Many years ago, I was fired from a publishing job. My boss decided I was not performing to his standards, and without any warning, I was let go. With no similar job immediately forthcoming, I started doing temp work at a pool company. They liked my work enough to take me on as a permanent employee with benefits soon after I began.
Obviously, it was not my calling in life. I had a college degree and ten years’ experience in publishing. But it paid the bills, I got along with my co-workers, and the bosses were decent and personable.
While the work wasn’t that stressful, there was pressure to get a certain amount done during a shift. I was still learning the routine and didn’t always do it as quickly as I could. I found myself anxious about getting fired again. After the way my last job ended, I felt it would be even worse to lose a job that “anyone could do.”
And then came the day…
I was drinking coffee at my desk one morning, and I spilled it on my keyboard. Oh no! I quickly tilted the keyboard to pour out as much coffee as I could, dabbed it with a paper towel, and left it upside down for a while to let what was left drain out if possible.
The first day, it functioned as before. But the next day some of the keys stopped working – first one or two on the right and then some on the other side.
A fine mess I’d gotten myself into!
I had a mentor at the time, a sort of amateur life coach, and I called to ask her what to do about the accident. I admitted I hadn’t a clue what to do because I feared a horrible outcome.
She was a monomaniac about honesty. I admired her for that. But honesty in the working world was a completely new concept to me. In my experience, bosses seldom told you the whole truth as far as I was concerned, so I had to cover my butt as much as possible.
If I screwed up and could get away with it, there was no way (or reason) I’d own up to it. “Listen,” my coach said, “Just go to your boss and tell him what happened. What’s the worst possible thing that could happen?”
That was easy. “He’ll fire me.”
She smiled and said that it was highly unlikely that a person would get fired for spilling coffee.
I was young and it didn’t seem impossible that I could be terminated.
But I could see that it would be an extreme reaction.
“What’s the next worst scenario?” she asked.
“He’ll ask me to pay for the keyboard,” I replied.
“And if he does? Keyboards aren’t that expensive.”
In the end, she thought the most-likely scenario would be that nothing would happen.
Because I trusted her, I agreed to tell my boss the next day.
When I look back now, it’s amusing how nervous I was. I went to my boss and recounted the incident.
He simply shrugged it off.
I offered to pay for the new keyboard and he said it wasn’t necessary. He left it with, “These things happen.”
I felt much better about myself for having the courage to be honest, and I felt grateful to my boss for not giving me a hard time. While I’ve had managers before and since who might have reacted differently, it was an important lesson early in my career about how good leaders don’t sweat the small stuff and actually appreciate open and candid conversations with their staff.
Because I did want to get back into publishing, when another opportunity came up, I seized it quickly. I only stayed at the pool company for a little over a year. To this day, I remember it as a refreshingly decent place to work, where I had the good fortune to have a boss who truly appreciated and cared about his staff.
Jan Arzooman, a periodic contributor to the Leadership Almanac, offers leadership insight from the point of the “end user”—a person who has worked for a variety of managers. She is a freelance writer and editor with many years in publishing. Jan is currently focusing on fiction, memoirs, blogging on all topics, social media marketing, and health and medical writing. Her website is http://arzoomaneditorial.com/.