Wednesday, May 22, 2013

No. 379 – Once Upon a Time in the West

Performer: Dire Straits
Songwriter: Mark Knopfler
Original Release: Communique
Year: 1979
Definitive Version: Alchemy: Dire Straits Live, 1984

I suppose it's true in every profession, but I certainly have worked in my share of places that had disgruntled employees—I’ve even been one. Even though I’ve been in the news game and read about my share of office shootups, I haven’t been afraid that that might happen to me. It’s one of those things that’s like nuclear war—you have to acknowledge its possibility and simultaneously put it out of your mind to get through the day.

When I was at the Daily Herald in 1989, I got into a big Dire Straits roll. I bought their greatest hits tape, and Scott made me a tape of Alchemy, so I listened to this song all the time back then. That summer was the first time I ever really thought about office violence as a possibility, because I didn’t have much choice.

I should begin by saying, in retrospect, it wasn’t a big deal. What made it a big deal was that at the time, no one knew for sure. I don’t know much of the history, but apparently one of the reporters snapped.

I don’t remember the guy’s name; he was in his 40s or 50s and had been more or less a lifer there. I don’t remember now whether he just left without telling anyone or he had been laid off or put on notice or what exactly. All I know is early one afternoon, just after the night copy desk shift started, he came into the newsroom, and the managing editor came out to see him.

Within minutes, the copy desk was told—carefully—that we needed to get up NOW from our desks and go downstairs. We were in small groups—all divided up—in various parts of the building. I was in a garage area close to the paste-up shop. (The presses were in another building, as I think I mentioned.)

About five or six of us stood around awkwardly for 15 minutes or so when someone came by and said it was safe to go back upstairs. As I returned to the pod, I could see the reporter being led to a cop car. As we continued to work, we started hearing details.

Apparently, the guy had called ahead to say he was coming in to the office, which is why the managing editor was there to greet him when he arrived. Supposedly he said to the ME, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your savior?” The ME quickly signaled to clear the newsroom, because he had no idea what was coming next.

What came next, of course, was nothing. We never saw the reporter again, and nothing ever happened to anyone as far as I knew. Like I said, it wasn’t a big deal. It was just a guy who had lost his way, who probably didn’t mean any harm but put just enough of the fear of God into the right people to take precautions.

Nearly 25 years later, I have an appreciation for that. My magazine recently let one of our employees go. We’ll call her Rachel.

Rachel embodied the old saw about having the right tools to get the job but not the right tools to DO the job. She was overwhelmed from the beginning, fell behind and never caught up. Consequently, the magazine was late to press four straight issues, which was unprecedented and—needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway—unacceptable.

Finally, mercifully, she was fired, but like with everything else related to Rachel, the end was disorganized. She left right before deadline due to physical problems—the job exacerbated her condition, unquestionably. She was fired while she was gone but was allowed to come back to get her stuff and turn in her office key.

I don’t have to tell you what a bad idea this was. When you fire someone, first, you should do it face to face. You owe it to the person to respect them enough to do it this way, in my opinion. Besides, you make a clean cut. You drop the axe, they clean their desk and that’s that.

Giving Rachel a chance to brood about it and then come into the office … well, who knows what could happen? By the time of her dismissal, Rachel had grown sullen and withdrawn. The more I talked with other employees, the more I learned that no one really talked to her much and she never said hi to anyone.

I went to my boss and told him that we should send Rachel’s stuff to her. It would be best for everyone involved. He seemed unswayed, so I said flat out I didn’t trust her, didn’t like the fact that she could come into the office at any time and do who knows what. In the wake of Sandy Hook, all bets were off as far as I was concerned. I don’t know whether the other employees thought about this, but three people were out the first day after Rachel’s termination was announced. Draw your own conclusions.

My direct appeal worked. My boss said immediately he would take care of it and thanked me for my candor. Rachel at first protested via email, saying she wanted to come in, but after my boss refused, in a follow-up email, she seemed thankful that she didn’t have to come in. We haven’t heard from her since.

I suppose I, like my ME years before, overreacted to the situation, but I don’t regret my decision.

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