Sunday, January 18, 2015


Here in Alberta, where we, collectively, have no idea how to manage our natural resources compared to, say, Norway, there are a lot of nostalgic sounds making a comeback:
-the sub-glottal gulps of pundits and economists, wondering just how much lower oil prices can go, and what this might mean.
-the slithery clicks of multiple belts being tightened.
-the clattering rumble of ideological wagons being drawn into a circle, as governments and unions begin circling them in anticipation of government budget shortfalls, and the cuts likely to follow.
-the silence of breaths being held by virtually everyone as we all ponder what new development might be next in our fiscal dramas, both macro and micro, both as spectators and as participants.
Suncor has already laid off 1,000 people, 17,000 more people at Target stores nationwide will soon be looking for work, and a recession at this point is beginning to look inevitable.

With Audrey working in a school, and myself at a Crown Corporation, our futures aren't grim by any means, but they are certainly more tentative than they were a month or so back.  Most of the people I know have spent parts of their adult lives unexpectedly looking for work, and we all agree: we'd far rather work at a job we didn't love than spend our days seeking employment.

My own circumstance came in 2007, at the end of more than a decade working for Games Workshop. I had worked up through some leadership positions at the headquarters in Mississauga, then transitioned to retail to facilitate moving back to Alberta in 1999.  I managed a store in Edmonton, then oversaw both stores, and ended up looking after all of Western Canada, from Winnipeg to Victoria.

I loved visiting the shops, talking to staff, sharing insights with the various store managers, but in truth, didn't enjoy it as much as I had my previous roles.  Something about managing from a distance didn't really suit me, and as I struggled to deal with the baggage of store managers I hadn't hired, I was already wondering if the time had come for GW and I to part ways.

It turns out I wasn't the only one thinking that.

I thought it was unusual that my boss, the Head of Retail, was coming to Edmonton only a week before I was scheduled to head to HQ for a conference, along with the rest of the retail managers.  When I discovered that the head of HR was coming with him, well, I didn't exactly need spider-sense to determine that things were awry.

They strolled into the West Edmonton Mall store that I operated out of most days, and after exchanging pleasantries with the rest of the staff, we left the store to go chat.  Normally, this involved a trip to the Tim Hortons franchise located above the ice rink, but my suspicions were confirmed when we bypassed it, and made our way to the hotel.

The room they were using was large enough to have a table we could sit at, and sensing a need to lighten the moment, I made some sort of quip about the fact that if the door opened up onto a single bed with the covers turned down, they were going to be in for the fight of their lives.

They both chuckled, but my boss moved quickly to the topic at hand; the retail chain was not doing as well as it had in the past, and the western stores were no exception.  There was a real need to make some significant changes, and the long and the short of it was, my position was being eliminated.  When the comprehensive reorganization was completed, my number one subordinate and former assistant manager would be looking after the western stores.

It was blunt, but I appreciated the brevity of it.  My boss explained that I would receive a severance package, and that he had arranged for my health benefits to be maintained for another two and a half months, which I know he would have been under absolutely no obligation to do.  He and the head of HR would come to my home that evening to collect the company vehicle (a Dodge Caravan, used primarily for hauling gaming tables and stock from store to store), my company phone, and any personnel files or other administrative items not in the shop.

Given the circumstances, I can't say I was surprised at this turn of events, but it was still rather shocking.  I had been looking forward to seeing my comrades at the conference next week, but now wouldn't even have the opportunity to say goodbye to their faces.  Still, despite being inevitable, my departure was still being treated with respect, which I appreciated immensely; I was simultaneously crestfallen and grateful.  I accepted the terms of the severance package, completed the paperwork, and not long after that, we were making our way back to the store.

I told my boss that leaving the company was only the second worst outcome I had foreseen for our meeting, and he asked me what would have been worse.  "You telling me that you were being let go," I told him, "Because I would have felt responsible for it, at least in part."

He had always been a hard fellow to catch wrongfooted, but his soft reply of "oh, wow," suggested I might have finally done it.

My boss and I had always had a good relationship; we each took what the other said with a grain of salt sometimes, but knew we could always count on the other for honesty and directness.  The GW culture was almost startlingly informal at times, with many a conference devolving into lager-fueled escapades and shenanigans, but it turns out you can very quickly determine the cut of a man's jib by playing games and drinking with him; in vino veritas and all that.  There was a clear demar cation of authority in our interactions, but I considered (and still consider!) him a friend.

He broke the uncomfortable silence on the way back by saying, "It's been a while since we talked, and there's all this other non-work stuff I want to ask you about, but now it all feels like, 'aside from that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?', y'know?"

Despite it all, I had to laugh, and we paid serious attention to trivial matters for the remainder of our walk.  When we got back to the store, I collected my things, said so long to the staff as though leaving for the day, and left the two from HQ to explain what had happened, as we had arranged.

As I drove home, I wondered how best to break the news to Audrey, then ended up spending an hour in a slushy parking lot waiting for AMA to come change the tire on the Caravan, When I finally got home, earlier than expected, I don't recall exactly what I said to her, but it was something along the lines of "I don't work for GW any more."

Understandably, her reaction was shock, and fear:  "What are we going to do?"

No 'are you okay?', not 'how?' or 'what happened?' just an immediate leap to defensive panic.  And after everything else, that was just more than I could take.  I raised my voice, we both got a little upset, but only briefly, and when I explained the severance package and benefit situation, she was able to look at the situation with a little less panic and a little more hope.

Shortly after that, the phone rang; it was my number two man, and he was beside himself, upset, I think, as much with the suddenness of my departure as the rationale for it. I reassured him that while I was nowhere near happy with the situation, I understood the company's position, and did not feel I was being treated harshly or unjustly; it was just unfortunate.  I can't help but think that if I had been less convincing, he might have up and quit on them, despite just having been promoted, and there is a strange sort of gratification that comes from that.

By the time the Ontarians came by to pick up the van that evening, I was feeling much less desperate and wounded, and far more philosophical about the entire affair; so much so, in fact, that I invited them in for a beer, and to my surprise and delight, they agreed.

Walking downstairs, my (former) boss noted all the balloons on the walls, and asked just how much of a happy face I was putting on the whole situation.  I explained that we weren't celebrating my unanticipated departure from retail, but today had been Glory's fifth birthday, and saw him wince.

The head of HR had started with GW as a store manager prior to becoming the retail boss and then migrating to HR, and over a beer, the three of us discussed some of the more acrimonious partings our company (and we ourselves, at times!) had witnessed over the years.  After a few head-shaking recollections and even more belly laughs, he wrapped it up by saying, "At least this time, when people ask me how it went, I can say, truthfully, that I have never seen a guy act with more integrity."

I`m a fortunate man, in that people have had occasion to say kind and flattering things to and about me over the years, but that one really took me aback.  I`m experiencing a little ocular humidity now, just in recalling it.

They finished their beers, and I thanked them for everything, and they did likewise, and for the first time as an adult, I found myself unemployed.

Sure, things eventually worked out, and I escaped retail, and I am with a good organization now and hope to be with them for a good long while, but there was a lot of tension and uncertainty in the middle parts there, I don`t mind telling you.

And as the clouds of uncertainty boil along the horizon, and the prevailing winds begin to build from that direction as well, we are reminded of the one thing that is certain: things will probably get worse before they get better.

But on the other hand, they are likely to get better before they get worse again; the trick is just finding a way to hang in there until they do.

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