Aug 5 2009

Laid Off: Conspired Upon by Organization I Loved. Nothing Left.

I did not write about this for some time. At first it was too painful to write about. I needed it to make sense because it didn’t make any sense to me and I needed to make sense out of it.

It has now been several months since my “lay-off” from a national arts organization and here is what happened from my side:

It was the third week in November, a Sunday. This particular Sunday was my only day off for the week. I typically worked 6 days a week doing a minimum of 8 hours a day but most days I worked 10-12 or more. That is typical for the music industry and also typical of a non-profit. So a long work week and long hours with little time off was not unusual for the work that I did.

I was very busy. I worked very hard. It was no secret how dedicated I was. Many staff members, volunteers, patrons and customers as well as people in the community around the organization that I worked for knew my work ethic. Also many of these same people liked me and though of me as an asset to the organization. I knew all of this because I’d been told so by all of them.

I had been with the organization just shy of five years. In that time, I had worked my way up starting as an intern in the marketing department, to working in the concert department as a paid concert assistant and volunteer manager (within three months I had grown the volunteer numbers from 40 regulars to 189), then to a paid marketing assistant position (helped redesign the website and I did all the copy writing and editing for the the newsletter and site) while still working as a concert assistant (setting up for concerts, working with the artists, writing up the financial paperwork and attending to merchandise sales and all of the aritsts back stage needs), from there I worked my way up to Concert Production Coordinator responsible for all events within the organization from small evening concerts to full fledged three day long music festivals. I ran each event and tackled every detail from the beginning planning stages all the way through to the final follow up. I was known by performers, volunteers, staff and patrons for having the smoothest running events and the calmest demeanor. I was well liked by many who worked with me.

In each position that I held I honed my skills, interacted well with people, and I was diligent and enjoyed my work. When the previous concert director was let go I filled in for him running the department, supervising staff, booking musicians for the events and planning the departmental budget and show budgets along with doing my own work as concert production coordinator. I was putting in 75-80 work weeks. I was practically living at my job and I was taking work home with me. But I did all of those things to keep the department running in a difficult time.

When the Director position opened up for hiring naturally I applied. After three months of running the department along with doing my own job and being a candidate for the directorship I was rather grudgingly given the position. Looking back on that now I can see the foreshadowing, at the time I simply thought my boss hadn’t seen all of my abilities in action. Fast forward nearly nine months later to that particular Sunday morning…

I had worked producing a concert on the Saturday night before this particular Sunday. I stayed late with the musicians and wrapped up all of my paperwork and reports so that nothing would sit until Monday morning. Late Saturday night I’d received an email from my boss, the Executive Director of the organization asking to meet with me on Sunday morning at about 10 a.m. I wrote back that I would come in for the meeting if he really wanted me there but that it was very late/early in the morning on Sunday and it would not be easy for me to do.

I left work at 3 a.m. Sunday morning. I returned to work at 9:45 a.m. Sunday morning for the meeting. My boss arrived later, closer to 10 a.m. While I waited on him I answered emails and did some planning for what needed to be done the coming week. We were the only people there in the third floor offices. Later a couple of people who worked in the front office came in to work but they had no idea what went on upstairs. They did their jobs and worked with the customers downstairs. Finally I got to meet with my boss.

It was a strange meeting. Where he held my hand (that in itself was disturbing enough) and sounded falsely sincere as he informed me that he was letting me go (although he never really said those words). So I asked him, “Is this going to be a lay off?” At which point he looked away from me awkwardly and said we’re going to treat it like that. He had always been vague when I worked with him. Never clear about what was happening to me and he’d always prompted the need for me to get additional explanation, clarification on anything even the simplest things. He never made himself clear and that’s putting it nicely.

He told me I was getting two weeks of severance (not nearly enough for the work that I did there) and that I would be eligible for unemployment. To add insult to injury, at the end of the meeting he said “Perhaps you are working in the wrong industry.” At which point I calmly informed him that I’d always felt at home at the organization but that nothing had clicked for me quite so well as when I had begun working for the concert department. There I’d felt everything fall into place and I felt as though I was doing what I was meant to do. The look on his face was one of surprise. I’m not sure if he was surprised by my answer or surprised that I had a comeback for his insult.
He also informed me, in his falsely sincere way, that he would write me a recommendation letter and that I would always be welcome at events at the organization.

I then asked him if I could keep my keys for a few hours that day so that I could pack up my office. After nearly 5 years there I had a lot of things to move. He agreed to it. I was grateful at the time although it wasn’t until later that I thought of what a silly move that was on his part. At that time only he and I knew that I was being fired, I had a key to almost every room in the building and full access to the organization’s server and computer files. A more devious person could have wrecked sheer havoc on the organization under those circumstances.

I spent some time making a few phone calls the first to my husband who came to the office to help me pack. The second to my part-time concert assistant to let her know that I was being let go so it would not come as a surprise to her. We packed my office, cleared out the cache on my computer and deleted any personal information pertaining to me from my computer. I was careful about back up information. I had back up files and back up systems for everything. I knew that if someone else were to come in after me they would easily pick up where I left off. It was important to me to leave an electronic paper trail so that information would not be lost. I don’t know why I cared about that when I was being treated so shabbily by the organization.

