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How I Got Fired... No, Wait -- Resigned

I worked for a Fortune 500 company for 17 years.

Then one day I didn't.

A number of people have asked, so here's the story. While there won't be a test at the end feel free to add up all the mistakes I made. (Use paper because you'll run out of fingers.)

Eleven years ago I was one of nine supervisors overseeing a manufacturing department. Hourly employee pay rates were determined by time-based pay scales. Eventually employees would hit the top of their scale and the only way they could make more money was by receiving a "merit raise."

Traditionally evaluations were held on promotion anniversaries, so eval dates were scattered throughout the year. Then the company decided to evaluate all employees eligible for merit raises at the same time. Theoretically that made the process more objective, allowed for direct comparisons between employees, and made wage budgets more accurate.

This was the process:

  1. Supervisors had two weeks to complete all evaluations.
  2. Supervisors met individually with our manager so he could sense-check our ratings. Never mind he was new to the department and his familiarity with most of our 300 employees was often limited to, "You know, the tall guy who runs a stamper on 2nd shift," or, "I was talking to that girl who always says hi to me -- what was her name again?"
  3. All supervisors and the manager met as a group to share our evaluations, provide input, and together hash out who deserved merit raises under the premise that nine heads are better than one. (If you've ever been part of multi-input evaluations you can guess how -- wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.)
  4. HR signed off on completed evals and merit raise recommendations. (By the way; is there a bigger waste of time than having HR "approve" evaluations?)
  5. Supervisors met individually with direct reports to deliver the evaluations. Some employees received merit raises, most did not.
I had more direct reports than most of the other supervisors. I also had a higher percentage of employees eligible for merit raises; most of mine were long-term machine operators who had long ago topped out on the normal pay scale.

As I recall I had about 20 evaluations to complete while other supervisors averaged six to eight. Forms were five to six pages long because we had just gone through a long period of "employee engagement" initiatives, so in addition to productivity and quality we evaluated teamwork, leadership, attention to detail, communication skills, interpersonal skills... a wide variety of soft skills.

Evaluations are critical to employees and it's easy to mess them up so I put a lot of effort into mine. I worked on them in my office, worked on them at home on my laptop... lots of back and forth, lots of printing and discarding and reworking. Evaluations are important but raises are even more important since a raise, however small, is tangible validation of effort and achievement, so I wanted to get mine right.

I turned in all my forms to my manager (we'll call him "Maximus") so he could look at them before he and I met individually. He was too busy to meet so we never did but hey, that was fine with me.

Then when we all met as a group things quickly went downhill.

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I knew the meeting would be contentious. Some of the supervisors had been with the company for 30 years or more and felt their opinions ought never be questioned. They also realized the news of who received merit raises would spread across the shop floor like wildfire. The last thing any supervisor wanted was to be perceived as having not "taken care" of their employees.

Here's an example of one of our discussions; we'll call the other supervisor Justifius:

Justifius: "He's a great team player."

Me: "Your crew is running 10% under standard; doesn't sound like a lot of teamwork going on to me."

Justifius: "He's also a great leader."

Me: "Your crew is 10% under standard. Where exactly is he leading them?"

Justifius: "He also has great people skills."

Me: "Since your crew is 10% under standard wouldn't it be better if he had great productivity skills?"

Justifius: "Now look. At least one of my folks has to get a merit raise."

Me: "Hey, they could all get merit raises if they ran better."

I know. I could have handled that better.

Here's another example. Justifius tries to get me back for steamrolling him:

Me: "He's had no spoilages, no quality complaints, is at 120% of standard, and trained three new operators. Plus he's the go-to guy for mechanical problems on his shift..."

Justifius: "Yeah, but what about his people skills? I hear he can be abrasive."

Me: "He gets abrasive when your guys come over asking to borrow people they don't need."

Justifius: "I don't think someone with poor interpersonal skills should get a merit raise."

Me: "He's at 120% of standard."

Justifius: "And I hear he sometimes doesn't start up right away at the beginning of his shift."

Me: "He's at 120% of standard."

Justifius: "Plus I see him in the break room at odd times."

Me: "He's at 120% of standard. And if it's an odd time... why are you in the break room?"

Yep, could have handled that one better too.

By the last stages of the meeting six or seven of my employees were earmarked for merit raises. I think the most any other supervisor had was two. I had started to talk about my last employee when Maximus, our manager, said, "Jeff, I think you have enough people getting merit raises. We need to spread the last few around."

"Wait," I said. "That's not fair to my folks. We're supposed to identify the best employees and reward them, not spread increases around so all of us can feel like we got our share."

"Well, that's certainly the overall premise, but there are other factors that we must also consider," Maximus pronounced, clearly assuming I would shut up.

I didn't. "Like what?"

