Turnabout Is Fair Play
A Story That Has Nothing To Do With Real Events.
By Jeff Dorsch
“So, how soon can we get this bastard fired?”
The question hung in the air over the three middle-aged women in the tiny conference room.
“It’s just a matter of time now,” said Bonnie Minefield, the senior editor. “We just have to catch him in one more slip-up, and he’s toast. He’s been warned.”
Nelly W. Dimwit and Sophia Barney Lambeau Mellencamp smiled. Their tormentor in the newsroom at Gouter’s Business Intelligence was finally going down. Life at work was about to get even easier for these two editors.
The “bastard” was Steven Codd, another editor at Gouter’s, a purveyor of profiles for companies around the world. He was infamous by now for questioning the work done and the work ethic exhibited by Dimwit and Mellencamp. Their work on company profiles was ridden with factual and spelling mistakes, but they were good friends with Minefield (or BM, as the many editors who detested and resented the senior editor called her), so they could get away with all sorts of crap that wouldn’t be tolerated if perpetrated by any other editors. They had it good, and it was going to get better once their bête noire was fired.
Gouter’s Business Intelligence was the company behind Gouter’s Online, or GOL, a website that could be searched in multiple ways to get information on companies, their executives, financial figures, competitive analysis, and the extensive history of larger companies. Gouter’s, a dot-com survivor, was owned by The Edgewood & Columbia Corporation (E&C), a company that dated back to the 19th century.
“All right, we better get out of here,” Minefield said. “The company meeting is about to start.”
The three women shambled out of the conference room and headed to the big Gouter Room, where the company meeting would be held. They took their seats together as other employees from around the building wandered in, chatting excitedly and laughing at jokes about their co-workers. Soon, the hundreds of people slowly quieted as the president of Gouter’s, Beryl Foote, stood before the audience and patiently waited for the attention of all.
“Hello, everybody,” Foote said. “Is this microphone working? Can you hear me in the back?” A few guys from IT scrambled to the nearby closet where the public address equipment was housed.
An editor sitting in the back of the assembly room leaned over to a colleague sitting next to him and said, “I’ve been here for years, and they still haven’t gotten the PA right.”
“Is that better? No? All right, I’ll speak up,” said Foote, an Englishwoman who previously worked in marketing and sales for E&C. There was a steadily revolving cast of company presidents at Gouter’s since E&C took over the dot-com, and Foote was the first E&C executive named to head the subsidiary.
“First, I want to show you a new video we’ll be posting soon to help drive traffic to the site,” Foote related. “As you know, we want to make Gouter’s Online, or GOL as we call it, the number one site in the business information market. We have great content, of course, thanks to our many talented editors, but we need something to make us stand out. So we hired Andrés Cantor, the famous football announcer -- I’m sorry, I always forget you call it soccer here in the States -- to be featured in the video. Let’s take a look at it, all right? Does that make sense?”
The lights went down, yet no image came up on the giant screen behind Foote. Once again, the IT guys scrambled for the equipment closet, coaxing the video player into doing its work. Finally, the image of Cantor appeared on the screen.
He said, “When I need the most comprehensive, the most insightful business information on the Web, I always turn to ¡GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLL!”
The audience laughed at Cantor’s signature call. The announcer then said, "El árbitro dice que no hay tiempo para más," and the video ended. The employees laughed and applauded.
“Any comments, questions?” asked Foote.
Sophia Barney Lambeau Mellencamp stuck up her hand. “Where will this be on the Web? Is it on that YoubTube or whatever it’s called?” she asked. “And another question: Do I need any special equipment to watch the video? Also, who is that man? And what does he say at the end?”
Foote looked a little startled by the line of questioning. She quickly recovered, as marketing and sales people are wont to do, and answered,”It will be on our home page, of course, for a few weeks. And no, you don’t need any special equipment to watch it. Just a browser on your computer. Does that make sense? Any other questions?”
Nelly W. Dimwit frantically waved her hand in the air, like someone drowning or a small child that needed permission to go to the bathroom. Beryl Foote pointed to her.
