Downsizing Graham by Bruce Harris

Tuesday, January 15, 2013
The Chief Executive calls in his Head of Security with some bad news, but things don't go as planned in Bruce Harris's satire of management speak.

Howard Belton, Chief Executive, stood looking over the pleasantly landscaped grounds surrounding the Company HQ. While he regarded the buildings themselves as somewhat uninspired, the thoughtful arrangements of trees and shrubs, with cleverly concealed pathways, water features and tasteful flower beds between his own offices and the main administrative buildings, had always struck him as constituting a fundamentally valid and stimulating workplace environment, with the added symbolism of being able to oversee, in fact as well as function, the whole operation, as it were, whenever inspiration was required. Mrs. Phipps, his current secretary, an attractive if limited woman, habitually called it 'rather nice.'

The man he was about to interview was approaching the building at that moment, appearing and disappearing behind here a tree, there a water feature, and the CE watched him with distaste. He did try to avoid personal dislike of departmental chiefs if at all possible, feeling that colleague tension did so inhibit harmonisation of performance, but the man in question was not easy to like. His height, Belton conceded to himself even if he would never do so publicly, was something of an issue to begin with; Belton was a small, dark, aggravated looking man with fussy black spectacles and quick, slightly camp movements, while the approaching Head of Security, Graham Foster, was a tall, powerful, militaristic creature with a severe hair cut almost to his scalp and an authoritative, challenging manner of address which the CE often found prejudicial to successful collegiate discourse. Fortunately, the many courses and seminars he had been able to attend over the years had provided him with a rich and easily accessed source of helpful guidelines, 'parameters for negotiating successful bondings between the sometimes antagonistic dimensions of maximised institutional performance and staff job satisfaction quotients.'

Belton sat down, looking faintly absurd behind his big, imposing wooden desk in the unnecessarily wide open spaces of his office. He listened to Foster making his way past Mrs. Phipps, usually not an easy process, but the man seemed to have some kind of fascination for the fair sex and Belton's face darkened at the social billing and cooing going on, especially in view of the duty he had to perform.

Foster eventually made his way in and instant antipathy was established with his casual, over-familiar nod at the Chief Executive and the way he deliberately refused to sit in the armchair carefully arranged in front of and lower than Belton's desk, going instead to the side of the room for a chair which would put him level if not a little higher.

'I, too, have been on management courses, Mr Belton,' Foster said as he sat down, with a quick, forced smile.

'Superficial familiarities with basic management technique can lead to challenging behaviours,' Belton thought, finding himself uncharacteristically at a disadvantage, even more so when confronted with the physical reality of the man, which he realised, in the context of his present executive duties, had the potential to be problematic. 'The collegial atmosphere can sometimes be set in train by an approach of judicious conciliation.' Of course. He smiled widely across the desk.

'Graham, I do appreciate your coming, especially at this ungodly hour. Up with the lark, I suppose, as good a time as any for brisk business.'

'It's half past nine; it's hardly the crack of dawn.'

'No, quite. Merely trying to approach difficult subject matter in a vaguely civilised way.' He sighed philosophically and gazed out of the window. 'Employer and employee interaction can be optimised in both process and outcome by due regard to prevailing social conventions. This will not always be easy.' How very true. He sighed again.

'These really are the times that try men's souls, Graham. For all employers, up to and including those of us supposedly in more secure and grounded financial situations, the present economic circumstances are so challenging that the shrinking availability of options forces upon us nettles which have to be grasped, bullets which have to be bitten.'

'What the hell,' said Foster, 'are you talking about?'

Belton leaned across his desk; man-to-man needed, no shilly-shally.

'Budgetary constraints have created compulsory redundancy inevitability,' he said. 'Your present and ongoing contract must be terminal as a consequence.'

'You mean you're sacking me?'

'Oh, dear.' Belton sighed. 'That is such a derogatory and personalised interpretation,' he said. 'Of course, we will make every effort to ensure your access to future potentially executive employment opportunities, going forward, and meet the Company's remaining contractual commitments.'

Foster's continuing silence was unnerving; the pause lengthened awkwardly.

'No,' Foster said, almost inaudibly, then repeated the word with more volume. 'No.' His notion of how to handle meetings with executive personnel owed a great deal to 'Security Imperatives: Remaining in Control,' the literature which had accompanied his initial training as a Unit Security Superintendent. 'If your preferred outcome is clearly and irrevocably determined, do not negotiate about it.'

'That, Mr Belton, will not happen.'

