Variations on a Theme
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  May 5, 2006

Getting fired

Editor’s note: Our fourth “variations on a theme” feature tackles a difficult topic. Thanks to all the brave souls who wrote in. We only have one topic still open before the feature goes on hiatus for the summer months.

I was for 10 years an animal control officer, supervisor the last year, until I made a mistake. In the normal midsummer order of business that day, we had about 60 dogs and cats to kill and throw away. We needed the space.

As supervisor, I made all the decisions: This one’s a stray, hold it two more days; this one’s young and healthy, send it to adoption; here’s a sweet doggie, but it’s got ringworm. No …

The morning’s last dog was a golden mix. She’d come in the day before, “Sunny Girl,” owner info listed, 9 years old. Maybe I was tired. Maybe I thought, “Looks like the owner surrendered her, nice dog, too old to keep.” I don’t remember. To this day I don’t remember. I sent her out the back door with the rest.

I realized my mistake later when I sorted the papers. She had strayed. Her owners were coming to claim her. She was dead and gone to the landfill.

I called my boss to warn him that I had seriously fouled up, then I spent the rest of the day fruitlessly trying to reach the owners. They came late in the afternoon, mother and children, all smiles, excited and relieved that their dog was safe. I had to say to them, “I’m sorry. I made a horrible mistake.”

The local news picked it up. Angry calls poured into the shelter demanding explanations I couldn’t give. They called my boss and his bosses. The family recognized that I was truly sorry, and they forgave me. Public opinion called me a careless, callous government employee who should be fired.

I had supporters: animal control and law enforcement officers, nurses, veterinarians, people in positions where a single mistake could spell disaster. My boss listened to the angry voices. I was terminated for gross neglect of my duties, my indefensible criminal behavior a liability to the county. Even with an exemplary 10-year work record, I was not allowed to resign.

I grieved for that job. I belonged to a team of good people. Things were changing for the better, and I wanted to be part of that. But now I don’t have to kill things, so I sleep all night.

Fair enough.

Monroe, N.C.

* * *

Our five sons were born over seven years. Needless to say, the ’70s and ’80s are a blurred memory of sleep deprivation, endless noise, laundry and a frequently overdrawn checkbook. After our children were in school full-time, I decided to try to get a job to help make ends meet.

I landed a part-time job with an insurance agency. It was heaven. For the first year I kept telling my husband, “I can’t believe they’re paying me to be away from these kids all day.” The owners of the agency took note of my bossy nature (they called it leadership) and picked up on the fact that I had a people-pleaser personality, and so they promoted me.

After four or five years, I was in charge of everybody. Being in charge is a very cool thing. One walks with head held high, awing newcomers with your acronym-filled meeting lingo so that they never quite understand what’s going on.

First I was interviewing job applicants. Then I was asked to make recommendations of those applicants, thinning out the pile of résumés. Soon my judgment was so trusted that I made the hiring decisions alone, which added rocket fuel to my power trip. But with that came the responsibility to fire folks.

Firing people became both my undoing and my salvation. I began to see that people who are terminated have their hearts ripped from their bodies. Yet they were strong. They fought tears. I was magnanimous, of course. I always offered an exit interview, but no one wants to chat much at that moment.

I know now that they could not open their mouths for fear the weeping would never end if it were allowed to begin. I know that personally because it wasn’t too many years later that I was fired. Oh, they were careful to say I was not being fired, but rather was being demoted, put on probation and should begin “considering my future options.” It was the most painful, demeaning, humiliating time of my life. I will never forget it.

More important, I will never forget the many people I fired. I have seen several of them in the past years and I immediately approach them and ask for forgiveness. So far, they have each given me that gift.

Woodbury, Minn.

* * *

In the mid-’50s I began a new job as secretary to the district sales manager of a large steel company. My new boss was like a grandfather to me.

After eight years there, I noticed that my boss had grown old and thin. One day early in December 1965, he told me that he was suffering from terminal cancer and would retire at the end of the year. I was devastated.

When his retirement was announced and his assistant named as successor, I was happy: He was an excellent salesman. I looked forward to working for him. But later that day my new boss walked into my office, put his arm around my waist and as he drew me toward him, he whispered, “We’re gonna have some fun, aren’t we?” I understood that “fun” would be a condition of my continued employment. His dalliances were no secret.

That whispered invitation now brought to mind the genuine concern of my earlier boss, and also his wisdom. Years before he had suggested that I enroll at the university just steps from our office, which suggestion led to my certification in 1964 as a secondary school teacher. Before day’s end, I had drawn up a plan: I would retire on June 15; I would spend the summer preparing for the master’s examination, and then on to a new life in September 1966. I had only to get through the next five months.

Life with my new boss was tense. Suddenly nothing I did was right. One morning he called me into his office, and I knew instinctively that this was the day. I interrupted his nervous monologue to say that for financial reasons I would like to stay on until June 15. I explained my agenda for the summer, and then concluded, “But I will leave anytime you wish.”

