As I write, the Board of BP is negotiating some sort of “resignation” arrangement with its CEO Tony Hayward. Any reasonable person who has been following the aftermath of the oil spill can assume safely that whatever BP says is code for “he’s getting fired, but first his golden parachute is being sewn together.”
This week alone, we saw a public university president, who had been under fire from faculty, “resign to spend time” with his wife, who had battled cancer but her employer later all but said she’s in remission. The next day, Detroit’s Police Chief “resigned” because his boss, the Mayor, didn’t like the Chief’s appearance in a reality show promo or his admitted romantic relationship with a Lieutenant. The media and the public didn’t buy the “resignation” line. It was immediately and popularly believed, by simply reading between the lines, that the Mayor fired the Chief.
Google “resigned” and “spend more time with family” and you’ll find about 250,000 lines of bull. Scanning through the first 15 or so pages, I found that most who fit that category had the word “embattled” or “controversial” written before their title. Many had been caught in some impropriety. Others had clearly and publicly failed to achieve results. This is not an American phenomenon. It’s easy to find examples from around the world – in all facets of business and government.
So, we live in a world where 67 year-old men routinely “resign” to “spend more time with family” and 50 year-old men “retire.” What’s wrong with this picture? A lot. Our culture has been trained, likely by lawyers, to essentially lie about top executives’ firings.
The exception, of course, is sports. General Managers and coaches are fired in sports year-round and nobody thinks twice about it. But, in business, and public companies in particular, they “resign,” “retire,” “mutually agree to separate from the company,” or even “step down.” But rarely, if ever, are the departures categorized as firings, even when they fit the textbook definition of “fired” which is “dismissed from a job.”
Same goes for government. Who was the last high-ranking federal government official fired, even though turnover is a constant? Archibald Cox?
Of course, semantics often dictate the terms of employment agreements. So the attorneys will probably continue to have their say on this one (even though PR types get blamed when the public doesn’t buy the lines of bull, which is so often the case). And feelings and emotion also enter the fray, even though often, public company executives get multiple millions to go away.
But wouldn’t a line like this be refreshing, in the name of integrity, “The Board of Trustees fired the President on Tuesday, saying she failed to adequately address enrollment declines and rising costs.”
Actually, that was a real line – from Western Michigan University in 2006. That Board, accountable to the public, refreshingly asked the typical bull to spend more time with family.