COPYRIGHT Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Copyright 2004 by Joseph Finder. All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.
At a few minutes before five, the company gym still hadn't gotten crowded. I grabbed an elliptical trainer and plugged in the headphones. While I warmed up, I surfed the cable channels—MSNBC, CSPAN, CNN, CNBC—and caught up on the market close. Both the NASDAQ and the Dow were down: another lousy day. Right at five I switched to the Trion channel, which normally broadcast tedious stuff like presentations, Trion ads, whatever.
The Trion logo came up, then a freeze-frame of Goddard in the Trion studio—wearing a dark blue open-necked shirt, his normally unruly fringe of white hair neatly combed. The background was black with blue dots and looked sort of like Larry King's set on CNN except for the Trion logo prominently positioned over Goddard's right shoulder. I found myself actually getting kind of nervous, but why? This wasn't live, he'd taped it yesterday, and I knew exactly what he was going to say. But I wanted him to do it well. I wanted him to make a case for the layoffs that was persuasive and powerful, because I knew that a lot of people around the company would be pissed off.
I didn't have to worry. He was not only good, he was amazing. In the whole of the five-minute speech there wasn't a phony note. He opened simply: "Hello, I'm Augustine Goddard, president and chief executive officer of Trion Systems, and today I have the unpleasant job of delivering some difficult news." He talked about the industry, about Trion's recent problems. He said, "I'm not going to mince words. I'm not going to call these layoffs 'involuntary attrition' or 'voluntary termination.' " He said, "In our business, no one likes to admit when things aren't going well, when the leadership of a company has misjudged, goofed, made mistakes. Well, I'm here to tell you that we've goofed. We've made mistakes. As the CEO of the company, I've made mistakes." He said, "I consider the loss of valuable employees, members of our family, to be a sign of grievous failure. " He said, "Layoffs are like a terrible flesh wound—they hurt the entire body." You wanted to give the guy a hug and tell him it's okay, it's not your fault, we forgive you. He said, "I want to assure you that I take full responsibility for this setback, and I will do everything in my power to put this company back on a strong footing." He said that sometimes he thought of the company as one big dogsled, but he was only the lead dog, not the guy on the sled with the whip. He said he'd been opposed to layoffs for years, as everyone knew, but, well, sometimes you have to make the hard decision, just get in the car. He pledged that his management team was going to take good care of every single person affected by the layoffs; he said that he believed the severance packages they were offering were the best in the industry—and the very least they could do to help out loyal employees. He ended by talking about how Trion was founded, how industry veterans had predicted its demise time and time again, yet it had emerged from every crisis stronger than ever. By the time he was done I had tears in my eyes and I'd forgotten all about moving my feet. I was standing there on the elliptical trainer watching the tiny screen like a zombie. I heard loud voices nearby, looked around and saw knots of people gathered, talking animatedly, looking stunned. Then I pulled off the headphones and went back to my workout as the place started filling up.
A few minutes later someone got on the machine next to mine, a woman in Lycra exercise togs, a great butt. She plugged her headphones into the monitor, fooled with it for a while, and then tapped me on the shoulder. "Do you have any volume on your set?" she asked. I recognized the voice even before I saw Alana's face. Her eyes widened. "What are you doing here?" she said, part shocked, part accusing.
"Oh, my God," I said. I was truly startled; I didn't need to fake it. "I work here."
"You do? So do I. This is so amazing."
"You didn't tell me you—well, then again, I didn't ask, did I?"
"This is incredible," I said. Now I was faking it, and maybe not enthusiastically enough. She'd caught me off guard, even though I knew this might happen, and ironically I was too rattled to sound plausibly surprised.