African Journal
Japan Travel
Australia Travel
Sporadic Musings

>print this<

Sporadic Musings - Chapter 2 - 19/08/2001


"The Life span of a Consulting Promise"  or  "On the shortest management consulting career ever"  

Dear all,

as I have just recently churned out my long planned and overdue Swiss report, you might have expected the usual period of silence. For, in my new time-consuming, demanding job as a management consultant for a large, well known consultancy, I was bound to have little time for the next few months (years?) to indulge in my literary ambition. The Australia report would take some time.

Alas, how quickly things can change. Here I am, with ample time on my hands, typing away. So, before I proceed to share my travel experiences with anyone willing to read, I will detour quickly on the shortest management consulting career you will ever hear about.

Strutting into the office on my first day of work, I was energized on that mix of anticipation and worry that often grips you when you start something new. I was ready to dive into the consulting world open-eyed and without all the prejudices I had associated with "the suits" over time. During my studies at university, the prospect of working for the McKinseys and BCGs of this world seemed like the ultimate pinnacle of professional success. Then, in the real working world, I found that, for most of my colleagues, they were despised as arrogant but superficial, PowerPoint wielding arc-angels of job-annihilation; as superfluous and ridiculously overpriced insurance vehicles, only designed to take responsibility for vital decisions off incompetent corporate leaders.

So, which of the two, or what in-between, would they - WOULD I - turn out to be?

Things started out nicely - a bunch of flowers welcoming me, a large office to be shared with just one other college, a sign with my name engraved on the door, an assistant to help me with administration of all sorts. Great little cafeteria, with free drinks and fruits and serials, and a free Sushi lunch announced. I was impressed.

The office was pretty empty, but with consultants bedding down at the client site during the week, I was not surprised. The people who were there were nice and friendly. I had been told to meet a director, who'd brief me on my first assignment, and to meet my practice head the following day.

As good as at all had started, things slowed down considerably after. The director never got around to meeting me, being "too busy" delivering some PowerPoint masterpiece to spare half an hour on me. My practice head came flying into town the next day, actually finding a whopping 30 minutes between various phone conferences to talk to me. Interestingly, he hadn't much of a plan as to where to use my Mobile Internet experience, which surprised me since this was the precise thing he had hired me for. I was referred back to the director, to help him with some pitch which he didn't know whether it would have any mobile work in it at all. Other than that, there was to be another meeting two days later, unless I has happy to wait an unspecified number of hours until he was through with a few more phone conferences. As it was 9pm by that time, I figured I'd be happy to meet in two days.

In true spirit of continuity, nothing happened for the rest of the week. The director was being busy, my practice head postponed the meeting, and I was sitting on my arse in my empty office. I kept myself busy emailing half of my new company regarding mCommerce work and people who were working in the field. I found a fair number of them (though dispersed all over the bloody globe), and a few projects, though most of them had already finished, and few new ones were happening. I also heard of the closure of a group who'd done non-PowerPoint, real-world implementation work -- a group to which I had hoped to transfer in time.

I was unhappy to hear about this, since it meant that a shift was underway to move the company away from the very implementation qualities I had chosen it for. Still, I remained optimistic that, if I could link up with the competent people I had identified, there would be a lot of potential for learning and doing some cool work.

When my practice head rushed in to "talk about something unpleasant" on Friday evening, I still had no clue. When he started talking about "financial difficulties" the company was facing, and "creditors who were holding a gun to the company's head" I suddenly felt that twinge in my stomach. When he announced that the night before a staff cut had been decided, and that he would have to let me go, I was dumbfounded. He proceeded to assure me that "even several partners had been given notice", that this was nothing personal, that he was sad for me since I had been looking forward to work with them and it had been a good fit, and that he had CRIED when he had to tell some other people whom he'd also hired personally and who'd been doing great work. Handed me a paper to sign, offered "any help he could give" -- and that was the end of my consulting career.

I notice: The date on the letter informing me of my being laid off corresponds with my SECOND day of work there. This amazes me. The decision to fire me was supposedly taken on day FOUR of my work there, and I was told about it on day five. How come they already wrote my pink slip on day two??

Then the pinaccle. A few days into week two: I am still at the consulants' office because I am supposed to assist them with some work until I leave for good two months later (only then can they legally can stop paying me). In the morning, I find my computer accounts locked, access blocked. I am presented with a printout of a posting I made to a website just after they told me I'm fired. The posting contains an accurate and truthful description of what happened to me. They accuse me of committing libel and damaging our "relationship of trust" (how's that for comics?). They threaten to fire me with immediate effect (as in, not paying me even the two monthly salaries they legally owe me, and blocking access to unemployment benefits for several months!!).