“Is this the beginning of a whole new marketing strategy for us?” Dimwit asked. “I mean, are we going to translate all of our content to Spanish now? Because I don’t speak or write Spanish, other than maybe ‘burrito’ and ‘taco.’ “ She chuckled at her joke. No one else laughed.
Foote responded, “No, we’re not going to translate the entire database into Spanish. That would be much too expensive. We spend a lot of money on the editorial department as it is. Do you see what I’m saying? Does that make sense? Any other questions? All right, let’s take a look at the first-quarter financial figures, shall we?”
Sophia leaned over to Nelly and whispered, “I don’t think she answered all of my questions.” Nelly went Shhh.
After the company meeting, the employees returned to their cubicles around the building, which was known as the GOUT. The facility was once a tortilla factory that was converted into sprawling office space. The happy chatter that rang out before the meeting once again echoed through the corridors.
As the working day ended, senior editor Bonnie Minefield made her way out of the newsroom and through the parking lot to her late-model car. She drove through the grueling rush-hour traffic for more than an hour and finally arrived at her house near the lake. As she walked through the front door, her husband came out of a bathroom and said, “Oh, there you are. Do you know where the whip and the ball gag are?”
The next morning at Gouter’s, editor Steven Codd was driving into the parking lot and noticed that Nelly W. Dimwit was in front of him, driving her Lexus sedan. “Lexus is for losers,” Codd said to himself. Lexus SUV drivers, in particular, were among the biggest assholes on the road, he thought.
As he walked into the newsroom, Codd saw one of his best friends, Elsa Linney, looking over the daily newspapers on a coffee table. Gouter’s editors were expected to keep up with breaking news about the companies they covered. Most did this with online news sites, but some still preferred to use dead-trees media to do so.
“What’s up,” he said to Elsa. “Same old, same old,” she replied. “I think something’s going on here, though. There’s some editors who are usually here very early every day, and I haven’t seen any of them today.”
Codd thought that was odd. There hadn’t been a layoff in the newsroom for years. Nor was there any warning from newsroom managers that costs were to be reduced. E&C was notorious, however, for cutting headcount as its primary weapon in reducing corporate expenses, calling it “fiscal responsibility.” Since Beryl Foote was installed as president of Gouter’s, Codd had wondered how long it would take for her to impose the standard E&C regimen of making employees disappear so profits would increase for shareholders, along with salaries for top executives.
He went to his familiar cubicle and started his PC. As he waited for the computer to load its software, he pondered how much of his time would be sacrificed that day -- how much of his productivity would suffer -- due to the Gouter’s Content Management System, which all editors used to update the database. The content management system project was years behind schedule, and Gouter’s editors paid the price for the slow response times and frequent crashes of the clunky, unattractive software. Not far from Codd’s cubicle was Dennis D. Mennis, the senior editor in charge of the Gouter’s Content Management System, known as GCMS. Senior management over the years had devoted fewer and fewer company resources to the GCMS project, directing programmers and other IT contractors to work on other projects, which always seemed to take a higher priority than GCMS. With Beryl Foote in charge, the editorial department was getting even less to work with from senior management. Meanwhile, Dennis D. Mennis looked busy, running data sweeps and creating dozens of spreadsheets. “How does he keep his job?” Codd thought, looking back on the failed and frustrating GCMS project. “At any other company, he would have been fired years ago. Heads would roll in the parking lot. He must be a world champion at making excuses.”
Then, there was a small commotion in the newsroom. “May I have your attention, please, editors?” said Grey Perdition, the director of the editorial department. “May I have your attention? We’re going to have a quick meeting in the Gouter Room.”
The editors streamed out of the newsroom and headed down the corridor, settling into seats in the partly darkened Gouter Room. There was none of the buzz that accompanied the previous day’s company meeting. These snap, unscheduled department meetings were almost never about good news.
