‘The only crime that I committed’

June 13, 2012

Editor’s note: This week, Reuters Opinion is publishing five excerpts – one each day – from D.W. Gibson’s new book, Not Working, an oral history of the recession. Gibson spent months traveling across America talking to people who had been laid off.

Today’s story is Christine Zika’s. Christine is a veteran and small-business owner mostly from St. Louis and the surrounding towns. She is 40 and married to an electrical engineer.

Years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I had an expectation of the life I was going to lead. And that life included being in public relations and communications. Instead, I went into the Army National Guard. After two years in college, I went there, and I served 13 years total, having served three deployments at different times. I served in Desert Storm. I also served during Operation Joint Endeavor, which was the Bosnian conflict, and then I also went to Kosovo.

When I came home from Desert Storm, I found myself with only two years of college. Even then, without a degree they didn’t want to hire you in public relations and corporate communications, which was my dream. So the next best thing was to go into nonprofit work. They want those skills; they want everything that you have. And so I went into nonprofits because they accepted me fully, and I believed in a lot of the things that I was doing. I worked for several local nonprofits in membership services. I worked public relations and communications, so newsletters and all sorts of things.

In 2002, I got hired by a local fraternity that helps children. They’re not a 501(c)(3), so they’re not really accountable to the donors or whatnot. And it is a social, fraternal organization, so they can pretty much do what they want do to. Is it their responsibility to keep me employed? No…I saw my job dissipating for a long period of time.

I was sent away on deployment with the National Guard, and when I came back, I realized that I needed to make more money, and at the time, they said, “No, no, no. We love you very much and we want you to stay. We’re going to create this position for you.” And so they created the position of Office Manager. I oversaw the entire operation, building operations as well as the administrative side.

In the beginning of 2008, the company turned around and said, “We can’t give out raises.” And my entire staff went into an absolute tizzy. And I said, “Stop, stop.” Everybody’s starting to face harder times. We had seen a drop in membership from over 5,000 down to 2,700 at the time.

We went about halfway in the year and there were rumors. On a Friday in August, I ended up – all of a sudden, we had board of directors there – and I remember just kind of thinking to myself, “This is a bad day.” I went in, I finished the major project for the month that I had to do, and my administrator came out of the board of directors room, looked at me, and you could just see he was totally dejected, and I knew he wasn’t the one getting fired. And he walked past my desk, and he said, “They want to see you.”

And so…I walked in. The recorder and the president of the board were there, and you have this chair sitting in front. This chair had never been there before, for the entire time that I’d been at the organization. They said, “We’re very happy that you’re here. However, we can’t do this anymore, and we just can’t afford you, so we are eliminating your position. We just don’t have the revenues.” And so the position that they had created for me several years before was now being eliminated. I walked out of there, and I think I was the only person in my world that wasn’t surprised. You can’t work for an organization and see a decline in membership and not think to yourself, “Something’s gotta change.” And I was the change.

I just took it. What are you going to do? The decision had been made. You know, you can think about all those things that you want to say when somebody’s telling you that you’re no longer working there, but there are two things that I’ve learned over the years. Number one, don’t burn bridges. You’re talking about people who know people. So why are you going to leave like that? You don’t burn bridges, and you just don’t take out your anger anymore. Burning bridges and being angry are two different things. You just kind of have to learn to accept some things in this life. There may be things that you don’t like necessarily, but you just have to accept them. Now I’m sure my husband would say, “She said that?” In the outside world, that’s what you do. What you do on the inside world is something else.

I’d worked there for seven years. My reputation is what I have. I was a military police person in the Army National Guard. I had a secret clearance. I don’t lie, steal or cheat. And they watched over me like a hawk while I cleaned seven years’ worth of stuff out of a desk. They would not let me touch the computer. They were so afraid that I was going to hurt or harm or delete or do anything to that computer.

They stood over me while I was cleaning out my desk like I had committed a crime. And the only crime that I committed was the fact that I was in a position that they needed to eliminate.


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DW, thank you for letting me tell my story.

For those of you struggling with trying to find the next phase, don’t despair. Sometimes our best moments come to us in our darkest days. Without their need to eliminate my position I never would have found a new path now known as CZ Concierge Services (www.czconcierge.com).

To the Veterans reading this – if your life is directing you to start a business get in contact with the Veterans Business Resource Center (www.vetbiz.com) and let them help guide you.

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Remember that a company or organization must treat everyone equally during hiring and termination. If they let you clean out your desk unsupervised, but then supervised someone else, they could be sued for unequal treatment. Although it’s difficult, it shouldn’t be taken personally.

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