I have to warn you: What you’re about to read is disturbing. It’s confusing and unsettling. Some may find it terrifying. I have to admit, I don’t quite understand it myself. And it doesn’t end well. Actually, it doesn’t end at all. If that’s not the kind of story you like to read, you might want to skip it, or at least pop a Xanax first.
All I really know is, this is what happened to me:
It all started fourteen years ago today. The day began like any other Monday in Silicon Valley. The morning commute over the hill was a nightmare. But walking into my company’s Los Altos headquarters always felt like coming home. It was a great place to work, at least until that day.
First stop, the break room. I grabbed a banana, some OJ, and a cappuccino. Briefcase slung over my shoulder and hands full with breakfast, I walked up the stairs to my cubicle. Everyone had cubicles, even senior execs like me.
That was one of the company’s few shortcomings, at least from my perspective. You see, I’m a pretty raucous guy. My voice carries. I like to stir the pot and say what’s on my mind. And my leadership style is not for the faint of heart.
But that works for me because I always get the job done. I don’t care who or what stands in my way; I always mange to find a way around it, over it, or through it. And I have an accomplished twenty-something-year track record to show for it.
At my desk, I pull up my calendar and see a new meeting request: a one-one-one with Greg, my counterpart who runs HR. I accept. I like Greg. We’ve gotten along famously from day one. He’s a good man, and a big supporter of my efforts to fix the company’s strategy and brand.
We meet in a small conference room with comfy couches and exchange the usual How are you? How’s the wife? How was your weekend? and all that.
“So what’s up?” I ask.
“Well Steve, I’m afraid this is rather serious,” he said. “You see, I’ve gotten some complaints about you.”
“Huh,” I say, caught off guard but instantly on alert. “What sort of complaints?”
“One of the finance people came to me last week,” he said, lowering his voice in mock confidentiality, “She said she overheard you telling a story or a joke or something where you mention ‘sex and drugs and rock and roll.’”
“OK,” I said, sounding more defensive than I wanted to, “So what’s wrong with that?”
“She said it made her feel uncomfortable.”
“Uncomfortable?” I said, incredulous. “It’s a common expression. Besides I remember that. I was just telling Kaitlin a funny story. She laughed her freakin’ head off. Whoever complained needs to lighten up and quit listening to other people’s conversations.”
“I don’t think you understand,” he said in a sort of patronizing way. “Look, you and I are among a handful of executives who run a public company. Employees look up to us. Everything we say means a lot to them. And expressing those views, even in a joking way, puts pressure on those who might not feel the same way you do about it. It might make them feel uncomfortable. You need to be sensitive to that.”
“Yeah, I get that Greg,” I said, becoming impatient. “But jeez, it was just a story. It didn’t mean anything. And some people actually like to have some fun, off-the-cuff conversations to break up the day and liven things up a bit.”
“And I get that, Steve,” he said in a patronizing way, “Just do it in private.”
“Sheesh, that’s ridiculous. I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation.”
“I’m afraid that’s not all.”
“What, there’s more?”
“Another employee came to me and said she overhead you speaking loudly and somewhat belligerently to one of your marketing people,” he said. “I have to tell you that’s not cool, Steve.”
“Now that really is freakin’ ridiculous,” I said, starting to lose it a little, “That’s how I speak to people, Greg. That’s how I’ve spoken to people my entire life. I’m from New York, for God’s sake. And compared to most of the managers I’ve worked for over the years, I’m a freakin’ saint.”
“Yeah, well things have changed, Steve,” he said. “Things are changing. Fast.”
“I don’t give a crap,” I said defiantly, “I’m here to do a job. I’m here to fix our brand and beat the competition. I know I’m hard on people, but I’m not here to win a popularity contest. Besides, that’s what’s wrong with cubicles. Nobody should hear that shit.”
“You see, that’s the sort of thing I’m talking about, Steve,” he said. “The way you’re reacting. It’s a little aggressive. You really need to take it down a notch.”
That’s when I realized that I was feeling a little red-faced. I took a deep breath and started to calm down. And then it hit me: This is not perfunctory. He’s not on my side here. This is real. This is an issue. I just sat there in stunned silence.
“Look Steve,” he said, “I like you. I’m on your side. And that’s why we’re talking. I just need you to take this seriously. Because it is serious.”
“That sounds sort of ominous.”
“Well, it sort of is,” he said, opening a manila folder I hadn’t noticed and handing me a single sheet of paper. A memo to me, from him, a cc to our boss, the CEO. “This is just a warning,” he said. “No further action is required on your part. And if you can just do as I ask, it ends here.”
Upset as I was, I had to struggle to keep from bursting out laughing. The words “this is going on your permanent record” just popped into my head. After all these years, a written warning. How utterly ludicrous this was.
“Right, of course,” I said, holding it together, “And the board; what do they know about this?”
“The board doesn’t know a thing; it’s just between the three of us, at this point.”
At this point. Right. “OK, I got it,” I said. “Anything else?”
“Nope, that’s about it,” he said. “Tone it down Steve, will you?”
“Sure thing, Greg.”
I didn’t. And it didn’t end there.
That was my first and last personal bout with political correctness in the workplace. That’s when I knew that my long and illustrious career in the high-tech industry had run its course. Stick a fork in me, I was done. A few months later I was gone … and I never looked back.
Since that day, I’ve watched in horror as the PC pod people have taken over our schools, our companies, our media, our internet, and our government. And I’ve vowed to fight them with every last ounce of snarky attitude, racy humor, irreverent perspective, competitive spirit, and unbridled individuality that’s in me.
To all humans reading this: I’m afraid there aren’t many of us left. Please join the fight. We need you. Humanity needs you.
Hat tip to Jack Finney’s book, “The Body Snatchers” (perhaps better known by the movies, “Invasion of …”)