The Hatchet Man Cometh

Joe DiMiceli

© Copyright 2018 by Joe DiMiceli

Photo of an AA sign.

 You’ve probably read or heard a gazillion first person stories by alcoholics or their families describing the heartbreak of addiction. But have you ever seen a narrative from the employer’s (or his agent’s) point of view? I worked for the New York office of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) from 1978 to 1985. My title was Administrative Officer, but my work was closer to Human Resources Officer, hiring, firing, discipline and training and I want to relate my experiences counselling alcoholics, but first we need some background.

Our Regional Director, Claude was a control freak. My second day on the job he sat me down in his office and grilled me about what was going on. I hadn’t even found the men’s room and I stumbled to try and give him semi-coherent answers. He then tried to co-opt me as his informant (something about loyalty) and let me know that I shouldn’t take the organization chart too seriously and that I (unofficially) reported to him. I came away from the meeting feeling a little disoriented and concerned, this wasn’t my first encounter with control freaks and most of those experiences were unpleasant.

A few months into my tenure at FDIC, I was called into Claude’s office (his secretary told me not to worry, someone else was in trouble). When I entered three senior people were there and Claude motioned for me to take the remaining vacant chair. The atmosphere was tense and no one was talking or making eye contact. A minute later one of our bank examiners sheepishly came in and stood in front of Claude’s desk and Claude laid into him. A torrent of epithets, insults, slurs and invectives that were as imaginative as they were destructive and made me wonder if this poor guy had murdered his first born. I couldn’t even tell what this guy’s offence was. When Claude had finished he dismissed the object of his ire with a “get out of my sight” growl. Claude made us wait a few minutes as if we were discussing his fate, then dismissed us too. I found the guy in the lunch room and invited him into my office. We sat down, made eye contact and he burst into tears.

This is how Claude operated. If you screw-up, there will be no mercy and we were there as witnesses and to make sure the word got out.

Bank examiners are field workers; they go from their homes to a bank and then home again. They rarely, if ever, come into the office. Also, they work on teams and these teams are always changing. Supervisors know that if something goes wrong, if possible cover it up. You do not want to face Claude. If a bank examiner went to lunch, and didn’t come back, no one would say anything. Maybe the supervisor might ask the employee what happened the next day, but nobody wanted to make waves. This also applied to incompetent examiners who couldn’t be trusted to deal with the bankers and were used as “gofers”, making copies etc., and everybody got a “satisfactory” rating or higher. For problem employees, whether incompetent or substance abusers, the supervisor’s attitude was that they’ll be on someone else’s team next week so kick the can down the road, just like Congress.

Another background item is that FDIC’s relationship with the banks they supervise is adversarial. They love putting up those signs, Insured by FDIC, but they hate our reviews of their investments. A bank examiner’s main responsibility is to ensure that the bank’s portfolio is sound and protects the public from bank runs or losses on protected accounts. This is not a check-the-boxes review. There is considerable negotiation as the bank and the examiner try to balance safe and risky investments. Understandably, the bank will always want to keep high-profit (high risk) investments and the bank examiner, representing the Corporation, an insurance entity, will always want to minimize risk. The tension is exacerbated by the fact that the supervising examiner has the last word and non-compliance could put the bank out of business.

That’s the background, now here’s what happened. One day an examiner went to lunch and this time he came back--drunk! The bank pounced and made a big deal out of it putting us on the defensive, a negotiating tactic. We pulled the guy out of the bank and assigned him to the office.

A few days after this incident, Claude came into my office and handed me a letter from Washington. The gist of the letter was that the New York office had been lax in supervising its employees and listed nine bank examiners that may have substance abuse issues. Claude told me to “take care of it” and abruptly walked out. Hey, it’s my job, no problem. Well, there is a problem. I am not an alcoholic, no one in my family or circle of friends is an alcoholic and I had never received training in counselling alcoholics. In other words, I had no idea what addiction looked like. This was a recipe for disaster.

(Aside: How did Washington get these nine names that they identified (correctly, as it turned out) as alcoholics? Here’s my take: In an office, there is no such thing as a secret. It has to do with power. Information is power and we want to display this power by sharing secrets (strictly confidential, of course) with, say, our best friend. Who, having the same impulse, will share this info with their best friend and so on until everyone (everyone who counts, that is) is privy to this now non-secret secret. If you have a better explanation, let me know.)

