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“You’re Fired”: There’s Blood on My Hands

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

Although Jishu asked me “to do something about Bernie’s jagged karma,” she never suggested that I do anything about my own. What did I think, that I didn’t have any jagged karma?

As we built our network of charter schools, I never wanted to fire anyone. But of course, we did. We fired someone for the first time the very first week of school. During pre-opening summer teacher training, he had seemed like a good team guy. To celebrate the birthday of a vegan colleague, he had prepared a vegan lunch for everyone. But the first week in school, he man-handled a student, physically throwing the student into his seat.

That firing was easy. “I’m sorry,” I told him, “but you don’t seem to be ready to work safely with our kids.”

I never said the words, “You’re fired.” We “parted ways” or “needed to go in a different direction” or “this really isn’t a good fit.” Some staff we just didn’t invite back for the next school year. Not every firing created jagged karma.

I made it a point of always doing it personally. I never wanted firing someone to become easy. Eventually, we grew too big for me to be in on all “not rehiring” meetings, but the mid-year separations, I needed to be there. And then we got too big for me to be in all mid-year separations.

She wonders how it ever got this crazy She thinks about a boy she knew in school Did she get tired or did she just get lazy? She's so far gone, she feels just like a fool

Had we grown too big? Was I just too busy? Did I get tired? Or did I just get lazy? Did all these firings create jagged karma? I don’t know. But the firings that I worry most about were the ones that I found most difficult. The hardest ones were with the people I worked with most closely.

The first and by far the hardest was a friend. Our kids had been in pre-school together. He had been a member of the planning team, a founding trustee designee for our first charter school. He really rolled up his sleeves and helped. When seven copies of our original, three-hundred-page charter application needed to be shipped to the State Education Department, he spent the whole day with me at the Charter Center xeroxing and binding and then helped schlepp a very heavy box to the post office.

He was out of work and had a degree in finance. As we approached our first opening, needing a director of finance and administration, he stepped up. I was delighted. I liked him a lot, but it was never a good fit. He was keeping the school financial records in a personal checkbook. The board was getting nervous.

But I couldn’t pull the trigger. I was trying to find a way to avoid letting him go. I called people who I thought would help me find a way. I had a good Zen friend who had just been through a painful separation from Bernie, had his whole life turned upside down. Surely, I thought, he would help me find a compassionate solution.

My Zen friend told me I could avoid firing my finance guy by making sure he had a weekly to-do list and that I meet with him weekly to make sure that these tasks were done. That made sense, but as soon as I heard it, I knew I couldn’t do it. This was a senior leadership position in a very lean start-up. I needed someone in that position who could function independently, who didn’t need to be micromanaged.

I knew what I had to do but I waited until after the New Year to do it. No need to ruin his Christmas. And I tried to put the firing out of my mind, to enjoy the holidays myself. But then Dee and I saw Up in the Air, the George Clooney movie about the consultant who specializes in helping corporations downsize. What a nightmare.

When the holidays were over, I dragged two of our trustees, Bill and Shelly, with me to the dreaded meeting. I needed support. I did my best. I was trying not to be hurtful. I knew what this meant to him. But he didn’t understand. He turned to the board members. “Don’t you think that Ken is behaving precipitously?”

“We think he’s been dragging his feet on this,” Shelly responded. Bless his heart. I needed the support. I had just fired a friend. I never saw him again.

That firing was the hardest but not the last.

The next time I faced a difficult firing, it took me much longer to pull the trigger. And the longer I waited, the harder it became. This was not someone I had known before he came to work at ICS. He joined our team at the beginning of our second year as a fund-raiser. He had charm and a ton of confidence. He told me at his interview that he really thought he should have my job. He was pretty full of himself, but he convinced me that he could help us, that he had a track record raising money for a parochial school in Brooklyn and that he knew tons of people on Staten Island. He wangled a fancy title, but he never did any work. He would hang out at my desk for a while most days and, over coffee, we would talk about sports and local politics. The problem was that he never raised any money. Others in the office began to complain to me. Some board members were noticing our lack of fund-raising success. None of our plans were panning out. Years had gone by. He hadn’t yet raised his salary.

Finally, I felt I had to give him an ultimatum. “This year,” I told him, “you have to raise at least double your salary or we are going to have to move in another direction.” Not a very outrageous demand.

By late winter, it was clear that he wasn’t going to make his nut. The deadline was approaching. I kept reminding him. And then that spring, somehow, he developed a freak infection, aggravated perhaps by getting into a public swimming pool and landed in a hospital. It wasn’t even entirely clear that he would live. Under those circumstances, I couldn’t pull the plug. I gave him another year. But the results were the same. We finally had our separation meeting at the end of May. Trying to cushion the blow, I gave him the option of continuing until September.

In August, he told me what an awful person I was, making him come into the office every day during the summer, knowing that his time with us was ending. I saw him only one more time. He wanted to use data from our schools for his doctoral dissertation. I approved that. He did get his doctorate but died shortly after.

There were others. Maybe none were as hard. Was I just getting used to the blood? As we grew, we built a management team with whom I shared these most difficult decisions. Did that shared responsibility make it easier? Was I getting tired? Did I just get lazy? I look back at these hardest decisions, and I can see that they had to be made. So why this feeling that I was creating jagged karma.

There is a Joseph Campbell story that speaks to me and that I have shared often. I take it as instructions on how to do firing.

Campbell tells a samurai story. I love samurai stories, have since college when Kurosawa’s movies seemed my closest link to Zen. This samurai is employed by a lord, and when a thief steals jewelry, our hero is sent to recover the stolen items and punish the thief, i.e., kill him. That’s the samurai’s job. Nothing personal, no animosity. It is, as we would say, just business.

So our hero goes about his business, catches the thief, recovers the jewels, he draws his great samurai sword for the execution when the poor bastard spits in his face. The samurai is enraged. His arm freezes. Very meticulously he re-sheathes his sword. To kill in anger would violate the samurai code, would create, in Jishu’s words, jagged karma.

I am recognizing that in these and in all the hardest firings, in all the firings from which an odor of karmic guilt lingers there was anger. All were firings of people in whom I had placed high hopes and great expectations. They had disappointed me, let me down, left me feeling betrayed.

But I don’t see that I had the option of sheathing my sword. I don’t see that there is any way to make amends.

Bernie taught me atonement, to be at one with, to be whole. I too have jagged karma. The challenge, it seems, for each of us is to live with our jagged karma, with our imperfections, without denial, without excuses. Yes, I have done things which I wish I had done better. I wish I didn’t have anything in my life to feel bad about. And that, too, is life.

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