The New York Times’ Frank Bruni is to restaurant critiquing and food writing what Nick Leeson is to stealing from the petty cash.
But, in fact, I should be saying “was to restaurant critiquing”. For Bruni, a titan of a food reviewer who made or broke Big Apple restaurants with a flourish of his keyboard, announced in May that he was stepping down. Instead, said a statement by executive editor Bill Keller, Bruni would become a writer-at-large for the paper’s Sunday magazine.
Every newspaper journalist dreams of becoming a something-at-large. (In journalistic terms, of course. I don’t mean it in the “News alert: Axe murderer at large” sense.)
The at-large suffix means, I am told, that no one expects you to turn up at the office, ever, except at parties. And even when they want you to write something, they politely email you several times before a gentle text message. Writers- and editors-at-large must never be pestered with deadlines. They will deliver only when they absolutely must. The organization, in fact, is fortunate just to have them around. Exactly like politicians in that period between Rajya Sabha nomination and becoming governor of a state.
The reason I bring up Bruni is that I recently went through the letters his boss Keller wrote to announce that Bruni was moving on and, this last Wednesday, to announce his replacement. Both were internal memos written to Times’ staff but appeared on blogs hardly nanoseconds after it cleared his email anti-virus program.
Keller not only wrote these missives at some length and with effort, but also with great humour and respect for the parties involved.
In short they were unlike any “XYZ is moving on” and “Please welcome XYZ” emails you’ve probably ever received in your office inbox. Because, and let’s be frank here, most such emails you get are probably written with complete and utter detachment by the CEO/business leader in question.
Or, even more heart-rendingly, he uses the same multi-purpose template that is used to announce every mundane office development:
Exhibit 1: “This is to inform everyone that the office computing network will be down with effect from 11pm to 4am due to an anti-virus upgrade. All employees are requested to leave their computers on the night before. Please join me in the conference room in 30 minutes for a briefing by IT. Thanks.”
Exhibit 2: “This is to inform everyone that Varadarajan Mudaliar from the shipping department will be leaving the firm with effect from 5.30pm next Monday due to personal issues I have with him. All employees are requested to pitch in for his going away present which could be a coffee cup. Please join me in wishing him a fond, nay, ecstatic farewell. Thanks.”
Now, we all know that hirings and firings in most companies are notoriously secretive affairs. One moment the guy in the cubicle next to you is composing the office anthem, vice-captaining the office cricket team and haggling with HR over visiting cards. The next, you have an empty, breezy cubicle being used to store cardboard boxes full of delivery challans.
And, indeed, vice versa.
Still, there is one way to get some sense of the hiring/firing undercurrents: those email memos.
Sometimes chief executives throw open a window into their state of mind when they craft them. Then, if one cleverly reads between the lines, skilfully puts two and two together and generously buys beer for the CEO’s executive assistant, insight can be found.
The following rough ready reckoner to departure memos can be useful:
Phrase: “...it gives me great pleasure to announce that...”
Interpretation: “We went to college together, I recommended his CV and we have an excellent referral fee scheme. Ka ching.”
Phrase: “...her induction will substantially strengthen our marketing team...”
Interpretation: “I am drinking buddies with the chaps in marketing and can’t bring myself to terminate the whole lot. She has no such issues.”
Phrase: “...finding a worthy replacement will truly be a challenge...”
Interpretation: “We’ve interviewed excellent replacements. But the guy worked for laughably little money. Salary discussions go on. Sigh.”
Phrase: “...bitten by the entrepreneur bug, she will be working on a start-up...”
Interpretation: “The start-up will last for six months. At which point the non-compete clause will expire, and she will join our arch nemesis.”
Phrase: “...personally, I hope to stay in touch with him as good friends...”
Interpretation: “And good friends arrange lucrative job interviews for their buddies.”
Surely you’ve had a twistful departure/arrival email or two in your office? Do drop us a line. In fact, send us the email. We’ll keep it secret. The coordinates are below, as always.
Cubiclenama takes a fortnightly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org