A heartbreaking tale of universal significance

August 22, 2007, 1:20 PM UTC
Fortune


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I have this theory. It’s pretty simple. I believe that, when it comes to our jobs, we’re all like a quart of milk or a pack of sausages. Each one of those objects, and so many more of varying compositions and ages, are stamped with a date by which they must be sold or consumed. It’s their shelf life. Everything has one. For fish, it’s a couple of days. A can of corned beef hash can live a decade in a cupboard. But eventually, everything reaches the point of expiration.

So it is with jobs. Some of us are lucky. The invisible stamp on our foreheads says 2014, maybe, or “good for 32 years if kept in a cool, dry place.” But the stamp is there. And there’s nothing any of us can do about it.

For the smartest guys I’ve known… as well as the dumbest… it hasn’t made a difference. Their boss changed, either in demeanor or, you know, they got a new one entirely. The management structure was reconfigured in some fundamental way. The whole operation moved to LA. Whatever. Their time came, and they were removed from the shelf. Sometimes they were as crisp as they day they entered the market! It didn’t matter. Their date had come.

This is what I thought when I read the following letter that appeared in my inbox a little while ago from a reader in California. “My story is kinda long but here it goes,” it began.

“I have worked at my company for ten years, and I am pretty damn good at what I do. However, last May I had to take a leave of absence. When I returned, the company had hired, like a week before my return, obviously to fill my responsibilities, a new staff member. I was told that my hours would be cut to some degree because this individual would be part time.

Well, that has not been the case. My hours have continued to decrease and this individual has gotten more training and a full time position. My boss who I once kind of considered a friend, told me that it was brought to his attention that I have been “complaining” about stuff (mainly my hours), though he admitted my performance in all aspects of my work is outstanding. The issue seems to be with my character.

I was told by another staff member I am just too friendly. Too friendly? My boss told me that either I am too gregarious or maybe too quiet. I know it is hard to understand. I had a hard time trying to understand myself. But I get the feeling I am be being pushed out, or to the side. When I made several comments about the new staff member, and my years in the office and my exemplary performance in the past, it just seems to irritate my boss. Nothing that I said to him about the new employee (not that it was all bad or bad at all) was getting through or mattered. In fact I left the meeting feeling I was at fault.

It seems of recent that no matter what I do, I just cannot please him or do what is right. I have never been late to work, I support my boss in all the aspects of the company and I am always available for extra work. I feel lost. Please help.”

I’m sorry, my friend. I don’t think I can. Your boss has gone “off” you. When you come in, he wants to be not there. When you speak, your voice grates on his nerves like fingernails on the chalkboard of his mind. Stick a fork in you. You are done.

There’s this guy who used to work for me. It started by him calling me too much. Then he started dropping by just to chat. All of a sudden, his hulking frame would be in my doorway. It would take me 10 minutes to get him out of there. I had always sort of liked the guy. But now, I wasn’t sure. I found that when there was work to do, I wanted to give it to somebody else, just so I wouldn’t have to deal with Mort. Then he started to do things that really annoyed me. Appeared at cocktail parties that he shouldn’t have. Attended meetings to which he wasn’t invited. Talked too much. Picked his ear.

In the end, I didn’t have to fire Mort. He sniffed the air and ascertained that it was time to move on to a different shelf, one that rendered him as fresh and new as the day he came out of the ground and into the store.

Oh, did I mention that? As time-dated as we all may be, we are all infinitely renewable as well. So when Mort came in and told me he was leaving for something else, something good, I shook his hand with real affection and wished him the best luck in the world. He won’t really need it. He’ll do fine.

You know, Scott Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American lives, but in business, I think, we’ve all got enough karma to go around a whole bunch of times before we ascend to nirvana, which in my case, I think, may be Maui. Until then, I’ll see you around, huh? I’ll be the one in the cool, dry place.