During our last month together, we became friends. I was almost sad at our parting.

Today I sometimes wonder, “Who fired whom?” Does it matter? I have no doubt that I owe deep gratitude to my grandfatherly friend whose suggestion sent me on my way to spend the final 20 years of my work life with some pretty amazing kids, some of whom continue to light up my life even 19 years after my retirement.

Arlington Heights, Ill.

* * *

My most dramatic “firing” happened as a member of the Immaculate Heart Community when the cardinal archbishop of the diocese where our motherhouse was located felt we were wrong in the way we were living out the admonitions of Vatican II. Our community was disbanded.

Firing No. 2 came from the bishop of the diocese where I was the director of religious education. Ironically, he wanted a “religious sister” to do the job, a sister who had no background in religious education.

No. 3 was a pastor who was threatened by a woman.

I had a stroke three months after I retired officially at 70. It has been harder than being fired was before but has brought an acceptance of a new, slowed down lifestyle.

Each firing meant an ending, a time of transition and a new beginning. All the new beginnings have been good. I see firing as a positive in our lives. All we have to do is be open to possibilities and do a lot of praying.

Petaluma, Calif.

* * *

I should have known the firing was coming, but the signs were subtle. One by one, support lines had been removed -- eye contact withdrawn; laughter gone; fault found in my work where none was found before. Higher-ups addressed me tonelessly; office banter was missing. Choked off from accustomed camaraderie, I sensed that something was not right.

When the words finally came out that I was fired, I couldn’t believe it. Sympathetic co-workers kept out of the way, eyes averted, while I dashed about like a chicken with its head cut off, panicking, my identity disappearing. I swept personal things from my desk into a cardboard box and made urgent phone calls to save my job, certain the firing was illegal. But there was no checking the power of those two words -- “You’re fired” -- to disconnect me instantly from my responsibilities.

When they asked me for my ID card that I carried proudly in my wallet with its photo of me and my job title, I refused at first. How could I turn in my identity?

Not until I stood in line at the employment office, holding back tears of frustration, did I believe I was truly fired. Its little folded card with my name and address on it would be my new identity card.

I filed a union grievance against my firing and eight months later I was “made whole,” winning everything back after arbitration. But I did not feel “whole” after all I had been through. I saved the goldenrod tablet on which I wrote down everything said at the arbitration hearing in order to always remember the unfairness of the firing.

I never got around to re-reading those notes. Twenty-five years later, after a colossal storm, I found the tablet rain-soaked in my garage. The ink was so blurry and illegible that the notebook had to be thrown away. Why not my long-standing resentment too?

Tacoma, Wash.

* * *

I was fired for the first time when I was 42. I was fired for the second time a year and a half later. Being unemployed should have set me up for a panic attack, but I remember that I wasn’t afraid. In fact, I was relieved. Having bounced around in the work force for over 20 years, eight of them in the Navy, I knew myself to be a survivor. More important, I trusted that God knew where I was, that both wake-up calls were purposeful. I was ready for the next step on that unfolding journey into the unknown.

That step led to the completion of a B.A. in communications 15 years after I started the process. It led to a master’s degree in pastoral counseling, 16 years in hospital ministry and an adjunct faculty position in communications at my alma mater. It even led to a broadcasting license. Awesome!

As Kierkegaard once said, “You have to live life forward but you can only understand it backward.” He was right. The pieces of my puzzle, at 73, make a lot more sense now than they did when I was canned twice all those years ago. Getting fired was a gift -- a blessing in disguise.

Newington, Conn.

* * *

I was fired from a law school where I was an associate professor, where my classes were always the first to be filled and where my student evaluations were top of the line. I loved to teach and I loved the students and that made for three of the happiest, most successful years of my life.

What did I do?

The law school where I taught was and is heavily dependent on oil companies to grant large amounts of money for scholarships and endowed chairs. Lo and behold, I wrote a series of articles in a law journal on oil companies, pointing out how they escaped proper taxation by trickery. It was a time when the distinction was made between old oil and new oil. These companies would ship tankers of oil beyond the international offshore limit and bring them back so they could call it “new oil” and take advantage of huge tax breaks for new oil importation. This was a ruse bordering on fraud, and I said so. Their taxes were less by the billions so that the rest of the poor taxpayers had to pick up the tab. In normal circumstances they would go to jail, but having the best legal eagles, they escaped their obligation.

The presidents of these oil companies wrote the dean, telling him if that was the kind of professors he had, their contributions would dry up and the scholarship money would go elsewhere. So I was told in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t write that. When I protested First Amendment rights, the dean gave me an answer that I shall never forget: “Mr. Riga, an institution can take as much free speech as its economic base can endure.” In his Marxist way, he was absolutely correct.

I did what my conscience dictated, even if I had to pay a terrible price. I’m too old to cry, but too young to say that it doesn’t hurt!


Upcoming topics
May 15

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: