The A to Z Challenge – H is for – “How is this possible…”


It started with a simple memo.

After several years of bad management, the company had decided to make a clean sweep and change upper management. Of course, that sort of change was driven by the volatility of the company’s share price and dividends, and shareholders’ discontent. Productivity was down because of low employee morale driven by what was labelled a ‘toxic work environment’. This led to production problems, quality control issues, and falling sales.

Something had to be done.

The new broom, as it was come to be known as, had made several far sweeping changes, one of which, to counter the discontent of its employees, was to institute the anonymous complaint. Any employee could make a complaint without fear of reprisals. In the past, those that had were vilified, demoted, or sacked. Now, the new broom had decided that employee input would improve the workplace, improve productivity, and provide the way back to the halcyon days.

Or so we thought.

Two phones, each on a bedside table, both chimed to indicate an incoming message.

I’d been staring at the roof, contemplating the start of a new week in a place where I had decided was not where I wanted to be. Beside me, still asleep, was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, but she was not sure about making a commitment. She’d been down that road before, and it failed miserably and was taking it slow.

I told her slow was my middle name.

I leaned over and picked up the phone, more out of curiosity than anything else, but fascinated that both phones could go off at the same time.

“In the light of a host of complaints about the catering division, it has been decided that the staff cafeteria will cease operations at the end of the month. It has for a number of years been the subject of employee dissatisfaction and the result of an extensive investigation to the feasibility of keeping it going, given the economic climate and fiscal position of the company the only viable decision is to cease operations. Staff currently working in the catering department will be transferred to other positions within the company.”

How could this be possible? I had seen the feasibility study relating to the cafeteria, and it was ‘feasible’ to keep it going. They were right though, there had been a host of complaints, but that was because the catering manager had no idea how to run a large-scale cafeteria that churned out upwards of 5,000 meals a day. Even Olga, who was right here with me now, had said that it was the most poorly managed operation she had ever worked in.

I tossed the phone back on the bedside table and got back under the covers. Too early and too cold to get out of bed.

It woke Olga.

“Trouble in paradise?”

Paradise was her euphemism for work. She had become increasingly desponded as I about working there. In her case, as q waitress in the cafeteria, it was a job she could take or leave. For me, loitering on the fringes of middle management, not so much. Not if I wanted to keep the flash apartment and upscale car.

“They have dumped the cafeteria.”

I had expected her to leap up in indignation. It barely registered on the Richter scale. “And what did you expect?” She raised her head off the pillow. “They were never going to implement your suggestions, it would make Commissar Bland look like a fool, like the fool above him.”

Her analogy transposing our fearless leaders with those back in the old Soviet Union were always an insight to what she had experienced back home before she emigrated with her parents. Commissar Bland was a dictator, and not a man to cross. She cared little about him, and treated him, like the others did, as a joke.

“So much for the new broom,” I muttered.

“You are so naive Petr, but like home, change means no change, just different faces and words that all mean the same thing.”

Petr was her pet name for me, named after an old mentor of hers.

“Aren’t you the one losing your job. Doesn’t it bother you?”

“I will become best factory worker. We are very adaptable. You should try not to lose any sleep.”

She lay down again and snuggled closer.

I left her at the fourth floor where my office was located, and she would continue up to the next, the location of the cafeteria.

If I remember correctly, the current CEO when the factory manager, had always wanted to reclaim the cafeteria space for a new modernised production line, but the old guard had seen the benefit of keeping it despite the cost, as a means of keeping its workforce. Even twenty years ago, it would not have made a discussion topic, even in jest.

But times change.

Herman, another of the middle management fringe dwellers, and had also seen the need to have something to ‘bribe’ the workforce. We’d only been talking about it with others on our level the other day when all manner of rumours were drifting through our building.

He was loitering in the passage, obviously waiting for me.

“You’ve seen the message?”

I nodded.

“Hell of a way to kill an institution?”

I walked into my cubicle and dumped my bag on the floor. As a first act, the new broom removed all the offices, and put everyone into an open plan, where it was easier to communicate with others and removed the barriers walls and doors presented. The jury was still out on whether it worked, I could still never get to see the people I needed to.

He followed me in and sat in a chair in the corner. I sat on the desk, it was not a large cubicle.

“It was a drain on profits. The world has moved on from pandering to workforces. It seems dividends are more important. I’m sure this will not be the only change.”

“Like managers losing their cars and credit cards, except for the upper echelon. I don’t think you’ll see them close the executive dining room.”