"Let's discuss that outside," he said. I followed him out.

When we were alone he said, "Look, you came in here with all your facts and figures and productivity results and ran over everybody. You didn't even refer to your eval forms; you brought pages of notes for every employee! We need to function as a team and I can't let you have more merit raises than everyone else. Team cohesion is really important and you're in there arguing like a lawyer."

"I thought treating employees was important," I said. "You told us to present our cases. If other supervisors weren't prepared I can't help it. I'm lucky enough to have a lot of great employees and they shouldn't be punished because they all work in the same area. And besides, you haven't given me my forms back."

He glared at me for a few seconds and said, "I'm not going to argue about this any more. You're done. No more merit raises for your area."

I'd like to say I argued more, but I didn't. We went back inside and finished the meeting. I wasn't delighted, but that's par for the leadership course in a big company: Win some, lose some, fight another day.

Then things really fell apart.

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HR finally signed off on evals and I started delivering mine. Some sessions went well, some not so well. Then I got to an employee we'll call Joey.

Joey: "Before you go through everything, go ahead and tell me: Did I get a merit raise?"

Me: "Okay; fair enough." I smiled and turned to the last page of the evaluation so I could tell him the amount of his raise. I knew he had received an increase. Then I looked at the rating; it was a 3.3. No employee could receive a merit unless they had a 3.5 overall rating or above. I glanced quickly at another page, saw the numbers and thought, "Oh crap... in all my back and forth between my work computer and my laptop I printed the wrong pages."

Me: "Hang on a second. I need to figure something out." I didn't know the merit amount because I didn't have my notes handy. Plus I needed to show him an evaluation signed by my manager and by HR, so simply printing another sheet wouldn't help. So...

Me: "I screwed up. I don't have the right forms. Give me a day or so to straighten it out and I'll get back with you."

Joey: "Cool... but did I get a merit raise? I deserve one."

Me: "I really can't talk about it without the right paperwork. I'm sorry."

Joey: "That's okay. Just let me know when you're ready."

I felt really stupid. I should have double-checked all my forms before I turned them in, especially since I had revised many of them a number of times and along the way printed multiple copies. But I didn't feel too bad where Joey was concerned; I knew he trusted me, knew it would all work out well in the end, and knew he would enjoy teasing me about it for years to come.

So I grabbed my floppy disk with the evals from my laptop, printed the right pages for his evaluation, and stuck them in an envelope. I was going to be off for a few days, so I added a note to our HR rep explaining what had happened. I also asked him to get with Maximus so he could sign off on the eval. Then I told Joey I would get with him the day I returned.

Stupid mistake, but all would be well.

When I came back to work I stopped by Maximus' office. "Hey, I need to pick up Joey's revised eval. Sorry for messing it up the first time."

"There is no revised eval," Maximus said.

"Why not?"

"We've given out enough merit increases. I took too much heat from my boss for how many we awarded. I'm not going to go back and ask for more. That's one discussion I am not willing to have."

"I understand," I said, "But at the same time we agreed Joey deserved a raise. Shouldn't we make this right? I'll go tell the plant manager (PM) it's all my fault. I'll take the heat."

"No," Maximus said. "Case closed. Deliver the eval as originally signed."

I walked away feeling like crap. Joey deserved a raise he wouldn't get because of my screw-up. An hour later I was still trying to decide exactly what to say to Joey when I was paged by the HR manager; we'll call that particular individual Minimus.

I walked into her office, and there was Joey and Maximus. Joey had seen Maximus in the hall, said he was looking forward to getting his eval since I was back at work, and Maximus freaked out and decided HR should get involved.

Minimus: "Joey and Maximus came to see me to talk about Joey's evaluation. He feels he deserves a merit increase."

Me: "I'll be meeting with Joey today to go over it."

Minimus: "Well, I hope it's a good one. While we were waiting for you Joey has been telling me about everything he does, and I think he's an outstanding employee. I agree with him. I think he deserves a merit raise."

Maximus: "No argument there -- Joey is one of our very best employees."

My eyes got big. I looked at my boss, who had suddenly found his fingernails to be of great interest and wouldn't meet my eyes. I looked at Joey, who was smiling; who doesn't like hearing they do a great job?

What do I do now?

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Here's what I know. I know Joey's not getting a raise. I know his evaluation will not be as glowing as it should be.

I know, after what she just said, he's going to be even more upset when he finds all that out.

So I said, "Hey Joey, I hate to ask you this, but can you step outside for a moment? You didn't do anything wrong. There's just something the three of us need to discuss privately. I promise we'll get you back in here in a few minutes."

He looked confused but left. What else could he do?

