Workplace woes

A number of the inter-connected short stories in How to get Fired depict characters with all their complications and complexities as they fit – or, mostly, don’t fit – into workplaces requiring compromises they could do without.

The author, Evana Belich, “worked as a trade union official, a mediator and an employment relations adviser. She has degrees in law, dispute resolution and a master’s in creative writing…” This helps explain the depth of her understanding of workplace issues – and her skill in crafting each story. I read an article in today’s paper about wage theft and was reminded of ‘Peach Season’ with its heat-stressed and dehydrated packing-shed workers who pass a bucket along the line so they can throw up without stopping work.

Always, in these stories, there is tension between boss and employee. I detected a fear of being mocked, undermined, humiliated, and even fired, on both sides, disguised by arrogance, bullying, subservience, resentment and defiance.

One story, ‘The Consolidation Phase’, had such resonance I felt as if I were experiencing the tension of a PD (Professional Development) session all over again. One of those excruciating sessions where everyone is so quiet you know we’re all figuring out how we’re meant to respond and wondering why it all seems so alien to how we see our role in the job. There’s a miasma of collective embarrassment and awkwardness and a fear of seeming ignorant (what do all those terms mean?).

The story begins:

National Outputs Manager Steve Stirling stops for a beat. ‘Acuity, attention and resolve.’ His gaze arcs, chin-led. ‘What do we mean by acuity, attention and resolve? What do we mean by the Consolidation Phase?’

In the audience, Seamus visualises himself ‘like the mountaineer with broken legs who dragged himself back to base camp, scrabbling from one rock to the other. Small achievable goals, rock by rock.’

At the front of the room Steve Stirling slashes an electronic pointer at three orange triangles on his PowerPoint slide. ‘Acuity, attention and resolve,’ he says. ‘Can I throw this one out to the group? Let’s hear some ideas.’

The puzzled audience is unresponsive as they figure out what’s going on – another restructuring? Zac suggests to his co-workers, then, when they are in groups (and, of course, no-one wants to be the one to report back), he mocks the language of the presenter: ‘Going forward…I’m envisioning some of these learnings cascading into high-performance work streams.’ Seamus thinks: ‘We were never meant to be this fully dominated…We were never meant to have our wills so broken, to have other people make up our words, make up our thoughts for us.’ Reading this, I realised this weirdness wasn’t just in my work place – it was happening (is still happening) everywhere. And I was in teaching, for heaven’s sake, where a major goal was to ‘remove barriers to learning‘.

I recommend this book, and not just because you are sure to recognise yourself or others you are sure you know somehow, but because of the skilful writing, humour, irony and compassion. And if, like me, you are retired, you will be even more grateful for having survived the working world more or less intact (it can only be more or less when you find how easily you relive the stress as you read, wanting to laugh but fearing you might have a heart-attack). And it’s not all about workplaces. ‘Christmas with Chess’ has true and humorous family relationships which resonated with me too. The titular story comes last, and does what it says on the lid.

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