There’s a song in the 1960’s musical Bye Bye Birdie, “Telephone Hour” in which the teenagers from the town of Sweet Apple, Ohio, spread the word that their classmates Hugo and Kim are going steady.
During my long and glorious business career, I thought about this song quite often, especially when what was churning through the rumor mill wasn’t about whether a couple of our colleagues were a couple. That happened plenty, but the usual grist for the mill was a pending lay-off. (And there was almost always a pending lay-off.)
“Telephone Hour” came to mind the other evening while I was watching Mad Men, a series set in the Bye-Bye Birdie era. As the final episodes play out, we learn that Sterling Cooper, having been acquired by McCann-Erickson, will no longer be running independently. They’re going to be absorbed, sucked right into the belly of the big, bad beast.
The partners are the first to know, but they actually find out accidentally – McCann didn’t have the courtesy to let them know that they had canceled Sterling’s lease on them.
And although no one was supposed to breathe a word, the rumor mill took off.
Although the circumstance was nowhere near as dramatic as what we saw on Mad Men – nor did anyone of us dress as well - I worked for a small company that, when I joined, had just been purchased by a larger outfit. We were still operating independently, but hovering over us all the time was a vague and unsettling understanding that, at some point, we were no longer going to be operating independently as a quirky little company in Harvard Square. We were going to be part of them.
Most of the company’s founders – who were called The Principals – had either already re-lo’d to a new position on the mother ship, or had taken the money and run.
No one worried about them.
It was us that we were worried about.
Who wanted to leave Harvard Square for some wasteland suburban office park? Even worse, who wanted to get RIF’d.
Our fears lurked for years, during which time we became more and more them and less and less ourselves.
Our name kept changing. So did our senior management. Sometimes they were local, sometimes far removed.
In one classic incident, our new president – who’d been in charge for over a year before he stirred his stumps and came to see us – appeared at an all hand’s meeting. I can’t remember is he was visiting in the wake of a lay-off or there to announce a pending reorg, but I do remember that he failed to introduce himself.
A hand shot up.
“Sir,” one of our more outspoken and less socially-skilled techies asked, “Could you please identify yourself.”
The guy looked a bit startled but gave us his name.
Our techie friend gravely nodded and said, “I thought so.”
Fast forward another year or so, and we were definitely getting the feeling that our days in Cambridge were numbered.
We started piecing things together: more closed door meetings, the appearance of parent office personnel we’d never seen before, lots of hush hush. (There’s a great scene in Sunday’s Mad Men when Don Draper goes to pull his office drapes closed so that the partners can meet in secret over the McCann news. Joan, bless her – the lone woman among the partners – yanks them back open, telling the boyos that the best way to start the rumors flying is for the head honchos to have a secret meeting.)
Back in my little corner of the world, us peons were of course told nothing about what was going on.
So we, of course, began making stuff up, speculating about what might happen and when it would come down.
From the gray faces of our most senior folks – a couple of guys we actually trusted – we knew that “it” was going to be bad and more than likely involve yet another round of lay-offs.
And we were right.
We were right about that and a lot of other things.
During this period one of the senior good guys – someone who told me a lot of things I wasn’t supposed to know – came into my office piss.
“I told you not to say anything about X,” he said.
“Well,” I said, “You never told me anything about X. I saw Y talking to Z, and I just figured it out for myself.”
I (probably) wouldn’t have floated that rumor if someone had told me, in confidence, that it was going to happen. There was a reason people told me the good stuff. But that fact that I did get some insider information was typical of the way bits and pieces of real info leak out and can become grist for the mill.
When our Big Day came it was worse than I expected. My product was done away with, the one and only person who reported to me was let go, and they got rid of my boss. Among others.
Plus they closed our office.
The new managers swept in to meet with those of us who would be making the trek to the soul-crushing suburban office park.
Mine asked me how I felt.
“My product was killed. Someone who reported to me was pink slipped. So was my boss. So were half my friends. How do you think I feel? I feel like a Korean War orphan.”
“Funny you should say that,” she told me. “My husband and I have an adopted daughter from Korea.”
But oh, those pre-lay-off rumor mills.
It’s coming on Friday.
No, they never do lay-offs on Friday. It’s Monday.
I heard it’s only levels 27 and above.
I heard 27 and below.
I heard no one from product.
I heard everyone in marketing.
I heard the field’s safe.
I heard they’re closing the Cleveland office.
I hear the Mr. Big’s a goner.
I heard he’s taking over everything.
And it wasn’t as if rumors were just exchanged a couple of times a day. I worked at some places where all we did when something bad was about to happen was rumor monger and speculate.
You could set a rumor going with your first-thing-in-the-morning gossip gals, and by the time you were on the elevator at the end of the day, it was coming back to you as fact from one of your gossip bros.
This was at a company that would always announce its lay-offs in advance, and tell us that the RIF would occur by such and such a date. It was always the last possible date, and so we’d spend a month or two doing nothing but speculating.
I do not miss those days in the least.
Better to be watching the rumors start flying on a fictional TV show than living it in person.
Wonder if Peggy will keep her job?
What’s the story, morning glory?
What’s the word, hummingbird?
Beyond having watched the Mad Men episode, the inspiration for this post came from Robin Abraham’s column in The Boston Globe: Mad Men at work: Managing the rumor mill.