The volunteers (who liked me) always welcome me when I visit the organization. The members of the community who know me and liked me make me feel welcome there. Naturally the few staff members who were involved in my firing behave nervously and strangely around me. The organization is not fairing better without me. It is not severely worse off, but it is no better. Many of the staff members tell me that they miss me. I’ve heard from several of them and from a few board members that the staff was severely negatively affected by my being fired. Even several of the volunteers have informed me that they haven’t seen any good changes come of it.

A day after the firing I began to send out emails and made calls from home contacting my colleagues and friends to let them know that I was no longer with the organization. I was careful how I approached the email and the phone calls. I wanted everyone else to continue to be involved in that place. I was mainly pointing out that I was no longer there not by my choice and that I was still shocked from it but that I wanted to stay in touch with everyone. Many people replied back with their support of me and all were very kind.

A few days after my initial emails and phone calls I received an email from the Executive Director informing me that he knew that I was contacting people about the fact that I was no longer with the organization. It was fairly threatening from my viewpoint. He alleged that I was trying to incite the masses and that he couldn’t give me a recommendation in light of that. This just upset me further.

I felt in leaving that place that I’d lost not only a job that I loved but what had become a second home to me. I had to inform my former boss that I’d done nothing that would be considered wrong, that I was only letting my friends know that I was no longer there. That I had not implied that he or the board had done anything wrong in letting me go.

Since my former boss seemed concerned about people’s reactions I further informed him that I had no idea how people were reacting to the news because everyone was being very kind and supportive when I spoke with them. Based on that, he could not deny me at least a letter of recommendation. That letter is something that I received nearly a week later in an email. It was the single worst recommendation that I’ve ever received from anyone. Not only did he not know what I had done for the organization in my most recent job there. He did not know any of the other positions and roles that I had filled in my time there. This is despite the fact that by the time he wrote the letter he had seen my resume no less than two times and I had informed him on several occasions of a number of the other roles that I had performed for the organization over the years. I was actually embarrassed to receive the letter. Not embarrassed for him, I was embarrassed and humiliated for me. He should have been embarrassed by the letter. After all, even the grammar wasn’t wonderful and had to be corrected by the administrative assistant (I talked to her about the letter and she told me this). I politely corrected him on my job history and requested another letter. He obliged and I received the new letter a few days later. In my opinion that is the absolute least he could have done.

I still have friends at that organization, friends who have informed me that my name has been dragged through the mud by the current powers that be. Many people were shocked that I was let go including board members. I know of a board member who has left the board of directors in part, because I was fired.

I now know the full story of what happened. After I left I talked to more and more people and details of what was going on “behind my back” came to light. I was conspired against. I was plotted against and plans were made without me. I was set up to fail in my final position with the organization. Not only that but my removal from the organization was planned well in advance including the date of when I would be let go. Yet, despite that I wasn’t given more consideration than a few hours notice before I was to meet with my former boss to be fired.

When I was promoted to the directorship it was done merely to keep my knowledge of the department in place to train the next people to take over. Then, when he was done with me the Executive Director got rid of me. I am not entirely sure why other than the fact that the Executive Director was rather new and he wanted to bring in different people. A friend has also suggested that the Executive Director did not like me personally. This is also entirely possible. I don’t expect everyone to like me but when I don’t like a person that I have to work with I find ways to work with them and try not to let my personal feelings get the better of me.

Yes, I saw signs of this going on while I worked there. I was very much in denial about it, no one wishes to believe that their boss is conspiring against them. But I was confused by it as well. I had been so dedicated and loved the organization that I worked for. My commitment was obvious. My skills were very strong. I just did not understand why. To some extent I still do not fully understand. I do know that everything that was done to me is done in the business world. People take personal feelings and make them business. Honestly I feel that everyone needs some lessons in ethics. I have learned a lot from this experience. I wish that it had not happened. There are many days when I am thankful for what I have yet still miss what I used to have. I now know how I will work with future co-workers and employees and I will not do this type of thing to them.

I am not perfect. I know I made mistakes with my work and with dealing with the entire situation. I am only human and I’d never dealt with a situation of this kind before. Yes, I could attempt to describe the months leading up to this about how I struggled to get my boss to listen to me, to understand that I would not have applied to the directorship position if I thought for a second that I could not do the job. I knew I could do it. I always knew. I could talk about how my boss basically found fault with everything that I did even when things went well.

I could talk about how my former boss only seemed to find fault with even the tiniest mistakes I made but if another director in a different department made a big mistake he gave them the equivalent to a slap on the wrist.

I could go on about the deceit. I could also go on about how my boss interfered in every decision that I had to make to the point that I wasn’t really allowed to make my own decisions or about how he didn’t even allow me to hire the person that I wanted to hire to replace me as Concert Production Coordinator and I could go on and on about how I never really got the chance to really try to fully do the job now couldn’t I? I could do that, but why dwell? I spent nearly my first month of unemployment depressed because of what I’d lost (a second home and a job that I loved) but there are other things in life. Each day it becomes easier.

I’ve applied for hundreds of jobs and so far I’ve found nothing. Too bad, because I have a lot to offer.

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This post was submitted by Joanna.