The senior editors, all carrying papers and folders and all looking grim, were the last to troop into the assembly room, and they all sat in the front row. Last of all was Grey Perdition, once a senior editor himself, and before that a mediocre text editor who took on a number of administrative tasks for newsroom management to ingratiate himself to superiors and to compensate for his lack of writing skills.
“We’re making some changes,” Perdition said. “This morning, we laid off seven editors. They’ve all been sent home already, and we ask that you respect their privacy at this sensitive time.”
There was a murmur among the editors, as people wondered who those affected were.
“There will be some changes in assignments as a result; some changes in teams,” Perdition added. “Your senior editors will be meeting with you in one-on-ones later today to explain the changes, and we’ll have more information in the team meetings later this week. In the meantime, I expect you all to return to your cubicles and get to work. There’s a lot to do. Does that make sense?”
Almost everyone understood that the question was rhetorical. Still wondering who was laid off and why, the editors quietly left the Gouter Room and returned to the newsroom.
As Sophia Barney Lambert Mellencamp and Nelly W. Dimwit walked along, Sophia asked, “Nelly, what’s your middle name? What does the ‘W.’ stand for?”
“Worse,” said Nelly.
“Worse? Worse than what?”
“Worse than anything.”
Sophia and Nelly didn’t care that other editors had lost their jobs. They still had theirs, although they were the most careless and least productive editors at Gouter’s. They had Bonnie Minefield as their champion, their defender, and their protector, all because they were close friends, and for that reason only they had nothing to fear about losing their jobs.
“Bonnie’s wonderful,” Sophia said. “She looks out for us.”
“Best boss I ever had,” Nelly added. “I hardly have to do any work -- just look busy some of the time, and then chat with other editors.”
Sophia said, “I don’t have time to talk to other editors. I have to take care of all these personal matters while I’m at my desk, and I barely have time to do what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s a good thing that Bonnie understands about these personal matters. She’s wonderful.”
Not much got done that day. Editors drifted from one cubicle to the next, teasing out the information on who had been laid off, and who kept their jobs. Steven Codd talked to Elsa Linney in the afternoon.
“Did you find out who the seven are?” Steven asked.
Elsa replied, “Yes -- all good editors. They all deserved better treatment than this. If anyone had to be laid off, Nelly and Sophia should have been at the top of the list. All they do is suck up to BM and pretend to work. I can’t believe Sophia spends the entire morning -- sometimes longer -- for these ‘personal matters’ of hers. It’s bullshit. No one else gets away with that nonsense. I asked Bonnie the other day if I could take some time for a doctor’s appointment, and she told me to make sure I made up the time missed. I should have told her to make Sophia do some real work while I was out of the office, and that would make up the time. Although she would do a terrible job of handling any updates. Any assignment in the dailies queue that she doesn’t understand, she deletes. It’s as if the news doesn’t matter to her. And she gets away with it, thanks to BM’s protection.”
Steven nodded. “Preaching to the choir, my friend, preaching to the choir. Since they started here, Nelly and Sophia haven’t even tried to improve their work. Their content reviews are always bad. Not surprising, because their content is always bad. All of the other editors who were hired at the same time are doing great work now. It takes time to learn the Gouter’s style and to do consistently good work. Nelly and Sophia won’t put in the time and effort. And why should they? When you’ve got a senior editor protecting you against all criticism and deflecting any discipline, why bother doing a good job? Just collect your paychecks and laugh at all the chumps in the newsroom who actually have to work.”
Codd went back to his cubicle and called up several documents he had recently created. He sent them all off to the printer, then picked up the documents. Returning again to his cubicle, he began to mark the text on the papers.
He had his one-on-one session with Bonnie Minefield late in the afternoon. They met in one of the many tiny conference rooms in the GOUT. The big conference rooms were reserved for senior management’s use.
Minefield began, “I know some of the people who were laid off today were good friends of yours, and we’re sorry that this action was necessary. We had to meet budget constraints. At the same time, I want you to know that we value your contribution to the department. You’ve always been highly productive, and your work is very good. We want you to work here for years to come.”
She paused. Codd said nothing.
