Company Culture #5 

After leaving San Francisco, my “I’ll do anything legal for $5 an hour” work morphed into other ‘unconventional’ employment — science writing, answering tech support calls from home, helping a drug addict write a book about rehab, etc — all sorts of short-term and part-time gigs. There was office work during those years, too, but usually in unconventional offices where I was the only person there. After almost twenty years of all the above, getting hired as an auditor at AA was my triumphant return to what looked like a normal workplace. 

Becca was one of my co-workers, and my apologies for being a man, but the first thing I noticed about her was that she was pretty. Second thing I noticed was, big yabanzas. I was married, and damned happily married, so it was irrelevant, but a guy notices, and it led to the sudden realization that I’d gotten old.

In all the office jobs through my late teens, 20s, and 30s, the older women were always married, but if there was a younger woman who was single and attractive, I’d very low-key flirt with her. Nothing obnoxious or insistent, and my routine was always almost 'all work', but a rare, racy remark made the day more interesting, long as you knew the boundaries.

I was now beyond the boundaries, though. 50-something. Even the thought of flirting with a woman as young as Becca made me feel like the office lecher. Sucks to be old, but that part of my life was over, so I did the co-worker thing, and talked to her like a human, like she was 'Barney' instead of Becca. Not to be all HR-positive about it, but being businesslike was not difficult. 

Becca was OK to work with. She was usually quiet, occasionally funny, didn’t make drama, just did her time. That’s everything I want in a co-worker.

She was a singer and bassist after hours, and loved to talk about it. She played with a band that had once had a 'local hit', whatever that meant, and she’d also sung background vocals on some hip-hopper's demo. When I expressed polite interest, the next day she emailed me both MP3s. I listened, and she wasn't Annie Lennox, but it was fine. The 'hit' was forgettable, and the song she sung backup for was rap, which ain’t my thing.

One morning, Becca came to work and said "Good morning," like every other morning. Probably she added a few sentences about her music. Then she sat down and went to work. I remember that just before lunch, I asked her to help me decipher some sloppy handwriting on a form. She pulled her earbuds out when I stepped into her cubicle, and pushed the buds back in as I left. And then, I never saw her again.

She’d gone to lunch, and hadn’t come back. When she’d been away an hour too long, but before anyone had even said anything, Daniel went ‘round and tapped everyone on the shoulder, and swivel-arm beckoned us into his office. His boss, Linda, was waiting there.

I was still a rookie, but it was obvious something unpleasant was up. What flashed across my mind was Denise's demise, years and years earlier. Let’s not have a rerun of that, please.

“I want you to hear it from me,” Daniel said, “before you hear it from anyone else. As of this afternoon, Becca doesn’t work here any more.”

Everyone looked startled and exchanged glances, and Zeke said, “Just for taking a long lunch?”

Linda said, “Lunch had nothing to do with it,” and also added some expected executive blather, about what a great team we were, and how we were certain to rise to the challenge of being shorthanded until someone else could be hired.

“Well, what happened?” Zeke was Woodward and Bernstein both, but we were all curious.

“We can’t and won’t say,” is all Daniel said. 

I hadn’t known Becca well, and had only been on the job for a month or so. It would be worrisome, I thought, if she’d made a random wiseass remark to the wrong executive, and been fired on the spot. That’s more or less what I said, in Daniel’s office.

His reply was, “She didn’t get fired for a wiseass remark. It was nothing like that, but we really can’t play twenty questions about it.”

When people started mumbling, he added, “Look, gang — we’re a HIPAA workplace. We respect the privacy of our customers, and we also want to respect the privacy of our employees, and ex-employees. If any of you have Becca’s phone number, you’re free to call her and ask what happened, and she’s certainly free to speak. But Linda and I are not free to speak. It’s not our place to say anything, except, Becca is gone, and we wish her well.”

Daniel smiled after he said what he said, but I’d seen management smiles before, and I wasn't sure what to think. Becca hadn’t seemed like a troublemaker, and there’d been no complaints, that I knew of. But then, blam, she was gone.

Over the next few days, the grapevine said all sorts of things, but they couldn't all be true. My favorite bullshit theory was that she’d been caught naked with the janitor, but that’s just me being a perv. I never heard a reliable explanation about what happened with Becca.

I worked with Daniel for another six years, and asked him twice about it, but he never even dropped a clue. And over those years, I came to trust Daniel, and think he was right to keep zip-lipped. At other workplaces, everyone's usually known why anyone was fired, but at AA, whatever happened that day was between Becca and the company. 

Weirdly, I came to trust the company, too — management didn’t routinely lie to employees, and they encouraged feedback, even negative feedback, with no rumors of retaliation. Sounds like I’m a total suck-up, but actually I can be a bit prickly as an employee, and there were times when they could’ve fired me, if it was that kind of place.

In hindsight, I’d say Becca’s firing wasn’t a sign of a shitty workplace. She must’ve deserved it, based on what I saw of the company. I still wonder what happened that day at lunch, though.

I Googled Becca a few times, and about five years ago she was singing, solo, and had CDs for MP3s for sale on the web. Hope she’s won a Grammy by now, but I wouldn’t know and can’t Google her again, because I’ve forgotten her real name.

Company Culture

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