Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies.
~Emily Dickinson, 1830 - 1886
Looking at the number displayed on the telephone, I saw the call was from the CEO of the company for which I worked. With a mixture of hope and trepidation, I answered the phone.
“Hi Jim,” I chirped. “What’s up?”
“Hi Meg,” he replied. “Forgive me for intruding on your weekend but I felt it was important to call. You were right to speak up today. We made a mistake and I want to correct it immediately.”
He went on to tell me that the amount of the annual bonus printed on the paycheck I had received that day was a bookkeeping error, reflecting the prior year’s figure and not the amount I was receiving now. He said that I had surpassed the past year’s accomplishments and that my recent contributions would be valued accordingly. And he then he put his money where his mouth was and shared the new bonus figure, an amount that made me draw in my breath.
Earlier that day, when I had opened my pay check with anticipation, I had been optimistic that a year of particularly hard work and some meaningful successes amidst some challenging circumstances would be duly acknowledged. I liked the people I worked for and had found them to be fair. So I was stung to see a lesser-than-hoped-for amount in the box labeled “bonus.” I felt hurt and disappointed. Even worse, a deep blush of shame washed over me as I began to ridicule myself for believing my efforts would actually really matter and be recognized financially.
I had a history of either wildly overestimating my own importance, or drastically under-cutting myself. Recently, I had been seeking to be more right-sized in my self-assessment--as well as in my expectations of others.
I was still relatively new at this job, having just completed my second year of service. I had found the bonus amount on my paycheck particularly disheartening as I really believed the management of this organization sought to be honorable in their treatment of employees. To be actively making an effort to better heed my own intuition and then be let down meant I couldn’t even trust myself, let alone someone else. To doubt your own instincts is disconcerting at best and frightening at worst.
However, as the day went on, I dared to believe in myself--and the men for whom I worked. I put into practice the new philosophy and behaviors I had been cultivating. I screwed up my courage and went to my boss to question something that didn’t seem right. And it paid off—literally.
Belonging for me involves a sense of being valued. It also means feeling a sense of shared values. In another work place experience, standing up for what I thought to be right meant being shown the door.
While in my late twenties, I worked for Bank X. In four years with the company, I had been promoted twice and seen my salary grow substantially. I liked and respected the woman who was my boss and was crestfallen when she announced she would be leaving to accept another job out-of-state. After she departed and while her replacement was being sought, I reported to the Chief Administrative Officer--heady access for someone who had only been in the workplace for a few years. The CAO was tough--but encouraging and supportive in her own way.
When my new boss was hired, she immediately put an end to my direct contact with the CAO, as well as curtailing the interaction I had with other senior executives. The new boss also began a daily ritual of coming out of her glass-enclosed office—the only space with walls in a warehouse-size warren of cubicles—and bellowing my name. I would stop what I was doing and scurry over to receive a public dressing down for something she felt I had done wrong. After each one of these tirades, when I passed colleagues in the corridors, they would look at me with sad eyes and shake their heads, speechless and seemingly having a "But for the grace of God go I" moment.
That response would have been prescient. Later, after I had been fired, I learned that I was but the first in a long line of victims. The boss went on to systematically set her sights on a series of successive quarry whom she terrorized one at a time until they either quit or she could get them terminated. I was told that among the department of fifty-plus people, a term was coined to label the process by which the boss toyed with her prey—they were said to have been “Megged.”
For months before I got canned, I endured the daily humiliations while trying to keep my wits about me, recognizing that my escalating anxiety only increased the margin of error with which I was operating. In my spare time, I frantically phoned head hunters and scoured the want ads, going on interviews for any job under the sun, willing to take anything just to escape the relentless torture. Afraid to speak up, I grew angrier and angrier—and not just at my diminutive boss, who was now being called “Little Hitler” by the department behind her back. I was also angry at myself, for lacking the brains and guts to figure out a way to somehow stand up for myself. I felt powerless and trapped—a miserable way to earn a living.