Minefield continued, “At the same time, we have to address your antagonistic relations with Nelly W. Dimwit and Sophia Barney Lambeau Mellencamp. We want you to show respect for all colleagues. Those assignments you made in GCMS and comments in the change logs about their ‘mistakes’ are not appreciated. If any of these actions are repeated, we will have to terminate your employment.”
Codd looked startled. He said, “They suck, and I’m the one who’s gonna get fired? What kind of bullshit is that?”
Minefield responded, “There’s no need to use profanity, which is prohibited in the workplace by the E&C Code of Conduct.”
Codd said, “Right. Everyone knows that no editor has ever used profanity in a newsroom, anywhere.”
The senior editor was miffed. She didn’t like being cast as a bluenose, but she was ready to play any card to keep the upper hand in the manager-underling relationship.
“Now, we both know that you failed the E&C Horrible Attitude Test you took online a few months ago, and as a result you were put on a HAT corrective action program,” she said.
Codd replied, “I thought failing the HAT meant you had a good attitude.”
“Never mind the sarcasm,” Minefield said. “Failing the HAT means you must show an improvement in attitude in the next few months, or you may be terminated. Does that make sense?”
“No, it doesn’t make sense,” Codd said. “How does it make sense that Nelly and Sophie suck big time at doing their jobs, and I’ll get fired for resenting their failures? How does that serve our customers? They have to read the company profiles written by those two, which are full of really bad, garbled writing, and they’ll think that Gouter’s is losing its touch. Actually, a lot of them think so already, which is why the customer renewal rate is down. And Gouter’s is losing its touch, if you continue to employ Nelly and Sophia.”
Minefield was losing her patience. She wrapped up the meeting by saying, “In any case, we’ll talk about the impact of the layoffs in the team meeting on Thursday.”
Back in her cubicle, Minefield gathered up her purse and other belongings, then walked out to her parked car and drove home. As usual, the commute to the lakeside subdivision was terribly clogged.
Her husband was sitting on the sofa in the living room, watching SportsCenter on ESPN, when she got home and came through the front door. “Hey, babe,” he said, without looking up. The “Top 10” segment was on. “Who’s going in the harness tonight?”
The next morning, Steven Codd ran into Elsa Linney in the kitchen area of the GOUT, where many employees came to get their coffee and tea, toast bread and bagels, and stow their lunches in a bank of white refrigerators. “What’s up,” he said. Elsa sighed and said, “You wouldn’t believe what’s happened to the Boeing profile. It -- is -- a -- mess. Incomplete sentences, words obviously missing, run-on sentences, subject-verb problems, all sorts of mistakes -- the whole nine yards. The overview is longer, but not better.”
Steven grimaced. “And which one of our two ‘friends’ is responsible for this abortion?”
“It was Nelly,” Elsa replied. “Typical of her incompetence. You and I talked about this over lunch a few months ago. I’m afraid to even bring up this topic with her. If she’s in one of her manic moods, I’m afraid she might even get violent with me.”
“Don’t want that, for sure. I’ve seen so many of her annual updates that are just plain awful. How she gets away with it -- oh, wait, I do know how she gets away with it.”
“So, now I have to decide whether I want to fix her most obvious errors, or do a wholesale rewrite, or just leave it alone. It’s given me such a headache just reading it that I had to take some aspirin. Just contemplating another confrontation with her is making me physically ill.”
Steven said, “I’d just leave it alone. Maybe send an e-mail to customer service -- anonymously, of course -- pretending to be a customer, saying you don’t understand the Boeing OV at all. Then a customer service rep has to bring it up with her, or with BM.”
“That sounds like a good idea. Less trouble for me. No trouble for Nelly, of course; she never gets in trouble.”
Elsa and Steven left the kitchen and headed to the newsroom. Lurking in the adjacent break room was Sophia Barney Lambeau Mellencamp, who had pretended to scan postings on the bulletin board while eavesdropping on the entire conversation. “Wait until Bonnie hears about this,” she thought. “She’ll do something about this. She’s wonderful!”
