"We're letting you go. Today will be your last day." It doesn't get more transparent than that.
My supervisor broke the news after asking, "Can we chat for a moment?" and escorting me into a conference room. I was clueless as to how stereotypically ominous that scenario was. I had close to zero work experience, and I had started interning with the company only six months prior. In fact, I was certain that she was going to promote me to the full-time Junior Copywriter position, thus making me a real New York City ad woman. But that didn't happen. Instead, my ambition was rewarded with my getting fired.
I remember blinking away tears while appreciating the honesty. After all, millennials like myself crave transparency in the workplace. Give it to us straight. Tell us what's going on. Be honest with us. That's exactly what my supervisor did. In that stark conference room, I was told that I wasn't good enough. It hurt, but it was honest so I had no problem accepting it. Little did I know, there was more honesty to be divulged.
My supervisor struggled as she explained that I was getting fired even though she approved me for the full-time position. As her eyes welled up, she explained that Josh, the co-founder of the company, felt that I was a slow learner and not the right fit. His decision simply trumped hers.
I liked Josh. When I interviewed with him, we talked about Korean Airlines and how terrible its advertising was. Nothing but whitewashed flight attendants with smiles plastered across their faces. Their contrived teal blue accents were more synonymous with Tiffany jewelry boxes than Asian airplanes. As we laughed about it, I felt like he would be more than a boss — he would be a creative mentor who I could look up to.
Being part of his 50-person advertising agency felt like some sort of honor. He was an advertising hot shot who had more than 25 years of experience under his belt. He knew how to think big. He knew what he was talking about. He knew talent when he saw it. And here he was, taking a chance on a girl with minimal writing experience and a portfolio full of nothing. He gave me my lucky break. I felt forever in his debt.
That was six months ago. On the day I was fired, he didn't say one word to me. No goodbye. No explanation. No handshake. The only thing I heard him say was from the other side of the office. He said it to my supervisor when she confirmed that the deed was done; she fired me. He responded with confidence. His words traveled from his desk, across the office floor, to my cubicle as if he wanted me to hear it.
"Good job," he told her.
If there was such a thing as too much transparency, that would be it. His response was honest to the point of insult, and when I heard it, I quietly began to pack my things. I left without so much as a goodbye to my friends in the office. I was too ashamed to even look at them. Then as I walked out the door, what started as acceptance and teary eyes turned into devastation and ugly crying. I felt myself unravel.
Was I really that bad at my job? How could I not know how terrible I was? What else did I suck at? Why did he say that I'm a slow learner? F*ck, why couldn't I just learn faster? How am I going to tell my parents that I got fired? What am I going to do for money? Do I belong in this industry? Do I even deserve to be a writer? Why is this happening?
That year, about 15.4 percent of employed Americans were laid off or discharged according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's 20.5 million people. So, on the worst day of my career, I was in good company at the very least. All of us fell neatly into their "Layoffs and Discharges" category. It's an interesting naming convention. Specifically, "discharges." First of all, gross. Secondly, can't they just call it what it is? People who got fired. Discharge still sounds unpleasant — both in the bodily and professional sense — so let's just say what it really means.
I thought that was the saving grace of this whole situation. The transparency of it all. Josh's brutal honesty. But a few months later, I found out that I didn't even have that. I went to a former co-worker's birthday party where I hung out with my old colleagues. It was a good excuse for me to say a proper farewell. There, my ex-supervisor was honest with me. She explained the real reason why I got fired.
"Josh thought we had too many female writers," she said. "I'm so sorry."
There were three writers in the agency. One male writer who was hired a few months after me and two female writers (me and my supervisor). Among us, we evenly divided the work, which included brands that appealed to both men and women. Apparently, Josh took notice of his female-skewed copywriting department, and it didn't sit well with him. Having more than one female writer was one too many.
I never experienced sexism in the workplace, so it came as a shock. So much so that I denied its existence. There was no way this was true. Josh was an open-minded, creative type, and half of his staff was female. He was so progressive. New York City was so liberal. The world was so accepting. My generation didn't have to worry about small-minded discriminations of the past. But there I had it: the honest reason why I was let go. The transparency that I so desperately wanted. The horrible truth that I could barely fathom.
One female designer was told not to speak and to let her male counterpart do the talking.
My former co-workers were not as surprised. One woman told me that when she moved on from the company, Josh told her how difficult it would be for a woman like her to find a job. Another said that he bragged about hiring women of color as if they were trophies. One female designer was told not to speak and to let her male counterpart do the talking. I think one woman described it best when she said that Josh was like a bird collector. He wanted to have an assortment of women at his company, all of them doing as told while silently on display.
In a USA Today piece on workplace discrimination, Jillian Berman wrote, "Women face a variety of unconscious stereotypes in the workplace that hold them back." One of those unconscious stereotypes being that women can't do "men's work." While Josh didn't openly discriminate, his actions were clearly motivated by some unspoken belief that undervalued a woman's ability to perform. I suppose he considered copywriting to be "men's work" too.
As I consulted my former colleagues, I felt resentment building while the truth settled in. There was nothing I could do. I lacked the confidence to confront Josh. I had no tangible proof of discrimination. I didn't have the funds for some my-word-against-his lawsuit. My only move was to learn from the situation and to commiserate with my female colleagues, who held me together with their empathy and resilience.
Perhaps the only silver lining was what coincidentally occurred after I was fired. The day after I unraveled outside of the company doors, I had an interview. I happened to schedule it in case I didn't get the full-time position at Josh's company.
She was an executive creative director at a larger advertising agency. She exuded confidence through red hair and an understated outfit comprised of a flowing blouse and khakis. I, on the other hand, was overdressed. An uncomfortable pencil skirt and blazer combo to make up for the professional experience that I so clearly lacked. But I needed to fake it. I needed to make her believe in me.
"So why did you leave your last job?" she eventually asked.
I told her something about needing to learn more and exploring new opportunities. A blend of truth and fiction. As I fumbled with my words, she silently nodded along while squinting her eyes and furrowing her brow. It was the same look of understanding that my female colleagues would later give as we exchanged stories about Josh. Somehow, this female leader knew that there was more to my haphazard explanation. As if she knew what the aftermath of rejection — and perhaps even sexism — looked like.
"How about this," she propositioned. "You start work next Monday."
And just like that, I was deemed worthy again. I was given a seat at the table by a fellow female. I was now a real New York City ad woman. I let out a sigh of relief as I shook her hand and accepted the offer. As I got ready to leave, she got my attention before I walked out the door.
"And don't worry about that guy," she told me.
"Who?" I asked.
"The guy who ran your last agency," she smirked. "I'll write him a love letter for giving you up."
It was disarming, and I thanked her for it. She saw right through me. And her words had something far more valuable than transparency — they had compassion. I don't know what I said for the jig to be up, but that day, my female boss seemed to know exactly what I went through. Even before I knew myself. I still wonder what I said for her to be so sure, but perhaps some messages don't need to be transparent for them to be clear.
*Some names and identifying information have been changed to protect the identities of these individuals.