Belton was stung and a little intimidated; he had to rise, turn away from that determined set jaw and those cold eyes to look out of the window at the nice grounds. 'The workplace environment should be such as to provide morale refurbishing resources when this becomes necessary.' Not only that, but this place was his show, his theatre of managerial virtuosity. Foster could do, in short, what he was damn well told.

'We are,' Belton said, beginning his oration while taking strength from the nice grounds, 'at a crossroads. Our identities, our issues and priorities, have moved on, as they inevitably must in a fluid and adaptable contemporary institution. In a congested city centre location, such as we had before moving to this new, fresh Business Park, security had to be maximised; there are so many potential areas of menace - from determined, sophisticated robbers of equipment and records to drunks wandering in off the streets - that a tight web of security needs to be wound round and over the whole operation.'

He glanced round at Foster to see if his points were achieving their objectives, and was astonished to see the man looking impatiently at his watch.

'But, Mr Foster,' Belton said, sitting down and leaning across the desk with his eyes blazing, 'now that we have achieved this Business Park haven, where nothing so much as ventures down the central drive without five cameras watching it from strategic positions, the security operation can be said to have been effectively and efficiently computerised and no longer needs the, it has to be said, profligate number of generously remunerated personnel in the immense institution within an institution of which you are the leading and most expensively remunerated part. In short, a few low-key, semi-skilled operatives will suffice, Mr Foster.'

At the end, Belton slightly regretted his sarcastic emphasis on the 'Mr,' which he felt detracted from a generally very logical, succinct and correctly executive summary of the position. He had revealed his personal feelings about Foster, but his regrets were superficial; too many subjections to those impassive eyes and the man's embarrassing height and power demanded some kind of payback, in the last analysis.

Foster, however, seemed as unmoved as ever. Peering slightly down, his mouth its usual sardonic twist, he simply stared back into Belton's eyes and said nothing. Belton drew once again on his considerable resources - how gratefully, now, he could inwardly applaud his initiative in sanctioning the personal expense of that self-assertion course - and determined the interview should work towards imminent conclusion. Valuable, hands on human resources experience, no doubt, but bigger questions beckoned, bigger fish needed frying.

'So that, regrettably, is the present situation. We have one of those all too frequent conflict resolution dilemmas where institutional needs must be allowed to supersede individual needs in the service of overall performance. I could have handed it over to our Head of Personnel, Mr Jackson, but I'm aware that you and Mr Jackson have experienced certain professional frictions -'

A pronounced and aggressive snort from Foster momentarily stopped Belton in his tracks, but he felt an advantage gained now and resolved to head for the home stretch.

'...consequently, I have opted for taking personal responsibility for seeing and explaining to a man of your seniority -'

Foster, in spite of himself, was moved to a reaction.

'You don't seriously mean to tell me that you think I should consider myself lucky to have you telling me personally?'

Belton sighed yet again. Depersonalise, he said urgently to himself; depersonalise and defuse.

'All redundancy, pension and contractual commitments will be met, of course; the Company is prepared to be generous in recognition of your valuable service -'

'I just told you.' Foster's voice had returned to its former flat finality. 'You little creep. I just told you. This is not going to happen.'

For several moments, Belton found himself incapable of speech, his mouth opening and closing as it registered that one of his staff had called him a 'little creep' in his own office. He peered over the top of the computer on the desk between the two men.

Foster watched the other man's mouth open without sound emerging for the third time, then he swivelled the computer round to face himself and tapped on the keyboard for no more than twenty seconds. He swivelled the computer back round to face Belton, whose eyes widened almost far enough to disappear into his forehead.

'This is my private, personal bank account,' he managed to say at last. 'How on earth -'

'You see,' Foster said, almost as if the other man hadn't spoken, 'it's always you so-called executives in your concrete and glass palaces who imagine that security is just about stopping people from breaking into the palaces and pinching things from them. Yes, it is, some of it, but you will recall that my job description makes me primarily answerable to the shareholders, meaning an unceasing vigilance in the matter of employees' financial behaviours. You all know that, and you all pretend it doesn't apply to you.'

Belton continued to watch dumbly as the pictures moved from overall statement to individual items.

'Payments, sixteen, if my memory serves me well, to various offshore bank accounts, in the last two years. The money is transferred out of accounts connected with this company - usually at one or two removes, it's true, our subsidiaries, or recently taken over by us, or even recently sold by us in a couple of cases.'

'Legitimate expenses,' Belton gasped. 'I can justify each and every one.'

Foster looked at him pityingly. 'Possibly, Belton, though I very much doubt it in most cases.

