Rock and a Hard Place
About a year ago, I left a large nonprofit where I’d worked for seven great years. When the pandemic hit, we lost a lot of funding, and I had to split my time over three different teams (and three different bosses), and take on work that was not very interesting to me. I left because I found a job at a similar organization, playing one role instead of three. The new job has had lots of pros — great colleagues, strong mentorship, professional development around skills I’ve been wanting to work on for a long time. However, the workload is completely unsustainable. I’ve talked to my boss about this on multiple occasions, and he has said there’s no money to hire anyone else and he can’t change the job description because of larger organizational bureaucracy.
In January, a full-time job opened at my old organization with a workload that’s half my current one, plus slightly higher pay. I applied for and have been offered the job. Seems perfect, except for one thing: a boss I cannot stand. I worked with him before, and he was barely tolerable when I was only spending one-third of my time on that team. I find him to be sexist, full of hot-aired bravado and 15 years behind in his thinking about our field. He makes decisions that are harmful to clients. Is it worth it to take this job where I’ll be frustrated with my boss every day, and where I think the organization is headed in a bad direction, if it means reclaiming my nights and weekends?
One of the more unpalatable aspects of capitalism is having to choose between equally crappy professional options. What do you value more — a great boss and working environment but intense workload or a terrible boss and a reasonable workload? Downtime is incredibly important. It’s challenging to sustain great performance at work if you never have the opportunity to recharge, spend time with loved ones and pursue personal interests. At the same time, how much will you enjoy that downtime if you’re constantly aggravated by a terrible boss? Have you considered a third option — a position at a different company entirely?
Email Crimes and Misdemeanors
I was recently fired by my company because I added “non desinetis vapulare donec animi vobis fuerint refecti” at the bottom of my email signature line. It’s Latin for, essentially, “You won’t stop getting thrashed until your spirits pick up” or a less literal translation of “whippings will continue until morale improves.” It’s a phrase I saw on a T-shirt in Key West. It had been part of my signature line for 10 months, and frankly, I had forgotten about it.
The new H.R. director told me this did not reflect well on the corporate brand. I told the H.R. director I would remove it, apologize for any offense, but that I thought this was not an offense that should rise to the level of termination. I could understand a reprimand. I would accept a personal improvement plan. He said it was a corporate decision and nothing more. There is no policy or procedure for how to create an email signature line. I received a glowing review and raise in January with all areas as either meets expectations or exceeds expectations.
In post-firing discussions with colleagues, we speculate more was afoot since, two months earlier, the senior leadership team was replaced. My immediate supervisor resigned unexpectedly three weeks before my firing. Before he left, he suggested that layoffs might be imminent.
My question is: Is this a fireable offense? Or was it a pretext for reducing head count and costs so they could eliminate my salary and not have to pay severance? Do I have any legal recourse? I know employment is at will in my state. I’m 63, so I’m also wondering if there’s an age bias as well that led to the dismissal.
When you’re employed in an at-will state, anything can be a fireable offense so long as the firing is not discrimination based. Your employer didn’t need a pretext. That said, it is quite strange to be fired over an email signature, particularly when you recently received glowing reviews and a raise. Unless the brand is poor morale, how could one person’s email signature undermine the brand? Being fired for a single, minor offense that isn’t particularly offensive is overkill, at best.
I’m not sure how company managers can possibly justify this without a pattern of behavior. If they were planning layoffs and were looking to save costs, yes, they may have done this to avoid paying you severance which is deeply unfair. I’d consult an employment lawyer to see what your options may be. Something is definitely off here.
Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at email@example.com.