in the team, the company, my [then] managers and now him was lost. Will told me he’d try to get to the bottom of it and that he’d call me back. We didn’t speak again for three years.
Helpless in the C-Suite
I’ve sat on the details of my final days as a corporate employee for almost four years now. I’ve only shared it with a handful of people because honestly, revisiting the experience is painful. Every time I venture down bad memory lane, I’d find myself angry and confused, asking myself what I could’ve done differently. I’d feel embarrassed for having allowed myself to be caught up in such drama and not playing the game better. I’d be upset that I lost a considerable amount of income [just shy of $100,000 of base salary] and regret not having access to those funds to further our investment or entrepreneurial goals. But every time regret began crawling into my mind, I’d receive random notes or texts from former coworkers. Did you hear?
Lance quit. Ben quit. MC left. Fred put in his notice. Within six months, over half of the leadership team had left including Michelle and the Latina she reported to. And several other well experienced members of the broader team had moved onto opportunities outside of the company. On occasion, I’d think about Will and how much pressure he must’ve been under. I wondered if Michelle had even given him the full story or if he’d simply signed off on the document like a hundred other pieces of paper put in front of him every single day. I also wondered what actually would’ve happened if he’d chosen to investigate further.
I believe he would’ve uncovered a pretty messy track record, a poor leadership hiring decision and that at least one of the key projects he was an executive sponsor for was completely defunct. If he’d confronted Michelle and defended me, he would’ve opened himself up to accusations of favoritism and undermining the formal chain of management. Even if he’d fired her, he would’ve invited a Human Resources and Legal time bomb to his doorstep. So instead, he bet I’d absorb the blow, like a good and obedient employee would.
He thought I was like him. He thought I needed the money.
He thought I was like him. He thought, I needed the money.
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