By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
“If I were you, I wouldn’t take a vacation while my job was up for possible elimination,” the consultant said.
“But I requested the time off months ago,” I said. My husband and I bought non-refundable tickets for the ferry to Nova Scotia.”
“I’m not telling you what to do,” she said with a sarcastic smile. “I’m only telling you that I wouldn’t go.”
I was relatively new to Vermont, working a mid-level, well-paying administrative position at a prestigious institution. The consultant fired my boss just weeks before. At the time, she assured me my job was secure saying,” Look at all the things you do.” A new regime was in place, a Machiavellian regime characterized by intimidation, deception and distrust.
My husband and I just bought our first house, borrowing fifteen hundred dollars from my parents to satisfy the bank’s down payment requirement. Three months into homeownership, we faced losing my income. Fortunately, we planned proactively, assuming a mortgage we could meet on one salary.
I cried at dinner that night as I shared with my husband the threat hanging over my head. My characteristically supportive husband said, “It doesn’t matter. Let’s take our vacation.”
Photos from that trip depict the stunning, mountains-meet-the-sea landscape of Cape Breton Island. We pitched our tent on a cliff overlooking the Gulf of St Lawrence. We toured coastal towns, peeking into small churches and traversing graveyards dotted with stones bearing Scottish and Irish surnames. Skimming photos from that time, etched with pink Lady Slippers and purple lupines, I’m reminded of the sadness beneath my smiles.
Two weeks later, I returned to the office and, within one hour, was told my job would be eliminated in thirty days. It was a business decision. The consultant, now acting director, said a male colleague—who lacked a graduate administrative degree—was to assume a new variation of my position.
I carefully noted the consultant’s statements in a legal pad. Her apparent naiveté surprised me. Past experience investigating employment discrimination in Pennsylvania left me well-versed in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The consultant’s words could serve as the basis of an employment discrimination complaint.
Vermont is a small community. I opted not to pursue a complaint for fear of being blacklisted and, instead, sent a carefully crafted letter to the top executive, cautioning him that the consultant placed the organization in a precarious position. I then set my sights on finding a new job.
Word spread of my impending departure. Colleagues stopped by my office. Charlie said, “If they can do this to you, they can do this to any of us. You do a great job.” “I don’t know why they’re doing this. It doesn’t make sense,” another said. “You’re showing real class,” another commented, for maintaining my professionalism to the end.
Years later, I still remember those affirmations—small, but wonderful kindnesses—when I felt terribly mistreated by an employer. My husband, solid as a rock, stood by me, encouraging me to take my time to find work in a positive, life-affirming environment.
My last day on the job, I drove home and accidentally locked myself out of the house. I walked next door to call my husband at work so he could come home to let me in.
I sat on the stoop and waited. A floral truck pulled into the driveway. The delivery person stepped out with a bouquet of beautiful flowers.
As he walked toward me, smiling, I looked up and starting crying as I said, “I lost my job today and now I’m locked out of my house.” The poor guy got more than he bargained for. The flowers were from my colleagues—Clem, Jennie and Cynthia.
What became of the consultant? She was fired within the year. What became of my boss who was jettisoned? He found a better job. What happened to me? I found a fine job with a wonderful boss whose been an inspiring mentor ever since.
The lesson learned from that situation reinforced my desire to treat colleagues—from the custodian to my supervisees to my supervisor with the fundamental respect that every person deserves. As the daughter of a custodian, I try to be especially nice to the custodian.
When my working world turned upside down, my colleagues, solid and true, helped me realize that I was competent and capable. Their kindness is a lasting gift.
Poet Maya Angelo wrote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” How true that is.