“Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people.” – David Sarnoff
When I walked in, two of the staffers nodded to me and told me, “Joltin’ Joe is upstairs waiting for you. Go on up.” I couldn’t tell how to take the Joltin’ Joe bit, so I just thanked them and went on up the stairs. My first impression was that I was walking into the edge of a fog bank. Then I caught a whiff of strong cheap tobacco. Joltin’ Joe was a chain smoker. Striding into the room, I was confronted by a large burly man who seemed to like wearing good Harris Tweed in size too small and short-sleeved for his frame. My immediate impression was of an overdressed gorilla. I damped down the satire – this was my boss.
Within five minutes, I confided that my initial appraisal of an overdressed ape was too kind. Joltin’ Joe lost no time in ripping into me about my apparent deficiencies based on the only two words I was able to get out – “Good afternoon.”
The verbal assault lasted for about a quarter of an hour. It became clear that the candidate he had wanted to get the job had not made the final cut. Having spent my graduate school years at an Ivy League school not known for pampering Ph.D. candidates, I merely let it flow over me. The tactic was designed to make me indignant and defensive. Preferably to have me walk out on the job before I started. I smiled; been there, done that. I smiled and said, “will there be anything else, sir?” the gorilla in tweed grew red in the face and yelled some more.
Afterward, I went out for a couple of drinks with the two staffers who had greeted me. They filled me in on Joltin’ Joe’s tactics of intimidation. Their favorite was the monthly profile meeting. Two program heads were invited in for an “informal” chat on their program’s progress. One received praise, and the other got roundly criticized for small or imaginary faults. The tactic was designed to keep the staff competitive. It was managed in a rather hamfisted manner where favorites and villains were arbitrarily switched. It bred solidarity among potential victims. In those days before email, we talked back and forth, informing our colleagues about what the inquisition of the week might be. With a fair number of programs, each of us had time for recovery between Joe’s torture chamber appearances.
Don’t get me wrong. We didn’t emerge from these laughing in the sunshine. Joltin’ Joe had real power to make our lives hell, and there are limits to the abuse a person can take. Most of us lasted because our projects were exciting and of benefit to the public. We found ways to cope.
Some of our coping mechanisms were a bit twisted. I found my means of coping by chance. My wife and I had moved into a house with a wood stove, and I was regularly cutting and splitting to heat the home. One day after a monthly meeting, I went into the room where the copier was located. Among the stack of documents waiting to be processed was a page with a portrait of our esteemed leader. I blew the image up and made a hundred copies. I took this home with me. At home, I taped them to drums of wood that I was splitting for firewood. It was twisted, but it helped me cope without actual physical violence. If I ran into him at work, I could give my best Jack Nicholson smile from the ” Shining” and walk away.
After several years my resume had grown, and I was receiving offers of other work. Eventually, I was offered something that I couldn’t refuse.
For some time, Joltin’ Joe had been actively seeking to fire me. Having kept good records and actually having done my job, he tried to fabricate reasons to fire me. Like his monthly meetings, his efforts were hamfisted but tiring to respond to.
Accepting the new job, I planned out how to get the maximum effect from presenting my resignation. I showed up at Joe’s office about five minutes before he was due back from his lunch and placed my resignation letter prominently on his desk. I then went to lunch with some coworkers.
After a long lunch, I took a leisurely walk back to my office. I wasn’t behind my desk five minutes before the phone rang. It was one of the staffers at the main office. “Lou, what did you do? He came back from lunch and started screaming and yelling. I think he broke things in the office, and he was cursing you!”
I explained how I had tied a knot in this particular devil’s tail while making promises in my resignation to assist him in replacing me with someone equally skilled. Somehow I felt that I took the high road in ending things that way.