A few hours later, Steven was summoned to an impromptu one-on-one meeting with Bonnie Minefield. In the tiny conference room, Minefield said, “I heard you were disparaging another editor this morning.”
“Oh, really? And which little bird whispered that in your ear?”
“Never mind. This is exactly what you were warned against doing some time back, and now we will have to terminate your employment as a result.”
“Well, now that’s it’s come down to this, could you finally explain to me why you’re always favoring Nelly and Sophia?” Steven asked.
“I do not!” Minefield said.
Steven said, “I’ve been working at Gouter’s for a lot more years than you have, and the crap Nelly and Sophia pull every day would never have flown back when I started at Gouter’s. It shouldn’t be passing muster now. But it is, because you are their enabler, their facilitator.”
“I’m upholding their dignity!”
“Really. That’s interesting. You know, I’ve been a professional wordsmith for more than 30 years, and I’ve worked in a lot of places. To the best of my knowledge, bad writing, kissing ass, laziness, and a lousy work ethic aren’t found in any definition of ‘dignity’ that I know. Is there some dictionary or reference work you can point me to that includes those characteristics in defining ‘dignity’? Does that make sense?”
Bonnie Minefield seemed completely flummoxed. She quickly recovered to say, “The E&C Code of Conduct requires you to treat all fellow employees with respect.”
He answered,”In my book, respect is earned, not automatically granted. I have no respect for Nelly and Sophia, and I never will. They are mere phonies and suck-ups. That’s all they’re good at, and they do it extremely well. Nelly and Sophia don’t fool anyone except you. They’ve played you like a piano from the beginning.”
Minefield was silent for a moment. Then she shoved a document across the conference table. “Sign and date this. You’ll have an exit interview with Grey Perdition before you go. Take this termination document along.”
Codd took the document and stomped out of the conference room. He turned at the door and said, “You are the worst senior editor to ever work at Gouter’s.”
Minefield had no response for that.
Back in his cubicle, Codd removed several fat folders from his filing cabinet and pulled out stacks of paper. He looked to see if Grey Perdition was in his cubicle across the newsroom. Perdition was. Codd gathered his termination document and the other papers, walked over to the editorial director’s cubicle, and said, “Let’s do this thing.”
They walked to a mid-sized conference room in the newsroom area, one that managers could reserve for their use. Codd and Perdition sat on opposite sides of the conference table.
“Let’s finish this as soon as possible,” Perdition said. “Does that make sense? Plus, I have a tee time at the club.”
Codd pushed the stacks of paper across the table to Perdition. There were hundreds of pages -- thousands, it seemed like. All bore text highlighted in yellow and other colors.
“What’s this?” Perdition asked.
Codd took a breath and said, “These are copies of every annual update and every daily update done by Nelly W. Dimwit and Sophia Barney Lambeau Mellencamp since they started working here. I’ve kept copies of the profiles as they appeared before they updated the text, and made copies of their resulting work. I’ve highlighted the many, many mistakes they’ve introduced into the database through sloppy research and even sloppier writing. The tangled text they produced you can discover on your own. As you can see, there are mistakes in virtually every update they have ever done for Gouter’s. I went through a case of markers to highlight all these errors.”
Perdition seemed dazed. “Are you kidding?” he said. “Look at all this highlighted text! I’ve been wondering why the supply closet is always missing markers.” The editorial director turned over several pages, shaking his head at the error-ridden text.
After a few minutes, Perdition said, “This is just amazing. I can’t believe it! How did this go on for so long? Why didn’t anyone tell me we were having such massive quality problems?”
“You’ll have to ask the senior editor,” Codd answered. “Meanwhile, will you sign off on this termination document?”
“Wait -- what?” said Perdition. “Terminate you? You’re not the problem! Nelly and Sophia are the problem! But they won’t be for long. Yes, I will talk to your senior editor. Why don’t you just go back to your cubicle and return to work? Does that make sense?”
Codd smiled and said, “Yes, that makes sense.”