Now I am an optimistic guy and I consider myself a “people person” and I saw this assignment as a challenge; I was going to turn these guys (and one woman) around. All they had to do was follow my solid, irrefutable and reasonable big brother advice. End of story. Well, not quite. The woman on the list was already in trouble for falsifying travel vouchers and we gave her the opportunity to resign and she took it. That was easy, one down and eight to go. So after conferring with their current supervisors on any performance or personality issues, I started calling these guys in. I was conducting these initial meetings like a job interview, an area in which I had a lot of experience and success (in new situations we usually revert to our strength). But this was not a job interview, usually a one-shot deal. As I now know, when counselling employees with substance abuse problems it is a process with several steps (think AA’s twelve step program), the first being to let the employee control the initial meeting as a confidence building exercise. My ignorance led to two years of frustration on my part and contributed to disaster for these guys and their families.

The first guy, at twenty-eight, was the baby on the list, all the others were middle-aged. He was married to a nurse and had twin daughters. I asked him about disappearing from the job and he handed a line of BS that was so implausible that I found it insulting (note my personal response to a professional situation). I didn’t challenge him on his excuse, but did ask him if he was an alcoholic and offered him medical assistance--rehab (a legal requirement). I informed him that substance abuse was covered in our health insurance and that the Corporation also had private coverage available. He denied that he had a drinking problem, period. I was unconvinced. So I went on to the next one and the next one and so on, all handing me BS excuses that varied only in the amount of their creativity. One guy, Bob, the guy who came back drunk, admitted to a drinking problem (they all avoided the word alcoholic) and took advantage of the drying out programs, three of them: the civil service health insurance; FDIC’s private insurance; and his VA coverage, all without even a modicum of improvement. He even got kicked out of AA for showing up drunk. On one occasion, I had to rush him to the hospital with the DT’s.

Because we couldn’t trust them (we definitely did not want another incident with the banks) we assigned them to the office which, because of our small size, was not easy. No problem, they cooperated by frequently disappearing. Meanwhile, I am holding counselling sessions with absolutely no progress and they are getting under my skin. Excuses, excuses and lame ones at that. Eventually, I became aware of some of the things I was doing wrong. First, I projected my personality on to them. I am a rational guy (maybe hyper-rational) and I couldn’t fathom their irrational behavior. Like these guys, I have a family and a mortgage and if the boss told me to correct my performance in some way, or else, my mind would be concentrated on bringing myself up to the level my boss expected (or start looking for another job). But these guys just ignored me as if I didn’t have any clout. Second, I didn’t understand the pull of addiction. As I tried to counsel them they really weren’t looking at me, but at an imaginary bottle of booze behind me and they knew from experience that if they just yessed me to death, I would go away and they could get at that bottle. Third, and this should have been obvious from the start, they didn’t believe me. I was the one millionth person who told them if they don’t stop drinking, something bad was going to happen, and nothing ever did.

So I changed tactics and went into tough-guy mode and told them, in more or less these words, “I am not your mommy or your daddy, I am not your wife or your sibling, I am not all your former employers, all those people who told you to stop drinking or else, and nothing happened. I am the guy charged with turning you around or showing you the door, so what is it going to be?” I might as well have been talking to the frigging wall. I was pissed and probably too soon to be fair, I gave up and stopped seeing them as a people, but rather as problems. And I am a problem solver.

I change tactics again. I coordinate with the union who also saw these guys as tit suckers and would be happy to see them go. As long as I stayed within the rules, the union wouldn’t object. I called our credit union and told them not to give these guys any loans as their employment was “tenuous” and if they asked to tell them they were overextended, which was true. And I started “laying paper on them”, begin the protracted process of firing a federal employee. This is another one of my strong suits (Hatchet Man).

We follow progressive discipline, a series of steps that give the employee the chance to improve his or her performance and that spells out in detail their deficiencies. We go from oral reprimand to written reprimand to one-day suspension to three-day suspension to five-day suspension to out the door. It took me about twenty months to fire the last one is this cohort of eight. There was an uncanny similarity to their response to this process; they didn’t react at all! They had heard it all before and I was just one more guy making idle threats; you can’t fire a federal employee, right?

Having given up, I go into Hatchet Man mode and set them up (yes, I am a little cynical). Federal workers begin at 8:00 am so lunch usually begins at 11:30. I would arrange “counselling” at 11:00 and ream them out and almost without fail they would go to lunch and not come back. Wham! A nail in their coffins. I now have to document everything. I can’t fire them for being an alcoholic, only for unsatisfactory performance and I am required to offer them medical assistance. Except for Bob, noted above, they all denied that they were alcoholics. All this is duly noted in the records.