It took me a full day before I had even worked through the shock enough to stop feeling nauseous, and to start feeling real anger. Then I prepared my guns. I decided that, should they act on their threat, I would take them to labor court to enforce my rights. I started looking up laws, talking to friends who had studied law, etc. What I found was that, despite all their barking, the consultants simply could not fire me for the post in the fashion they threatened. None of the legal requirements for a "libel" accusation were met, and in any case there would have to have been a warning first. I ducked in the trench, and waited, ready to fire my weapons.

Nothing happened.

I opened my mailbox every day with a shiver, expecting mail from the consultants. After two weeks, finally a letter -- containing my pay slip. No mentioning of the "affair". I relaxed, I was relieved. There would be no costly court battles, no stress. I though they had simple been generous and had decided to let things rest.

I was wrong.

Three weeks after the incident, I get a call. I am to come to the office. I ask why. "Because there is an agreement that you need to sign". What agreement? Nobody wants to tell me, nobody knows. "Just come and sign." So I go in, and the deputy office manager presents me with a balmy smile, and a paper. "The aim is that you sign this right now, and all will be settled."

I scan the text, first page just describing that I have been put on paid leave for the two months, yadda-yadda, nothing special. Then the Hammer on page two: I am supposed to sign that I would remain silent, under any circumstances and towards anyone, be that the media (newspapers, radio, TV) or the Internet, be that friends, or my mother -- about how they had screwed me. And that, should I disregard that, I would owe the consultants 50000 DM (about US$ 25000)!!!

Obviously, this goes way beyond the normal rules of confidenciality, since it does not concern company specific internal information, but something of my private domain. It is a severe restriction of my constitutional right to freedom of speech. Never mind the outrageous fine. I am flabberghasted. This is ridiculous. I am not going to sign this, no way!

So I tell him: "I am not willing to sign this." He seems surprised, as if he had not expected any resistance. "But this helps both of us. We can be sure that you will not talk about us in public, and we don't get negative coverage in the press. And you can use two months with full pay to look for a new job." I can't believe it. "You EVICTED me from the office because you didn't trust me anymore, you didn't do that to do me a FAVOUR, to HELP me find a job! And you are paying me the two months salary because you are contractually OBLIGED to do so, not because you feel sorry for my financial situation. So, what exactly are you OFFERING me here for signing this?"

Now he's getting less balmy. "You know that the directors of this company are very upset about your case! You know there were already harsher measures planned for you! This here is the easy way to get out of this." "Which harsher measures?", I ask. "Well, you know about the plan to immediately fire you without any pay!"

This is getting involuntarily comical. The first thing I learned when I put my nose in the legal texts was that: There is a 14 day period, during which any employer action in response to an offending act by an employee must be taken; read=you can only attempt to fire me for a thing like the post within two weeks after the event. After that period of time, no action can be taken anymore.

So I tell him that. Again, he seems surprised. "Well, you may think that there is no legal means for us to act on that affair now. But you're most likely wrong. The directors will surely know about the legal aspects involved, and they would not act as they do if there was no legal leverage. If you don't sign this, 'Plan B' will be the response, which means you'll face harsh measures!" I am tempted to ask him whether they are going to send me a bunch of baseball-bat-wielding thugs to show me my place, since the courts will laugh at them, but I restrain myself and simply insist that I am willing to see what "harsh measures" there might be, but I won't sign.

I even go to the lenght of telling him how their bully tactics make me feel, how I feel disregarded as a person since they first cause me a significant career-break with their unethical hiring practices, and then, instead of at least helping me with some severance money or outplacement assistance, they are just concerned about GAGGING me! I tell him that, if at all, I will only consider signing this in exchange for an appropriate severance package! I don't tell him to shove the paper up his arse, though I very much feel like it. Instead I assure him that I have neither the time nor inclination to wage a media war at his company, but he'd just have to take my word for it. I also assure him that, should they force me to go to court, I won't quite feel that way, anymore.

He seems to give up on me. He escorts me to the door, and assures me that "I will hear of the directors response tomorrow, and that "I can be sure they won't be happy about my response" and that "things will get very unpleasant for me". I should sleep about it. I agree and tell him they should do the same. "I'll hear from you tomorrow then?" "Yes, you can be sure of that!".

It was the last I ever heard of the consultants.

Over the next few days, I resume my anxiety attacks at my mailbox. Nothing. Then, weeks later, there is one more letter. It contains my second payslip, and my returned tax card. The dog has again barked, but not bitten. I am relieved. The whole nightmare has finally finished.

