“You’re firing me for this?” as a look of shock and repulsion oozed all over my face.
“Yes. You put The Gap and yourself at risk,” he said with an amazing level of indifference.
“This makes no sense. Just last week you told me everything was just fine, didn’t you?”
Silence. Nothing. A pin could have dropped and blown out my eardrums.
All three of us sat there, myself, my friend and fellow manager Rod, and the once trusted now-turned-devious District Manager, Jeff, who had me in the squares. Rod just sat there shaking my head, called into this meeting as a token witness in case I went crazy or something I suppose. It was all kinds of bizarre, I guess. I think both the DM and I knew the technical reason for my firing was merely an easy way out to get rid of the most effective and by far the most disliked manager at The Gap of The Hawthorne Mall in Vernon Hills, Illinois. It’s not an easy thing for me to write about, but sometimes this is how we learn, right? Through the disappointments and tough times in life.
We had a team of about a hundred employees and were one of the largest Gaps in the Chicagoland area. Our management team consisted of about seven in all. Rod was now acting manager, due to the fact an incredibly popular GM had just left the company. Rod was a great guy, and my biggest advocate, yet still told me to cool my jets every now and then. Rod, the previous manager, and most of the members of the management team had an easy-going nature and made things work. I was out for near perfection, and demanded such from our team. If the store wasn’t looking as close to perfect as possible, I would individually call employees out in front of their peers and tell them to get to work and fix what they had done. As an almost four hundred pound guy who wouldn’t back down to anyone, I wasn’t creating a safe place for anyone, including myself.
About a month earlier a young man came into the store angry about a pair of jeans with holes in them. He said he washed them a few times and all of sudden these holes were showing up in his jeans. An employee was refusing to return them, and I got involved. I came up next to them and took a look and could instantly see the burn marks all around the smalls holes. I’d overheard the man say he worked in a lab right before I got there.
I began my conversation with him by saying, “Sir, I’m sorry but you have burn marks all around these holes. Isn’t it true a chemical possibly burned the jeans? It seems like you have damaged these and it’s not from being washed.”
I’m not sure how it happened, but he swung the jeans at my face. Somehow, even as slow as I am, I ducked, and he missed, and as he did, I was able to quickly grab the jeans away from him.
“Get out of my store!” I said looking daringly in the young man’s eyes.
I turned carrying his jeans and walked to the front of the store and extended them back to him as he walked by me. He took the jeans, gave me a pretty angry look and walked away. He yelled “You haven’t heard the last of this!”
A week later I was written up for being rude to this customer. There was no verbal warning. There wasn’t much of anything I was given about the specific incident with this customer, but my bosses were very direct with me and told me they didn’t feel I was a good fit for the company. I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t want me there. I was effective, right? I worked as hard as I could, right? I showed up early and stayed late. What was wrong with me? What had I done to deserve this?
The reality of my firing had nothing to do with what the document stated but with my aggressive style with the employees. That horrible, gut wrenching paper said I had been fired for violated The Gap’s Loss Prevention Policies. Anytime someone is fired and loss prevention is attached to it, you know it can’t be good. This time, though, it wasn’t what you might think.
“Thad! We need you up front now! We’re being robbed!” Mary exclaimed as she came running to find me in back of the sales floor.
I lifted my head from behind the table of sweaters I was organizing and took off to find out what was happening. One of the employees pointed to a man running up a flight of stairs heading towards the food court. He looked small and fast, but carried a massive bag that seemed to slow him down a little. I yelled across the mall as I came bursting out of the store and towards the escalator. If I could run up the escalator I might be able to cut him off before he could get to the closest exit and get back our goods.
He saw me get to the top of the escalator and now all of my almost four hundred pounds was running as fast as my saddle bucks could carry me. He knew I had him and would get there first. Suddenly, he dropped the huge bag, and turned around, heading off away from the exit. I scooped up the bag and headed victoriously back to The Gap.
Smug. I had a giant smile of smugness all over my now champion-shoplifting-stopper self as I strutted back into the store. We all got together on the salesfloor and counted the $750 worth of fashion pants I had rescued from the vile clutches of this notorious thief. I was thrilled with the story, and my decisive actions.
Fired. I was fired in April of 2001 from The Gap for chasing a shoplifter and putting myself and others in potential danger. To the employees, this was the chance to be free from a big jerk. To my friends, this sucked. To the other managers this meant maybe more work, but less complaints from the employees. To me, this was unfair and not my fault. Or so I thought.
I remember to this day walking away feeling a deep dread and hopelessness. It had been one of the worst years of my life already, dealing with agonizing marital problems and barely being able to spend time with my children. This was my chance to establish a career for myself, and the $46,000 a year I was being paid gave me some legitimacy for the first time I could remember. I was now headed back to the unemployment line and had to tell my family I had been an idiot and had been fired. How do you explain something like this?
I wasn’t fired for chasing down a shoplifter. The paperwork said so, but it had been over a week since the incident and my DM had said previously it was okay, but don’t do it again. What I didn’t know at the time was three days earlier another employee complaint came forward about me, and this time was just one time too many. The threat of losing employees and morale had finally come to a head, and something had to be done. The team was already deeply upset over losing their GM, and now having me around only made matters that much worse. They could have said whatever they wanted to in their paperwork. It didn’t matter. I knew why I had been fired.
When Jesus went to the cross he did it for everyone. Not just some of us, not the most productive or the ones who work the hardest. He didn’t just do it for the religious, and he certainly didn’t do it for the folks who seem to have their lives all wrapped up in some perfect little bow. Jesus provided a path of salvation for everyone, and when he was on this earth he surrounded himself with a pretty rough crowd, to say the least. He showed deep love, commitment and kindness to everyone, no matter what their situation might be. I had lacked kindness, and wasn’t interested in discovering the stories of the people I worked with. I didn’t love the people, I loved what I thought the job gave me. Now, the job was gone, and the people, too.
My DM had taken the opportunity to get me on a technicality, which was the right thing to do for the team of employees still working there. If I stayed much longer, they wouldn’t want to. It’s easy to admit now, but it was tough to hear back then. Actually, it was just what I needed. It taught me more than I could have ever imagined.
My work had been about the product and the results, never the people I was working with. I was harsh and judgmental, and being fired taught me you can’t be a light in a dark world if folks can’t stand being around you. I know my team felt judged by me. Maybe I didn’t say it indirectly, but my actions proved it. Being humbled and getting fired helped me to see it was the people I needed the most, and learning this was the greatest lesson in business I’ve thing to figure out. I’m glad I did. Maybe it was a little too late at The Gap, but it’s never too late to learn in life.
I’m grateful for the shoplifter and I’m grateful for The Gap for valuing their people enough to do the right thing. It sounds tough maybe, but I totally get it. And the lessons I’ve learned from that experience has made it all totally worth it. It isn’t easy at all to lose a job, but sometimes it can be worth it, especially when it changes your perspective on the people we are called to love and care for.