Apr 28, 2010

The other day a old friend called for a reference. She was edgy and in no mood. She'd just been fired from her job as a senior editor in a large publishing house and needed to find something "quickly."

How quickly, I asked.

"It's impossible, I know. What is it? One month for each $10,000 you make. I am just so sick of this. Lately, I don't have the ambition to put one foot in front of the other."

She's been working as an independent contractor and so was not able to collect unemployment benefits even though she'd been at the house for several years.

This is the currency lately: you work as a contractor, with no benefits and an 'at will' contract. The employer pays no benefits and lets you out the dog door when convenient. But in this case my friend discovered that the IRS takes a dim view of this arrangement and found out that she might negotiate an 'unofficial' severance.

She didn't provide details but she did describe the scene in which she went to the publisher, a man in his 50s, with the home in Katonah, the wife in her 30s, the American eagle over the front door, while the middle aged ex-wife lives in a studio down in White Plains with the child and the dog.

"Now you understand," my friend began, "this man believes he's the master negotiator. If his office were suddenly taken over by terrorists he would be ecstatic. 'Ah yes, why don't you come into my office. I'm sure we can reach a settlement.' And before you know it they would be out the door with half their guns, amo and panties.

"So we sit down. His office overlooks Grammercy Square. He starts telling me he's just read a book — hooray, I thought — and did you know that until a couple of hundred years ago 25 percent of males died in Wars. Now it's down to 2 percent.

" 'That's very hopeful,' he said. 'Don't you think?'

"'How interesting,' I said. I'm looking down into the street thinking this is always the male world: always the fight. What we need is more flight.

"'I never go to war,' he went on. 'I always find a way to settle.' And then he set out to lay waste the countryside. But he's very clever, he takes away all the option and couches the whole discussion with a hopeful twist.

"'I know the economy is rough out there,' he said, 'but actually it grew by 2.3 percent in the first quarter. Of course there's joblessness and editors are especialy hard hit... And you have a child, no?'

Yes, I said. And I'm thinking I've been here almost five years and this is the first time we have ever had any kind of communication. In an office with 10 people?

"But you have a great education and you're smart as anything, I'm sure you'll find something quickly."

So then of course you can't say anything that implies you're not well educated and in great demand all over the world."

Then we began to talk numbers and his left eyebrow went right up when I mentioned a number.

'Now you realize, I don't feel as if I should pay anything. We've treated you fairly and you've been paid a reasonable sum.'

There was so much I wanted to say — that I had never worked a simple 40 hour week, that I had never took off any holidays. It's my own fault. I took the job far too seriously.

'I never go to war,' he repeated. "And we want to end things on good terms, we don't want to end badly. Because this is a small industry and who knows we might work together again. Anything is possible so I think we want to end on good terms. Let me say this, I think the number we're looking for is the one that you will feel as if you didn't get what you wanted, that it was too little and I will feel I paid too much. That's a settlement. Don't you think?"

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