Brand building through storytelling

I’ve never been fired. How quaint!

Today it struck me that I’m falling out of step with humankind. I’ve never been downsized, let go, laid off, packaged, terminated or otherwise exiled from the ranks of the gainfully employed. I left every one of my jobs when the moment seemed right, not when someone else decided my time was up. How quaint!

I walked away from my last job—editor-in-chief of a magazine—amid a chorus of praise for my accomplishments there. Higher-ups couldn’t seem to believe that I would give up the power and the perks while I was still at the top of my game. But I didn’t kid myself. In the expense-account set, all it takes to cross the boundary from hero to zero is a shuffle at the top, some dispiriting numbers or a vague sense on high that last year’s big buzz is now this year’s same old same old.

“You should stay and make them package you,” a friend advised. Perish the thought! Before you get the package, you have to suffer the onslaught of small indignities, the slights and snubs that amount to a daily dress rehearsal for the final closed-door meeting when you are told, in a practiced, nothing-personal tone that belies the emotional violence of what you now sense is coming, “It’s time for a change.”

I have said those words myself on a number of occasions. The night before, I used to lie awake, vibrating with mute horror at what I was about to do. When you take someone’s job away, it’s always personal. A job—no matter how tiresome, badly paid or unsuited to your talents—is a place in the world, your answer to that omnipresent question, “And what do you do?”. It’s the motley gang of colleagues, your workplace family, with whom you log more waking hours than you do with anyone else. It’s your passport to a country with customs and legends known only to citizens like you. When the borders close, you become a stateless person.

And they call this “getting packaged,” as if you’re being shipped out in silver paper with a bow on top. Or “let go” (you’re a helium balloon, released ever so gently to drift out of sight where you belong). Or, worst of all, “terminated,” instantly zapped into nothingness, as if you had never existed. I’d like to ban the wussy “terminated” as a transitive verb. Whatever happened to “fired?” Now, there’s a word that tells the blunt, brutal truth.

I read the mounting numbers of the newly jobless and my mind goes blank. If you could add up all the unemployed and their dependents, you’d have an exploding community of pain equivalent to…which town or city? The question tugs at me but I’m no good at math. So I’m seeking insight in fiction, Joshua Ferris’s wonderfully original first novel Then We Came to the End.

Thenwe2Set in a Chicago advertising agency during the dot-com bust, and peopled by finely drawn characters whom you’ll recognize if you have ever held a job, the book is being marketed as quirky humour for fans of Dilbert and The Office. It delivers plenty of wry smiles, and the occasional burst of knowing laughter. But its ambitions go well beyond mere amusement. Ferris’s subject—no laughing matter—is the place of work in our lives, the culture we jointly create there, and what becomes of us when cutbacks dismantle the world as we’ve known it, face by face. He is attempting do do for the long-neglected subject of work what Homer did for war and what Jane Austen did for domestic life—open up new literary terrain.

There’s a lot to admire about Then We Came to the End. Ferris has the nerve and the skill to tell his tale in the first-person plural, elegantly mirroring that band-of-initiates feeling that unites colleagues everywhere, including those who drive each other crazy. To plunge into this book is to feel that you’re the agency’s newest recruit, struggling to connect people’s names with their defining quirks. You hear fleeting mentions of those barely remembered unfortunates who’ve already been kicked to the curb. You find yourself attached to the not-so-merry throng, even its oddest members, and you flinch every time another stalwart disappears. This is first-rate storytelling, with a structural zinger that I’ll let you discover for yourself (pay attention or you’ll miss a key component of the plot).

I’ve been urging this book on everyone I know for the past six months. Yet I somehow neglected to tell you about it. Perhaps I was waiting for the moment that this book encapsulates like no other. Now I’m thinking of two friends who have just lost their jobs, and another, laid off during the dot-com fiasco, who’s now wondering how much longer her current job will last. Losing two jobs was once the sign of a second-rater. Now it’s just a sign of the times. But enough from me. Here’s Joshua Ferris on the language of layoffs:

At first we called it what you would expect—getting laid off, being let go. Then we got creative. We said he’d gotten the ax, she’d been sacked, they’d all been shitcanned. Lately, a new phrase had appeared and really taken off. “Walking Spanish down the hall.” Somebody had picked it up from a Tom Waits song, but it was an old, old expression, as we learned from our Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. “In the days of piracy on the Spanish Main,” Morris writes, “a favorite trick of pirates was to lift their captives b the scruff of the neck and make them walk with their toes barely touching the deck.” That sounded about right to us. In the song, Tom Waits sings about walking toward an execution, and that sounded right, too. We’d watch the singled-out walk the long carpeted hallway with the office coordinator leading the way, and then he or she would disappear behind Lynn Mason’s door, and a few minutes later we’d see the lights dim from the voltage drop and we’d hear the electricity sizzle and the smell of cooked flesh would waft into the insulated spaces.

We would turn at our desks and watch the planes descend into O’Hare. We would put our headphones on. We would lean our heads back and close our eyes. We all had the same thought: thank god it wasn’t me.

Postscript: An NPR reporter, hard at work on a series about the impact of layoffs, has just lost her job in a round of cuts. Her own story will provide “the perfect ending.” Click here to read more.


Posted by Rona

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