“Play that part the way it is on the record,” he said, his face getting red. The drum part in question, in a song I can’t even remember now, was a mistake on the part of the drummer who recorded it. It was almost impossible to duplicate. But John wasn’t hearing it. Rehearsal had come to a complete stop and we’d been arguing for about ten minutes. Then, with the calmest expression, John reached behind him and came up with a sawed-off shotgun. “Do what I tell you,” he said.
I had known John about two years. He was a hot head, but a great guitarist and I liked playing with him. We’d had arguments, but never did it occur to me that I would be looking down the barrel of a shotgun because of one of them. It’s amazing how big that gun looks when it’s pointed at you.
What seemed like three years passed, although it was probably only thirty seconds. I could hear my voice saying, “You’re right. I just can’t get it.” Then after another eternal pause, I added, “I’m not a good enough drummer for you.” With that I began to tear down my set. John got this faraway look and put down the gun, leaving the room. I could have been dead at seventeen. It was the first of three times I’ve had a firearm pointed at me.
The second time was a police traffic stop. My car was the same make and model as one used in a robbery in the area. I followed every instruction, slowly. Even while I was bathed in bright spotlight, with the weapons of two officers trained on me, I thought everything would turn out okay. And it did. After getting me out of the car and searching me (and the car), there was an explanation, apologies, and I was sent on my way.
The third time, I was running a welding crew at a pump station near Bakersfield. When people speak of ‘the middle of nowhere’, this was that place. I supervised some rough guys in their forties. I was a stick-like 24 year old who was, to them at least, pretending to be their boss.
One welder wasn’t pulling his weight. He was slow, his welds had problems and often required rework. My job was to get the work in at a profit and this guy was killing me, figuratively. I tried talking, explaining, begging. When it became obvious his work was affecting the production of the rest of the crew, I exercised my last option: firing.
I went back to the trailer to write the final check. He burst in behind me, swearing and stomping, trying to get me to change my mind as I calculated his pay. I wrote the check and handed it to him. The hate that emanated from him hit me like a wave of heat. He snatched the check from my hand and left, muttering a string of obscenities.
A moment later he was back with a shotgun. “My check’s wrong,” he shouted. Now I was afraid he would kill me, literally.
I took the checkbook out of the drawer. I only had one thing to say, “What should it be?”
He looked befuddled, glancing at me, then down at his gun, like it suddenly occurred to him that bringing it with him might have been a dumb idea. “Well, you’re the one supposed to figure it out.”
Let’s review. I have a presumably loaded shotgun pointed at me. I’ve just written a termination check to a man who yelled at me the entire time I figured it. I’m now supposed to calculate the pay correctly? I could hardly breathe let alone add. I wrote another check for $250. I do not know to this day if it was correct. On the memo line I wrote, “Non-Payroll – Travel Allowance”. I gave this check to my assailant.
The man looked at me as if he wanted to apologize and both of us knew that he could never do it. He left, as did I shortly afterwards, making my way to the hotel bar and several shots of straight scotch.
We don’t know what will set unstable people off. Their triggers can be invisible to us until sprung, when only guile or luck will save us. Looking back, I can see temper was an issue with John in the band. In fact, I never again played music with a bad tempered person and extended this rule to my work life as much as circumstances would allow.
Arguments in work situations are trickier, because people have reason to be upset and passionate when their futures or livelihoods are on the line. What’s important is that you must always come from a place that maintains the self esteem of the other person. It is unwise to negate another person or deal sharply with them.
All of this means that you must work to keep your emotions in check and remain able to listen and be constructive. Many recent work place shootings were triggered because the attackers felt belittled and dismissed. Giving people a fair hearing and making sure their opinions are considered goes a long way to keeping peace.
A lot of workplace killings take place when people are let go. Since my experience with the second shotgun, I never let a person go without at least one other person with me, if at all possible. I usually include someone that is friendly to the person being terminated. I make sure to take time to listen to their complaints, no matter how long it takes and I am never dismissive.
One time I had to let go a member of my team after some really bad behavior. What he’d done was grounds for immediate dismissal and had caused our client to ban him from the building. He was very upset and thought the layoff was unfair. By upset, I mean others on my crew were physically afraid of him.
My bosses wanted him tossed out like trash. Remembering my experiences, I decided to hear him out. After talking it through, I understood why he did what he did and eventually, he got why he was getting fired. We spoke for four hours before he finally accepted the situation.
I got a lot of grief from my superiors for taking the time. It does not matter. I would do it the same way again. Even when people are wrong, they’re not trash. Respect and consideration are not touchy-feely human resource concepts, in the real world they could mean survival.
This article appears in this month’s Impact magazine at http://www.impact.fm