This period in my life occurred during an epoch in banking history when the industry was under heavy fire in Boston for a discriminatory lending practice known as “red lining.” In the early 1990s, the Massachusetts Attorney General was conducting audits of every bank in town and the media was having a feeding frenzy speculating on which institution would be the next hit with a reputational black eye and massive financial settlement. The scandal was the main event at the water cooler and as the senior PR person, I had more than a passing concern about if—or when--I would be on the receiving end of a press call about a Bank X investigation.
The call eventually came—from one of the executives I had been banned from speaking with by Little Hitler. For whatever reason, the exec had chosen to call me directly rather than heed my boss’ wishes that I was to be contacted only through her. He gave me the facts of the settlement and asked me to write a press release and send it through the normal approval channels for review, noting that the AG agreement was still on the drawing board, so there wasn’t a rush.
Having seen the terse announcements made by all the banks who had gone before, I followed their formulaic acknowledgement of a settlement and expression of contrition and left the draft of the press release in Little Hitler’s in box.
Later that afternoon, the bellow beckoned. Little Hitler was standing outside her office waiting for me, her face purple with rage.
“Are you an idiot?” she raged. “Take this release and go re-write it. We aren’t acknowledging a settlement! Do it over and call it a charitable contribution!”
Something in me snapped. I felt it, I liked it and I let it rip.
“Are YOU an idiot?” I screamed back. “Don’t you know the Attorney General is going to put out their own release? We can’t call this a charitable contribution!”
It felt damn good to own my power. Even during the ensuing months of unemployment that resulted from my bravado, I never regretted finally speaking my truth. While out of work, I was broke and scared…but a shift had occurred inside my soul on which you couldn’t put a price tag.
Every day, I read the paper to see if the story on Bank X had broken. After what seemed like ages without a whiff, I almost began to question my sanity, wondering if the company had somehow wriggled out of the sanction...or if I had actually hallucinated the whole ordeal.
Just as I was being threatened with foreclosure on my condo, I got a call about a job that sounded perfect. An outfit from Rhode Island had recently bought a failed Boston bank—and they were looking for a local PR person. For days before my interview, I fretted about how to handle explaining my departure from Bank X. The HR department at my former employer had “let” me resign. But to say I had quit without another job in the midst of one of the biggest recessions since the Great Depression seemed akin to admitting I was an idiot. Besides, I wanted to be honest about the circumstances with someone who might be my next boss—but to this goody two-shoes, it was an ethical quandary to contemplate revealing the pending AG settlement, which until an announcement was made, was insider information about a public company.
The morning of my interview, I settled into a seat on the Amtrak train heading for Providence, my Dunkin Donuts and Boston Globe in hand. Turning to the Business section, I almost spit out my mouthful of coffee.
There, above the fold, was the announcement of Bank X’s settlement with the Attorney General. And next to that article, was another equally prominent piece-- across which was emblazoned the headline “Bank X Press Release Gets Attention for What it Left Out.” The article was comprised of outraged quotes from a cross section of government officials, as well as leaders of the NAACP and other advocacy organizations, all appalled at Bank X’s characterization of the settlement.
I’m happy to say, I got the job—and some delayed validation.
What’s more, I got a lesson in integrity and karma that remains one of my life’s most rewarding and humbling experiences.
But that isn’t the end of the Little Hitler story.
Years later, while at Logan Airport waiting to board a plane to attend a meeting in another city, I saw a familiar figure strutting toward my gate. My heart instinctively dropped into my stomach as I recognized Little Hitler. As she passed where I was sitting, she turned to look back. With a sharp and angry expression on her face, she snapped at a little girl trailing behind, castigating her to hurry up. Without waiting for the child, Little Hitler turned on her stiletto heels and marched on, as the wee lass struggled to catch up, lugging a child-size suitcase and her blankie, tears streaming down her face.
My heart broke for the child—and for Little Hitler.
Witnessing the exchange also made me grateful that when I was faced with that scowl, I was an adult and had the ability to walk away—even if it took me far too long to realize it.
Now I know that when I am tempted out of fear to not ask uncomfortable questions or to veer from the dictates of my own conscience, I am risking the worst kind of alienation possible—disconnection from my own authenticity. When I can trust my gut, I am assured of the right outcome—whether it’s immediate or not.