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THE BIG FLAMEOUT

The collective doubts of millions of corporate cogs were swiftly confirmed during Bob Gershon’s retirement party when he summed up his forty-five year career in three words: “Blah. Blah. Blah.”

Up until that point, the party had followed the typical program for a farewell event. About fifty of us gathered in the boardroom mid-afternoon and were treated to a dessert spread fit for a group five times those in attendance. We secretly eyed the truffles with gold leaf and pastel macaroons while pretending to be engrossed in conversations with colleagues, who were also seemingly uninterested in the sweets just an arm’s length away. This dance lasted for a few minutes until one brave soul, under the pretext of “Maybe I’ll just get a piece of cantaloupe,” made the plunge. The flock took her cue and proceeded with methodical efficiency to graze its way from one end of the table to the other. The only survivor left in its path was an untouched tray of melon.

One of the directors moved to the front of the room and called up the man of honor. A slightly stooped figure wearing a suit, tailored when the frame beneath it was a little more filled out, pulled himself from a conversation and made his way through the crowd. The room broke into applause and a few folks patted the old man on the back, and with each encouragement the shoulders stooped ever so slightly more, seemingly uncomfortable with the attention showered on them.

The director read aloud from a framed Honorary Proclamation filled with “hereby” and “whereas” and “thereunto.” His oratory was interspersed with harassment-proof jokes and served marvelously as a textbook for office humor that was both politically correct and consistently unfunny. The final presentation was of a Tiffany box and the room collectively took a step forward in anticipation of the contents which were about to be revealed. It was customary to award associates on their anniversaries with one of those pale, blue boxes. And as the years advanced, so did the quality of its contents — a silver pen at five years, a crystal candy dish at fifteen, and so on. Forty-five year anniversary gifts had a unicorn-like fascination; no one believed they existed but all were very open to being disproved.

“Thank you,” Bob said with the box in his hands. “I will open this later at home,” and the room let out an almost imperceptible moan. Forty-five year Tiffany treasures were not meant for us mortals.

It was a typical Bob move, one that I witnessed him perform for as long as I had been at the firm. My first encounter with the man came early in my career. I found myself in a large meeting on the topic of a benefits program that had gone over-budget and failed to show any semblance of a return on investment. My involvement was as the junior HR man who had a small role in the measurement of the program’s dismal results. It was getting heated in the room with recriminations flying. Bob calmly stood up among the fury and asked me to join him outside the conference room. There was a mini-emergency that needed to be addressed, he told the room. I warily listened to him explain what he needed, but it ended up being some random task that could have been done at any time by one of the secretaries. I resented being sent off on such a trivial errand, but later I realized this was Bob’s way of saving my career.

Back in the room, the fingers were pointing and it was only a matter of time before they landed on the guy standing on the lowest rung of the corporate ladder — me. I never forgot that act of generosity, and when I found myself reporting to him as I had been for the last ten years, I couldn’t have been happier. Now, on his retirement day, I was sad to be losing the only man I considered a mentor.

“So, I did some math,” Bob began in a subdued tone and pulled a folded piece of paper from his coat pocket. Putting on his glasses, he read from the sheet: “My forty-five-year career translates into ninety-three thousand, six hundred and very soon-to-be thirty-six hours of work. In twenty-four hour increments that’s a total of 3,900 days spent right here in this office. Those good at math can already tell you that comes out to ten-and-a-half years. Think about that — ten straight years of twenty-four hour days spent in one building.”

“Sounds like a prison term!” some jokester felt the need to add. And because of the corporate world’s inability to let an obvious joke pass, someone else piled on with, “And two weeks off for good behavior!”

Pausing to let the fake laughter subside, Bob continued. “When I started, we just called it work. There was a lot of work to do and as the years went by, the more work we did.” There were a lot of satisfied looks in the room from those who belonged to the self-selected club of the truly hard-working. “But as time progressed, we started referring to this work as projects. Eventually, even that word wasn’t good enough. It was good enough to build the atom bomb but not sufficient for the kind of work we were doing. Some starry one introduced initiatives and that really took hold. Like a virus, this spawned an inordinate number of new terms, all describing the same thing. Suddenly, we had key dependencies and core deliverables. There was a period where we even lost sense of time as future forward became standard language even though it would take a metaphysics professor to untangle that logic. Someone from a long line of 17th century English surveyors brought us milestone. I really liked that one. I personally have passed enough milestones to have circled the earth.”

Associates chuckled at the harmless inanity of corporate jargon, but I sensed something darker underneath his words and fought the urge to run. There was something in his voice and the way it was leading us to an uncertain, but certainly bleak, ending that I didn’t want to be around to witness.

“Then militarism came back into fashion and everything we did was now a strategy and everyone doing it was a strategic thinker. You really didn’t want to be labeled tactical because that dirty word was relegated to the boys in the trenches who were unable to see five feet in front of them. Soon we had swarms of folks visioning our way forward where synergies and parallel paths would ladder up to some corporate Valhalla.”

The crowd was starting to splinter among the True Believers and the Doubters. The former smiled obliviously while the latter stared at their shoes.

“Leave it to kids to boil it down for you,” Bob continued. “Last week my granddaughter asked me, ‘What do you do?’ That phrase has become the standard form of identification in contemporary life. It’s so ingrained that even children lead with it. Well, I told my granddaughter that I work in Human Resources. But that wasn’t enough because she then innocently asked, ‘But what do you do?’ And I sort of had to think about it for a second.”

Finally, we were at the moment in the speech when Bob, the man with double or triple the experience of almost everyone in the room, would impart his wisdom and provide meaning to the lives we lived. It could go several ways.

I help people reach their true potential.

I make sure we’re in a better place than we were yesterday.

I watch over the lifeblood of any corporation — the people.

Bob Gershon went a different route.

“Folks, I couldn’t answer her. Forty-five years of work, good old-fashioned hard work, and I couldn’t think of a single meaningful thing that I accomplished. I mean, I worked in ‘Human Resources’. It sounds made up, doesn’t it?” He laughed but got no one to join him. “We’ve reached a point where we manufacture roles whose sole purpose is to watch over other roles.”

     

 

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