THE BUSINESS OF BUSINESS
“We’d like you to resign.”
I studied my reflection in the mirror. Too much glee, not enough—hmmm . . . Sorrow wasn’t exactly right. Pity would only provoke anger, if detected. Ah. Regret.
So, amp up the regret; tone down the glee. I could do that, and I certainly had enough time to practice. Clara wasn’t scheduled to hear from me until Friday.
I looked down at the note sitting on the vanity. Who had written it? Certainly no friend of Clara’s, although that cut a wide swath through the office. My little campaign had been far more successful than I’d ever dared to dream. If the poor woman had any friends left at all, they weren’t broadcasting it. Anyway, it was time for her to go.
“Daddy! Are you done yet?”
“Sorry, sweetheart.” I opened the bathroom door and swung my daughter up in the air, listening to her giggles as I inhaled the heavenly scent of sleepy three-year-old.
“Your coffee’s ready,” my wife called from the kitchen.
I kissed Addy’s nose and then her forehead and then her chin before putting her down.
“You forgot my ears, Daddy.”
I bent over and kissed both of them. “Now scoot, Kiddo.”
A bowl of bran flakes and my wife’s seemingly perpetual frown were waiting when I reached the kitchen.
“What took you so long? I heard the shower stop running ages ago.”
I poured myself some coffee. “Gotta be squeaky clean today,” I said. “Meeting with Sam Kingston and some of the other head honchos.”
“Well, that better get you a raise. We can’t keep on much longer.”
“This has nothing to do with money or, matter of fact, me,” I said. “It has to do with what Sam and the big bosses want from our Web site.”
“We need the money, Joe. Our credit’s a wreck. In fact, the other day I got a very unpleasant call from Citi.”
Like I would ever barge in and demand money from the boss. “I’m sorry you had to deal with that, Tess. I know things are tight, and I’m doing everything I can.”
“You could start by trading in that fancy car for something more affordable.”
Not going to happen. I loved the Porsche. It was the only thing that made the two-hour commute (on a good day) bearable.
“Are you listening to me?”
I slammed the mug down, nearly shattering it on the granite countertop. “Jesus. No matter how many times I’ve tried to explain it, the car is a necessary part of my image as Webmaster. We’re expected to be cool, but quirky. The Porsche reinforces that image. If they ever saw me driving a Toyota or, God forbid, a Chevy or Ford, they’d immediately be thinking ‘loser. He’s not up with things anymore. Getting stodgy and boring.’ Then, next thing you know, we won’t have any money.”
“You don’t have to shout, Joe. It scares Addy.”
How many times had we had this stupid conversation? How many times did it always end up with Tess painting me as an insensitive, uncaring father? I loved my little girl. I would do anything for her—including firing anybody who got in my way.
Well, asking her to resign, anyway. That was the plan. As chief IT trainer, Clara was too good at what she did to be fired, since that would have to be for cause. Although that anonymous little note had potential in that regard, it was also risky. I fingered the piece of paper in my pocket. No need to be paranoid, but one should be cautious. This could be a setup. I could go forward with the accusations it contained and—blam!—the whole thing might turn out to be a bunch of lies. No. Better just hold it in reserve. In case Clara resisted. Which she very well might. After all, it was her rice bowl. I’d just have to make her see that the business of business is business.
The meeting with the big guys went well, and I celebrated by taking Olivia to lunch. My assistant was a foxy babe with the kind of figure to make a grown man cry. But she was off limits—except for the mild flirtation we’d been carrying on for the past year or so. I’d heard enough horror stories about office romances degenerating into sexual harassment charges not to dip a toe in those muddy waters. But tempting? Oh, man.
Back at my desk, I examined the note:
Web Browsing by Clara Foster, March thru May
The percentages presumably referred to the amount of time spent on each category during the three-month period. But porn sites? Clara? Did women really do that stuff? And poker! I’d always imagined it as a man’s game. Aside from the IT training sites, the other things were understandable, even though against company policy. Everybody did too much Facebook and Twitter. Probably spent too much time shopping or checking the latest scores, too. Of course, employees knew their browsing was being tracked, but you couldn’t fire everybody.
Porn—and gambling. Hard to believe, which probably was a good indication the note was just a piece of mischief. Somebody in IT who was responsible for monitoring employee usage of the Internet must have written it. The handwriting looked like a guy’s, and perhaps that guy had a hard-on about Clara. Maybe she’d dissed him or made him feel like the geek he probably was.
On Friday afternoon, just a bit before quitting time, I called Clara into my office. Forming my facial features into the oft-practiced look of mild regret, I said, “We’d like you to resign.”
“Really!” She looked stunned, her thatch of thick white hair nearly standing on end. “You’re not firing me?”
“Nope.” I leaned back in his chair. “It would be better all the way around—and certainly better for you—if you would resign.” I wondered how soon after Clara’s departure I could redirect funds earmarked for her compensation to the new and vastly improved Web site that would get me the salary to pay down the debt, replenish Abby’s college fund, and possibly even allow us to shop for a more upscale home.
“. . . if I refuse? I mean, I could use the severance pay, for one. My husband has MS, you know. Full-time nurses aren’t— aren’t— Well, that isn’t your problem. But, still, I’d like to know why you’re kicking me out. My performance reviews have always—”
“This has nothing to do with your performance, Clara. We all know you’ve been a real asset.”
