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Friday, November 26, 2004

The Right Not to Remain Silent
Mulling over issues about people talking to the press before and after their termination, I ran across a Sherry Miller article in which laid-off employees, and employees at other companies, were being read the riot act by a micro-manager:

Thirty people, more or less, were laid off from a typical e-commerce dot.com at the end of May, 2000. During the previous two months, a few of us realized that the company was just holding on because they had to appear to be in business in order to be sold....

We spent our work days looking for new jobs, writing personal materials and learning new web technologies. Showing up with nothing to do is far more stressful than the most demanding schedule. We were told frequently not to discuss the company's position or strategy, not to speak to the press and to refer all inquiries to the Director of Public Relations. She was the only person interacting with the press and she always said "No comment." Although I'm a writer myself and well-connected in Internet press circles, I tried not to talk about the situation at my company and I urged my team to do the same....

Eventually the various vendors who supplied our design, production and backend components were all let go. Each of these vendors had been receiving enormous amounts of money for their services and the plan had been to bring these functions in house....

Now the fun began. Our VP boss learned that an employee of one of the vendors, at a Friday night cocktail party in the city, was telling other guests that our company wasn't paying its bills. The next Monday the VP was in a rage, thinking she knew who had said that and how awful and inappropriate those comments were, and she was going to call him up and "read him the riot act." "Hold on," I told her. "The CEO there sent a memo around to everyone on the staff telling them not to do any business with us. That comment could have come from anyone." "So I'll call the CEO," she snapped.

I tried to explain to her that the CEO and all the staff at this vendor already considered us the client from hell and she shouldn't add to that perception. I also told her directly that the Bay Area new media community is a small one - even if we are spread out geographically - and she'd better think before she spoke.

But that didn't stop her and her buddy VP from calling the CEO, who was on vacation after a recent successful sale of his company. Her solution was to call the CEO's boss at the company who had just bought him out....

The [expected layoff] day finally came at the end of May, closing a long week of several industry e-commerce shutdowns. We received our pay, our vacation pay, and one month additional health coverage....

While working happily at home [on a new consulting job], I received a phone call from a reporter whom I know well. We had a long discussion about the failed company because she was doing a story on layoffs. I was very careful to designate any negative comments I may have made 'off the record.'

Meanwhile I gave her the name of my late colleague and the name of the friend who had the same experience at another company. Two days later the story came out with my colleague's picture on the front page of the major newspaper. He was quoted about the industry and the nature of the beast, but nothing about the company that had just laid us off. I was quoted with one positive comment about our former company. And my friend was quoted about the industry in general and her new job.

The following day my colleague received a harrowing phone call from our former VP boss really chewing him out for speaking to the press and telling him that he'd better not talk to anyone else and he should refer calls to the Director of PR (presumably she hadn't been laid off) and he would be hearing from the other VP.

About four days went by and my friend got a second soft-sell call from a second VP. I got a similar call from the our old boss VP. She gave me the whole rap, and then added that the NY Times had been sniffing around and I absolutely shouldn't say one word to them, no matter what, and I should refer them to the PR person. She said the CEO was very disappointed in my behavior and I expect she gave me a bad grade in her little book.

We were peons, evidently, in the minds of management, and we were expected to do our jobs and keep our mouths shut. Although there were really only three of us in that company who knew anything at all about running an e-commerce web site, we were never consulted on any strategy or contract issues....

Now that we were no longer employed there, we found ourselves subjected to an onslaught of instructions, warnings and admonitions regarding our rights to speak out about our experience.

Although none of us had any intention of maligning what was left of that company, we were being pressured by this management behavior. None of us ever discussed any of the gory or stupid details of that hundred million dollar operation. The real story has never been told in spite of the fact that there were many articles about the demise both before and after we spoke to the press.

This experience brought up a whole new range of privacy issues. I wanted, expected and was entitled to the privacy of my own friendships and comments, even if that included friendships with reporters....

And I was unprepared for the illusionary right to privacy that our VPs thought they had in the highest profile industry ever to hit the press. They seemed to want to behave in an unrestrained fashion and yet have complete privacy about all their actions.

I am overwhelmed by the arrogance of the management group who thought that our minds were worthless the whole time we worked for them and then they wanted to control our minds and our speech even after we were no longer their employees....

But even if we were just laid-off workers, we did have the right NOT to remain silent.

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