Yes, it was only a matter of time before that morsel would raise its head under the banner of hypocrisy.

“Probably not. But remember, we used to build cars once, and it was good advertising to hand them out to all and sundry. Now, trying to do the right thing costs too much.”

My phone on the desk rang and startled me. It was still quiet, the bulk of the cubicle population hadn’t arrived yet. My guess they were gathering in coffee shops discussing the news.

I picked up receiver mid ring, then said, “Yes?” I refused to follow the official answering sequence advised by the new broom.

Hesitation, then, “O’Hara from Administration. Can you come and see me, nine a.m.?”

Why? There was no way anyone could know I sent that memo, and I wasn’t on management’s radar, it had been O’Hara himself who told me to keep up the good work, the coded message that said I was not on the latest promotion list.

“I’ll see you then.” I was not going to say ‘yes, sir’ like other management hopefuls. O’Hara was not someone who could be buttered up, a fact only I seemed to be aware of.

“Who was that?”

“O’Hara.”

“Then your days are numbered. He never calls except to say you have a promotion or you’re fired. You aren’t on the promotion list.”

“How can you be sure?”

No one was supposed to know who was on that list for sure, it was a closely guarded secret. Herman said he knew someone who knew someone who knew Herman’s PA, and had been told who was on the list. So far, in the last two lists, he had been right about us two.

Perhaps he was right. I was going to get fired.

“Have I ever been wrong?”

Technically, no. But I never got any other names of those who were on the list. Maybe it was better to wait, and be disappointed then.

“Well, we’ll soon find out.”

It took twenty minutes to walk from the old administration building to the new, built recently on the outskirts of the company site, on what was once the carpark. The carpark had been relocated under the new administration building, and it gave management the perfect excuse to charge us to park our cars.

A Lot of employees had switched from car to the train, less than the weekly cost of the carpark. Another new broom initiative; getting people out of cars and onto public transport, their contribution to easing global warming.

None of us, other than those in the new administration building had passes, so we had to sign in as visitors on the ground floor, even though we spent a lot of time travelling back and forth, and visiting other members of our departments who had been moved from the old building.

No, not a new broom initiative, just the result of an obtuse security chief.

Getting the pass made me five minutes late, and O’Hara didn’t like tardy people.

A glare followed me from the door of his office to the seat in front of his desk where he motioned me to sit. The offices were better here and were offices not cubicles. Everyone else wanted to be transferred to the new office. I didn’t. Too far away from Olga.

“I called you over to discuss the ten-point plan to save the cafeteria.”

“What ten-point plan?” Perhaps they did know who wrote the memo.

“I had every written complaint checked to see whose writing it was. Next time, write it on the computer and print it out.”

I shrugged. “I did it for a laugh. Nothing’s going to change in this place.”

“You sound like you don’t like working here?”

“I do. Most days. Today, though, is one reason to leave. That cafeteria has been here since the day the factory started. The employers, once, were involved in getting employees housing, even had their own estate, and assisted them to buy cars. It was a novel thought in an age where employers, well, some employers, considered their employees assets.”

“We still do.”

I shook my head. I guess if you wanted to be in management you had to believe and repeat the new mantra. I’d heard about the management team building conferences.

“So, we’re going back to our original values?”

“This is neither the time, nor do we have the fiscal viability. But it seems some of the board members consider your proposals need fleshing out into a plan with costings so they can make a more balanced judgement.”

“Unfortunately, you just uttered the two words that make that idea redundant, fiscal viability. There is no possible way in this current world we live in that a cafeteria would ever be viable, unless we charged five-star restaurant prices for the meals.”

“Humour me and do it anyway.”

“Not my department.”

“Fixed. You now are temporarily assigned to ‘rebuilding and restructuring’. You can add three others to your team. You have a week.”

“And if I say no.”

“It’s that or your resignation. You have been given an opportunity, take it.”

I shrugged. I’d heard about the new broom’s method of culling. Give them jobs that they can’t possibly find a solution to. Devious, but devastatingly effective. One last hurrah before being tossed on the executive scrap heap.

When I came out of his office, Herman was waiting in the outer office.

“You too,” I said.

“Nine of us. Sounds like there’s a new project in the wind.”

I didn’t burst his bubble. Ten more budding executives were getting the push. I sighed.

At least now Olga and I could go visit her family on the shores of the Black Sea. There was no excuse not to.

And, yes, it really did start with a memo.

© Charles Heath 2021

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