Next we reach the suspension stage and the families (mostly wives) start to get involved. Innumerable calls from the wives begging me not to fire their husbands, they see the handwriting on the wall. They are always respectful, but unrealistic; maybe they weren’t aware (or choose to ignore) how far gone their husbands were. On a typical call the spouse would plead with me over and over not to fire their husbands, but not offering any viable reason I shouldn’t. One woman said that his job was the only thing holding him together and I replied that he really wasn’t doing his job, but, at best, just showing up. On another call, after going around in the usual interminable circles, I blurted out, “Miss, he has to do his job. We are not running a charity!” There was a long silence and the woman thanked me and hung up. Did I find the magic word? Charity? From then on, whenever we reached the going-around-in-circles portion of the conversation, I would interject, a little forcefully, the magic word, and it worked almost every time.

Meanwhile, these guys are in the office and throwing up in the men’s room or getting drunk or just sitting at desks and staring at nothing in particular, unable or unwilling to do a lick of work. One day I get a request for a promotion for one of my charges and I am livid. I confront the supervisor and ask him if he knows what’s going on, that I am in the process of separating for cause the same employee that he is recommending for a promotion? He backs down so quickly that I suspect that the supervisor had no basis for his recommendation other than that my charge gave him a sob story about needing more money for some family emergency or other noble cause.

This has been my experience in my entire career with the government that the hiring, evaluation and promotion of employees is, at best, unprofessional (sloppy). Many managers hire almost anyone who shows up and is docile, they are afraid to confront the employee on their performance and they give ratings higher than they should be (sometimes, way higher). Then, when things get out of hand, they call me and scream to fire said employee who hasn’t done any work since he completed his probationary period, three years previously. I review the employee’s file and tell the supervisor that all the performance ratings he submitted were “satisfactory” and that if he wants to fire this employee we have to start from scratch. I advise him to give the employee an honest appraisal and to coordinate with me all actions. I also tell the supervisor that, in my experience, it will take about nine months to separate this individual, at which point the supervisor blows his stack—at me.

Back to my eight charges. As the separation process continued, there was an eerie similarity to their responses to the situation. First, the survivors must have seen their fellow alcoholics being terminated, yet they made no attempt to alter their behavior in any way. Second, their response to the “endgame” was identical, and, generically, went something like this:

After going through the progressive discipline routine and confident that we had enough cause for separation, we send the employee a notice of termination letter that informs him of the charges and gives him fifteen days to respond. At the end of the fifteen days they come to my office and ask for an extension. I formally grant them a fifteen day extension. At the end of that period they ask me for another extension. “Sorry, unless you can convince me that 30 days was not enough time to gather whatever information you need, no extension and your response is due today.”  Around 5:00 pm they show up and throw their response on my desk with a dismissive, “There, satisfied?”

Their letters fell into the following pattern: First paragraph claims that I have a personal vendetta against them that everybody (unnamed) knows about. And that in spite of this persecution, they have remained diligently at their jobs and tried to ignore my irrational harassment. Second paragraph claims that they have been unacknowledged outstanding employees and that their separation will result in a diminution of the standards of the Corporation, and even perhaps bring on Armageddon. Third paragraph begs not to be fired as they have a wife and children, the number of whom have suddenly and unaccountably grown.

We then send a final determination letter that states that we have reviewed their response, that the original charges stand and that at 5:00 pm Friday they are terminated. Monday comes and no response, Tuesday, same, Wednesday, Thursday and finally it’s Friday and they panic; they can’t say tomorrow anymore. Frantic, they are in my office, “You can’t fire me, I’m an alcoholic!” “Sorry, you denied it when I offered you medical assistance.” “But I’m a federal employee.” “Makes no difference.” “Can’t you make an exception, just a couple of weeks?” “Sorry.” Then they run to the union steward who tells them that the union had been here all along and that there is nothing they can do for them at this late hour. So they leave making sure I hear their dark murmurings about suing the Corporation and me in particular.

Coda: Shortly after number eight was separated, Claude came into my office to tell me what I fine job I had done. Silently, I didn’t agree. As this almost two year ordeal progressed, I became aware of my own shortcomings. Lack of training, lack of empathy that is inconsistent with my self-image, an inability to fathom the drive and obsession of addiction and personal responses to a professional situation. Most of all, my inability to connect with these guys in any meaningful way. Yes, we were different, but the fact that I couldn’t turn even one of them around weighed on me for several years. My colleagues said, almost uniformly, that these guys were too far gone and no one could have saved them. No, I don’t buy that, I take personal responsibility. I don’t want to be just Hatchet Man, I want to be Superman.

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