“Then why? What have I done?” Her hazel eyes were glistening, the whites turning red.
“Don’t make this hard on yourself.” I reached for the tissue box Olivia had placed nearby and handed it to Clara.
“You’re the one who’s—” Her voice broke as she struggled to compose herself. “What have I done? I deserve to know!”
The woman was now too upset to understand this was not about her. “I can’t— that is, I am not at liberty to say.”
“Goodness!” She reared back in her chair. “It’s that bad? My performance reviews have always been good. I don’t take much vacation. I haven’t stolen even a paperclip. What is it? Why are you firing me?”
I shook my head, more in sorrow than anything else.
Clara stood up, clutching a wad of tissues in her hand. “Okay, Joe. You win. Of course, I’ll be wanting a few weeks to—”
“I’m sorry, Clara. That’s not in the cards.” Not if I wanted to move my plan forward quickly.
“What? Not even two weeks?”
I shook my head.
She moved toward the door and then turned back. “Oh, I get it. Inappropriate Internet usage. You’ve been spying on me, haven’t you.”
“No, I haven’t. It wasn’t me, Clara.” I held my hands out to placate her. “Don’t shoot the—”
“And it never occurred to you I was asked to visit those sites? As part of my training responsibilities?”
“Doesn’t matter. You report to me, and I certainly didn’t tell you to violate company policy.”
“Sam Kingston did. He’s your boss. And mine. And he asked me to keep it confidential from everyone.”
“You know, I just had an hour-long meeting with Sam on Monday. Part of that was a discussion about you. Do you imagine I would ask you to leave without him knowing it?” I wasn’t exactly lying. After all, Clara’s name had come up at some point, and I had every intention of informing Sam of Clara’s resignation, once she was gone.
Her face had turned so red, I thought she might be having a heart attack. “That bastard. He set me up!”
I crossed the room and put my arm around the poor woman’s heaving shoulders. “There, there, now. Maybe we just have a bit of a communications prob—”
“That absolute turd!”
“It probably wouldn’t be a good idea for you to—”
Clara jerked out of my grasp. “You think I’m gonna try to talk to that asshole? Plead my case? Hah!” She turned and stalked off down the hall. At the doorway to her office, she turned back. “As for you, you smarmy spy . . .” She held up a middle finger.
* * *
“We want you to resign.”
For a moment, I thought my heart had stopped. This couldn’t be happening. “Why?” was all I could think of to say.
Sam Kingston’s arms were resting on his rosewood desk, palms down. His face was about as readable as the Sphinx. “Why?” he mimicked. “Surely, you know the answer.”
I felt a trickle of sweat run down the side of my face. “Sir, if this is about—”
“—Clara Foster? Yes. She was a valuable and trusted employee. That is precisely why I asked her to investigate what the staff are up to while they’re supposed to be working. And then you go and accuse her of—”
“No! I didn’t—”
“She’s probably gonna sue our ass off. Age discrimination, I’d bet.”
“I didn’t accuse her of anything. I didn’t know!” Which was sort of true, were it not for the note.
Sam tapped an impatient finger on the desk. “Then why did you fire her?”
I wiped the moisture from my face. Probably not a good idea to parse terms here. “Look, this was purely business. You’re always saying you expect managers to make decisions based on growing the business. Well, this was one of them.”
“Without consulting me.”
“You never said—”
“Okay. Maybe I didn’t. But I really, really don’t like surprises.”
“I’m sorry, Sam. I was going to tell you, but you sort of—”
“Clara claims you accused her of abusing her Internet privileges.”
“I did not. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. She accused herself!”
Sam leaned back, crossing his arms. “And, in the process, ratted me out. That what you’re saying?”
Yikes. “She, uh, she thought I had discovered what she was doing. But I swear, Sam, I didn’t know!” I fingered the piece of paper in my pocket, wondering if I should show the boss tangible proof that others knew his secret and were prepared to share it and then realizing, with a start, it would also make me out to be a liar.
“So why did you let her go? What, one day, you’re a bit bored, and you say, ‘Hey, I think I’ll fire Clara Foster!’?”
“It was strictly business, Sam. I need money to make the Web site redesign really accomplish all we want it to. There’s not enough in my budget.”
“Nobody ever has enough money in their budget. I get so sick of—”
“I’m not whining. I’m trying to explain how I solved my problem. I’m going to outsource training. That way, we don’t have to pay Clara’s salary and overhead. We save a bundle.” I paused, noticing, finally, a gleam in Sam’s ice blue eyes. “You want a state-of-the-art, edgy look that best represents our state-of-the-art, edgy products? Well, that costs money.”
“Which you now have.” Sam got to his feet and walked around the desk to clap me on the shoulder. “Brilliant, son. Absolutely brilliant.”
Back in my office, once my pulse had slowed to normal, I pitched the note into the trash. No need to—
Wait. That tiny piece of paper might come in very handy if Clara did decide to sue. Sam hated to lose, so any qualms he might have about blaming his former employee for something he’d asked her to do would be swiftly stifled. This little note might be his salvation. All I had to do was make sure he knew I was his savior. Sure, I’d had to do some tough things to improve my own situation, but making the boss look good? That’s the business of business.