THE CHICKENS ARE ON THEIR WAY HOME
“We want you to take over the Web site.” Don, my boss, is beaming as though I’ve just won a prize.
“Me?” I can’t help blurting out. I’m not exactly tech savvy, and, anyway, Betty Rutledge, the librarian for our large nonprofit, is the one who took those first baby steps at the dawn of the Internet age and now runs the site.
“You only have to manage the thing,” he says, running a hand through what’s left of his inky black hair. “We’ll get a consultant in to actually do the tech part.”
Don seldom makes eye contact when we’re face to face—a clear sign (as if I needed one) of our rather prickly relationship. I don’t trust him. In my presence (although never eye-to-eye), he promises full support. Behind my back, he sticks the knife in with comments like, “well, she’s trying . . .” or “you can’t expect her to grasp the nuances, considering she’s only a process manager.” Then, just when I’ve been feeling undermined on every front, he “rewards” me with assignments that, to my suspicious eyes, seem mostly designed to ensure that I fail miserably. Like taking on the Web site.
“What about Betty?” I find myself asking. The fifty-something librarian was in at the creation of our nonprofit. Without her, there would be no shelves full of reference works, books, and periodicals useful to researchers on the staff. She’s the one who bothered to master the arcana of ARPANET so that topics, formerly available only through interlibrary loans, could be accessed with a few keystrokes. Now, we can all surf the Web, but Betty knows how things really work. I can barely manage e-mail.
Don leans back in his chair, arms crossed. “Betty’s not your concern.”
What that suggests is that the older woman will not be reporting to me. And then I get it: She’s toast. “Does she know about this?”
“Not yet.” He leans forward, elbows on the desk. “Start looking into consultants we might hire to beef up our Web presence.”
I know when I’ve been dismissed, but I also know that we are in the midst of a downsizing exercise—one of those periodical spasms that a nonprofit endures in tough economic times when funding dries up. I’ve already been told I that must identify one person on my tiny staff of four who will get the shaft.
I’d like it to be Joe, our senior editor. He is very good at his job when he’s in the mood. But, too often lately, he’s been running behind. He claims that surmounting the particular structural challenges of the project he’s working on is taking longer than usual. I’d believe him if weren’t for the many times I’ve found him sitting at his desk, reading the newspaper or, worse, a novel. Alas, Joe is golden. He happens to be a personal favorite of the executive director, so his departure will occur only in my dreams.
For a brief moment, I wonder if I can claim Betty as the one person on my staff who’ll be riffed. But the timing is off. The executive director prefers to use the broom first.
Downsizing Betty makes perfect, albeit dreadful, sense. No librarian? No library. Think of the physical space that can be carved into offices for future employees, once the economy rebounds. The money hitherto spent on journal subscriptions and book acquisitions will now be freed up for other expenses. It’s ingenious. But it’s not fair. Not for someone Betty’s age.
Oh, sure, age discrimination is against the law, and maybe she can sue for wrongful dismissal. If that doesn’t work, though, finding another position will probably be extremely difficult for her, especially one that pays anything near what she’s probably earning.
“Look, Don,” I say, the next time I see him. “Betty’s the one with Internet experience. I couldn’t possibly catch up with her in terms of—”
“—Doesn’t matter. I told you. You’ll just manage the thing.”
“But . . . ” I can’t finish my caveat because another, more dire thought enters my mind. No way can I refuse this assignment, or I’ll be the one who gets downsized. Even though I’m about six or seven years younger than Betty, I, too, will have trouble finding another comparable position. How do I know this? I’ve been searching for the past three years since I noticed the handwriting on the wall that clearly foreshadowed a dismal future for me with Don calling the shots.
“Betty’s perfectly fine with this?”
Mel rolls his eyes. “I don’t know. She doesn’t report to me. That’s Edgar’s bailiwick.”
Wonderful. Edgar’s the veep for research. How could he seriously contemplate getting rid of the library? Things must be really, really tough.
Not too long after that conversation, I decide that Sam, the staff writer, is the one who’ll get the axe. Even though he’s an excellent writer and a good friend, the heart-breaking truth is we can get along without a staff writer. We can hire freelancers.
All the managers have been “trained” in the downsizing process—that we are not to tip off those whom we’ve identified for dismissal—that next Monday they’ll all be told to pack their personal belongings, turn over their building passes, and be escorted from the premises. But they’ll also be given severance pay and offered free counseling, possibly even retraining, through a job placement firm. It’s all so horribly inhuman, not to mention humiliating. Surely, there must be a better way.
I decide to take it. After all, I trust Sam. He’s young enough that he can probably find something fairly quickly. I swear him to secrecy and then deliver the bad news.
“Really?” he says, a half smile playing about his lips. “Huh.”
“I’m so sorry, Sam. I’ll do anything I can for you. Be a reference. Whatever.”
He leans back in his chair, clasps his hands behind his head, and laughs. “I was just about to tell you that I’m heading off to grad school this fall. Talk about good timing!”
“You mean full time?”
“Yep. They’re even giving me a stipend.”
“But you could probably use the severance pay, right?”
So we make a deal. Sam and I will both keep mum about grad school, and he’ll let himself be downsized. It’s a sweet prospect, a win-win situation for both of us.
On Monday, Betty Rutledge also gets the bad news, just as I had feared. On Tuesday, I’m asked to take over management of the library. I can even hire a temp librarian for three days a week. That person will be way cheaper than Betty, not only because of a lower salary, but because he/she won’t get health insurance, paid leave, or matching contributions to the retirement plan.
It’s a depressing, draining couple of days. If I had refused to take on Betty’s responsibilities and been let go as a consequence, would she still have her job? Only Don and Edgar and the executive director know the answer. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling guilty at the role I have played in Betty’s dismissal. I am, if not the agent, then at least the one who’s partly to blame for her humiliation, anguish, and anxiety for the future. She’s too young to retire and too old to be rehired.
As I’m driving home on Friday, I find myself hoping that Betty hires a rabid dog lawyer who’ll scare the bejeezus out of everybody who runs the place and shake them down for a huge compensatory settlement—one that makes it possible for her to pursue whatever librarians do when they’re put out to pasture.
As for my fate, the only thing I can be certain of is this: The likelihood that I’ll be able to hold onto my own job for another six or seven years has just been made crystal clear, and the chickens just unleashed by today’s downsizing are already headed home to roost.