Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hope, Change and the Chicago Way

It is now five weeks after leaving what I thought would be a career capstone job at FDA. Last November, a fairly new public affairs chief at the agency whom I had known from both journalism and health advocacy hired me along with five other experienced hands to bulk up the media relations staff. The job was stressful but good, requiring me to absorb a lot of new knowledge and deal with several crises a day. I got on well the boss, and was told that whatever I needed to understand, I would pick up within the one-year probationary period and that no one fails that test unless they violate the law.

However, he was moved aside in favor of a 30-year-old political operative whose previous job was press secretary to the governor of Kansas, now the HHS secretary. The new boss had no big-league experience, no managerial experience and no warmth. Remote was not only her typical work venue but her style of management, communicating with us line troops rarely and then mostly by emails that second-guessed everything.

So as I recognized things were going to be difficult, I started asking around and received assurances from my closest colleagues and mentors that I was doing fine and not to worry. Then one day I was called to my boss’s office and given two pieces of paper. A notice of termination and a resignation. Choose, I was told, and choose right then. To add insult to the injury, she cited fabricated, unspecified instances of my incompetence after 40 years in the business. She did not need to do that because the government has the right to terminate anyone on probation for no reason.

I was not alone. Four of us over 50 years of age were ousted, called incompetent and apparently replaced with cheaper, younger acolytes. They and the excellent civil servants who remain – and they are the finest coworkers I have ever had – have now gotten the message. None of the four of us who were in disfavor made waves or did anything but approach the job professionally. But we were not hired by her, so we became expendable.

In the meantime, there are four highly competent people who sought to bring their talents to a beleaguered “good guy” agency and who – instead of being offered other suitable positions – were suddenly, and without precedent, asked to give up well paying, responsible jobs at the precise moment in their lives when they are unlikely to get another one.

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