Me: "This is a mess. I just met with Maximus and he told me Joey isn't getting a merit raise. Now you're both telling him he deserves a raise. What am I supposed to do with that? And why is he in here in the first place -- he knew I would be talking to him today."

Maximus: "When I saw him in the hall I thought we could use a little help talking to him..."

Me: "I don't need any help talking to him. The conversation will suck but I can handle it. But now it's going to be a lot harder since you both told him he deserves a raise."

Minimus: "Well, he does."

Me: "I agree but I've also been told he's not getting one. That's the reality we have to deal with." I briefly explained what had happened so Minimus would be up to speed. Then I looked at my boss.

Me: "Of course you can always change your mind about giving him the raise we agreed to." He squirmed but didn't say anything.

Minimus: "I think we need to discuss this more."

Me: "I'm up for it, but we can't leave Joey out there forever wondering what's up."

So we brought Joey back in. He knew I had screwed up the paperwork on his original evaluation, so I told him we still hadn't sorted it all out but I would get with him tomorrow to clear everything up, and he left.

Minimus: "I still don't understand the deal with the different copies of his evaluation."

Me: "I worked on them here and at home. I revised them a number of times, printed copies in different places... and when I was putting the final copies together I used some older copies. When the supervisors met to discuss raises I shared his actual rating and we all agreed he deserved a raise. But I turned in the wrong copies and didn't realize it until I was sitting with him. So I printed the right copies and sent them to you guys to sign. It's my fault. I messed up the paperwork."

Minimus: "Makes sense, I suppose. You guys created a mess you need to clean up, so I'll leave you to it."

I know you'll be surprised, but I let that little comment go.

My boss told me we'd talk about it later and rushed off to another meeting.

An hour later I was paged and told to report immediately to the plant manager's office.

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I walked in. Maximus and Minimus were there as well.

Plant Manager (PM): "I'm very disturbed by what I've heard."

Me: "I agree. I screwed up his evaluation forms and it's gotten worse from there. But don't worry. I'll talk to him."

PM: "I'm not worried about that. I'm disturbed by what you've done."

Me: "I know. The last thing I should do is mess up an employee's evaluation. I feel terrible. I'm sorry."

PM: "Well, there is that. But what I'm more concerned with is the fact you falsified documents."

Me: "What?"

PM: "We took a look at the files on your computer. It appears you modified those files after you talked to Joey, not before. It is clear you decided to change his evaluation because you became afraid to tell him he would not receive a raise."

Me: "I did change the file after I talked to him. I realized I had submitted an older paper version of his evaluation, so I revised the copy on my computer to accurately reflect his rating so I could print it. I have the right one on my laptop."

PM: "I'm afraid I disagree. You changed it because you did not want to have an uncomfortable conversation with an employee."

Me (laughing): "Uncomfortable? Joey is as about as confrontational as a golden retriever. I could tell him he was fired and he would find some way to thank me. If you want uncomfortable you should have sat with me when I told Roger he wasn't getting a merit raise."

PM: "You know that is not what happened. You need to be honest with us."

Me: "I am. I can prove it. My laptop is in the car. Check those files. Plus Maximus was in the meeting when we reviewed Joey's performance. He agreed he deserved a merit raise. He knows what we decided."

Maximus: "I did not keep notes and do not recall any specifics about any individual employee. What I do recall is that you were upset when more of your employees were not awarded raises so clearly you tried to find a way around my direct instructions."

Me: "Are you kidding?" (Snappy comebacks were beyond me at this point.)

PM: "Here are your options. If you admit you falsified the evaluation you will face disciplinary action but you will be allowed to keep your job. If you do not you will have lost my confidence and we will terminate your employment."

I was stunned. I again suggested that Maximus go to my car and get my laptop. I asked them to call other supervisors so they could verify the discussions from the meeting.

No and no.

Minimus: "There is one other option..."

PM: "Oh yes. That's right. You are a long-term employee who has consistently received superior evaluations, so if you resign we will give you eight weeks severance. If you are fired you will receive no severance. But we need your written resignation explaining that you are voluntarily leaving the company, and we need that document within twenty-four hours."

I didn't know what to do. I could say I falsified the evaluation and keep my job. I could say, "This is wrong and you'll have to fire me," but then I'd receive no severance. Or I could resign and have eight weeks pay to tide me over while I found another job.

I'd like to say I went out in a blaze of self-righteous glory... but I went out with slightly fuller pockets instead.

Morals of the story:

  • Never screw up documents.
  • Never get involved in a land war in Asia.
  • Never assume doing the right thing cannot be misinterpreted.
  • Never assume your boss will stand up for you.
  • Never assume others won't push their own agendas (whatever those agendas may be.)
  • Never assume you know what's going on under the surface -- you never do.
Related: Photo courtesy flickr user Valentin Ottone, CC 2.0
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