However, because you are reasonably discreet and not abusively greedy, the major shareholders are blind eye-ing at the moment and unwilling to undertake the legal expenses which would be involved in bringing the thing to a full prosecution. But I have no doubts, and neither should you, of what interpretation would be put on my dismissal. And, of course, there are other matters.'

Foster swung the computer back to him and tapped again. He returned the computer. Belton watched and began to go a surprisingly deep and uniform red for a man of his age.

'The executive staff's Christmas Bonanza 2006. The office of one Kate Freeman, PR department. She is the one on the desk. You are the one sitting in the chair. About, if my memory serves me right, to join her on the desk.'

The screen changed to a smaller room, a comfortable living room with subdued lighting and easy chairs. Belton stood in front of one of the chairs; the person sitting in the chair was not visible.

'That's the little ante-room off my main office. You have a camera in there?'

'Of course. Discreetly hidden. What if some blackmailing gunman were to break in there and hold you to ransom, Mr Belton? We have to know what's going on. Quite a lot is going on, as I recall, in that little vignette. Beth Hudson, temp from the secretarial agency. She wants to get on. You told her, I would imagine, that you'd do what you could. For services rendered.'

The screen changed again, this time to a small, steamy changing room, with two naked figures discernible even in the mist.

'Executive staff's Summer Barbecue 2007. Personal executive changing room near the pool house. You and Lyn Watkins, Business Studies student, being a waitress for the day. Lyn, who wants to get on. I dare say you said you'd see what you could do.'

Belton stood up and went to look out on his empire again. But somehow, it seemed tarnished.

'Executive staff's Christmas Banquet 2007 -' Foster began.

'Alright, alright,' Belton snapped, without looking round and exposing his crimson face again. 'Remember,' he remembered, 'there are circumstances and situations in everyday management which will test the sang-froid of even the most experienced and adroit senior executive...'

'I'm afraid my dismissal would release this material from my safe and access-proof custody into the much looser public domain. Possibly including YouTube. Possibly accidentally finding their way to the private PC of Mrs. Belton -'

'Helen!' Belton's knuckles whitened as he clung to the arm of his executive master Easy Chair.

The thought of what Helen would say and do when presented with such material was more than enough for his remaining sang-froid to cope with; he almost collapsed onto the floor beside the chair. But, in the nick of time, as it always did, words and their accompanying spirit allowed him to retrieve some strength, some innovation. 'Adaptability. Flexibility. Modern managerial existence is fluid, changeable. The skilled executive knows how to detect wind direction and inform his course accordingly.'

He turned back from the window and smiled widely.

'Graham, my dear fellow!' He moved to the desk and peered briefly at Foster's folder. 'How is the lovely - er - Adrienne?'

'Divorced. Over two years ago. Custody issues ongoing.'

'Of course.' Belton frowned deep and hard. 'How disgracefully laggardly these personnel people are in updating personal details.' He sat down again. 'You know, Graham, for all the great achievements of technology, the communications marvels, the internet, video conferencing, webcams, there is still nothing quite like good old-fashioned face to face collegial interaction. The very best, the ultimate, for clearing up misunderstandings, breaking up the mists swirling around inter-departmental confusions and showing us the way ahead, going forward. The Board and I have clearly not fully understood the very wide-ranging and ultimately, of course, invaluable, spread of Security's responsibilities; now we've been able to just chat, Graham, just sit here and chat, it becomes clear that downsizing in your area is fundamentally inadvisable in the present climate. I will have to report my decision to the Board in this respect, with perhaps a note to the effect that surveillance continues to be Board-wide?'

'Oh, yes,' said Foster, climbing to his feet. 'A few morsels on each and every one. A fascinating diversity of tastes, activities and interests, I do assure you.'

'Good. Splendid,' said Belton. He looked up and caught Foster's eye; something in his expression made Foster pause, just before he turned for the door.

'How wonderful to know we are in such vigilant and capable hands,' Belton said. 'And that techniques have advanced to such sophistication and effectiveness. Techniques, of course, which are in the public domain and widely available, Graham, I assume?'

'Yes.' Foster saw exactly what had arrested him in that expression.

'I do hope that you have an interesting time playing the field to find a suitable successor to the lovely and lost Adrienne. I shall bear your future in mind at all times, Graham.'

The two ultimate management maxims ran through Belton's mind as the door closed. 'Two can play at that game,' was the first. The second, the ultimate ultimate, followed immediately.

'It's never over until the fat lady sings.'

1 comment:

  1. i thoroughly enjoyed this, very funny, clever and sadly with more than a hint of truth about it.
    the vocabulary, in particular, strikes the right chord and also the over reliance on ever changing managerial techniques and speak.

    michael mccarthy