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The Screwtape letters by C.S. Lewis are told from the perspective of a demon writing to his nephew about how to corrupt man. Of course, the real intended audience was good people trying to avoid life mistakes and pursue virtue. In the spirit, I’ve decided to write a careerists guide, telling you the things a careerist might do. Our first careerist example is the firing gambit.
Before I get to that, a bit more about the guide.
Most of our readers have a sense of justice. They want the world to be right, for the right behaviors to be rewarded. Careerists recognize that is not so, and exploit the system, making the right friends, damaging the reputation of rivals, and using whatever tricks are necessary to advance.
Sadly, the world is not just. That does not mean you have to become a careerist, but you might want to understand what the tricks are, so you can notice and counter when they are used on you. As a bonus, you might also want to know when your own activities that “should” be neutral as shooting you in the foot.
Let’s get started.
A (Possible) Firing Gambit Story
A few years ago I worked with a manager I will call “Biff.” Biff who was … odd. People did not understand what he was doing or how he added value. He spent a great deal of time at a local coffee/snack place with high speed internet – perhaps three or four hours in a given day. He did, however, dress and act well. A good portion of the rest of his day was spent maintaining relationships, which looked to the rest of us like goofing around, including playing pranks. As a manager, he didn’t have a great deal of direct responsibilities, so his time was his own. He once filled his boss’s office with balloons while they were gone on a 1-week vacation. I’m not sure when he did this; he might have come in on a Saturday.
Over time we figured out what Biff was up to at the coffee shop. He had a second job, not billable hourly, but instead commission-based sales work. This was an open secret in the department. Still, people liked Biff. He was a great hatchet man to deploy to take out other departments, doing exactly what was asked, picking up Hidden Agendas without being told the specifics. (Because they can’t be said out loud, hidden agendas are generally hinted around.)
One day, Biff gets walked out by security. The word on the street is that management found out about the second job.
What if Management Knew All Along?
But, as a I wrote above, the world is not just. I’d like to suggest a different possibility: Management knew he was breaking the official rules, and looked the other way, as long as Biff did not break the unofficial rules.
The unofficial rules were things like “Don’t make me look bad” or, perhaps “Do not become a threat to my own advancement.” As long as Biff’s supervisor found him useful, Biff got to stay.
Senior management knowing about Biff’s extra might job might even have been a bonus, because they could be certain he would do exactly what he was told, lest he lose his job.
That is the essence of the firing gambit: Have something official you could fire the person for. Use it to keep them in line, or to fire them if they ever step out of line.
Is that really what happened with Biff? I’m not sure. It is possible that so many people found out about the second job that management could no longer protect Biff. Either way it works as an example of the firing gambit.
First, this world is not just. That does not mean that we have to turn into liars, cheats and thieves in order to advance. Many engineers ignore social convention, dress poorly, have bad posture, don’t make smalltalk. They may smell funny and have bad breath and do just fine — they’ll just never get promoted. If you want to have a career, than a little effort on being likable is the cost of entry. The truth on whose code added the most value is unlikely to get you to even the top of the technical ranks at anything but a software company founded by a programmer who dresses poorly and doesn’t make smalltalk either.
Second, recognize that if you haven’t broken the rules, and are squeaky-clean, then you could be a political threat to someone else. Worse, if you think in terms of “the right thing”, or at least right for the company or the best move now, and the other person thinks politically, they won’t be able to figure you out. On this project you backed one alliance, and another you backed another alliance – whose side are you on? Of course you are on the side of truth, but they don’t know that, which makes you dangerous.
Before you advocate the ideas, figure out who stands to gain or lose by them. You don’t have to be a political player to have a few short conversations to see who you’d hurt before you advance your ideas. That could just be good citizenship.
Finally, when you hear about the horrible thing someone did and no one in management seems to care, let that be a lesson that something is going on. Take a step back. Ask questions. Tread lightly.
There’s at least one landmine out there.