So, what's the outcome of all this? Despite having been taken up the arse career-wise, I at least had 8 weeks of paid holidays, and walked away battle-hardened and more resilient against corporate bullying. Still, one must realize the full extend of indecency and unprofessional behavior to this! This is not a backyard operation, this is the oldest Management Consulting Firm on the planet, with a highly regarded reputation; an organisation that is using the term "highest degree of professionalism" as its main sales argument! And then a saga like this:

STEP ONE: I am hired away from a pretty safe job and a respected position with my old company, with an chance of international projects, perhaps a transfer to the US in time, assistance with doing an MBA and great training, and cutting edge work.

STEP TWO: The day before I hand in mz resignation letter at my old firm, I CALL the very same man who fired me now, and asked him whether any job cuts may be on the cards! They had just fired people in the US, and the market for tech consulting was looking increasingly shaky, so I asked him "Is this going to be a hot seat? I will be in probation time for 6 months when I come to you -- I don't want to find myself out of a job when this continues! Are you planning any further cuts?" He SWORE that business was great, no cuts would happen, that "those people had been hired for a specific project which didn't materialize", that they "had been hiring conservatively though the boom and hence now had no reason to lay off people", and so forth. I was reassured, and quit.

STEP THREE: My old company, upon receiving note of my planned departure, made an attractive counteroffer - more money than my new company, and a more senior position. But I had committed to my new company at that point, and in accordance with my misguided sense of integrity, I stuck to my guns and rejected the offer. I had told the consultants I'd work for them, and so I would.

STEP FOUR: I start work clueless about the fact that my forced departure has already been arranged, before I can even prove my value or contibute anything. After a week in the office where nobody knows what to do with me, I am fired unceremoniously, into a job market which has collapsed since, with tech companies firing people left and right, and my old company sitting on a hiring freeze. Had they bothered to inform me of their intention to lay me off, I would have been able to cancel my resignation with my old employer and keep my old job. But no, they cluelessly let me run into the extended knife of irreversible unemployment.

STEP FIVE: When I, outraged, share my experience with a few website community members, I am accused of LIBEL and doing damage to their REPUTATION!! Despite having already put me into a financially insecure position by laying me off with two months legal notice, they threaten to fully pull the financial carpet from underneath my feet by refusing to pay even those two months pay that are supposed to keep my head above the water while I am finding a new job.

STEP SIX: After missing the legal deadlines to take any action, they suddely wake up three weeks later, and try to bully me into signing a self-gagging order with a ridiculous fine, without any effective leverage on me, just hoping I'd be stupid enough to sign on vague threats. They practically PROVOKE me to go to the press, when it is exactly that they want to avoid.

How could I know all the consulting prejudices are that well founded...   

A few days ago a journalist called me, asking me to comment on the post I made on the website. I was briefly tempted to pay them back, and tell him the whole story. Then I decline to comment. Nobody would be helped. If the consultants reputation is further damaged in the media, maybe they will get less business. So they'll simply lay off more people. And it won't be the directors who will have to go, it will be the junior and less connected collegues, whom I liked quite a bit in the short time I was there. The directors will not feel any pain. Besides, I owe it to my integrety to keep MY promises, and I said I would wage no media war on them. So I won't. Still, good to know his number, just in case.

So here I am, wondering whether my guardian angel is trying to tell me something in regard to my career choices. I had mixed responses from you out there regarding my transformation into a suit&tie consulting highflier. Some people approved and congratulated, others went as far as to question my sanity, and suspecting that I had somehow mutated into somebody completely different in the time we hadn't talked. I for myself was anxious that I might get hard and maybe cynical if the work and/or the people would turn out shallow, greed-driven, unethical. I saw people with severe chins and stony expressions pass me by in their navy suits, when I sat in a cafe late after my 2nd day of work with the consultants. I wondered if that was my future, and swore I'd get out the moment I'd feel my chin metamorph.

And yet, ultimately I had wanted to find out for myself what being part of that strategy management consulting "elite" is like in real life, rather than relying on second hand information. Now I have first hand information. I am angry, tired and disappointed. I am not sure where to go from here.

Maybe it's gonna be a small tech company, where I can have some real impact, produce more than colorful slides, and leave the suit in the wardrobe. Or maybe I'll do something completely different, such as exploring my lingering ambition to work for an interesting NGO. Who knows. But I am bruised. I am a little harder. A little more cynical. A little less trusting. And a little less the person I wanna be. This was one experience I could have done without.

Best Regards,