Alexandra Peterson pulled the pillow from her face and squinted at the digital display of the clock on her nightstand. 5:57 a.m.? How had she managed to wake before her alarm after sleeping less than four hours? With a groan, she rolled to sitting. No sense in trying to go back to sleep. She was awake and she might as well get to the office to prepare for her meeting with her boss, the senior vice president of finance, Pete Andrews, and the CFO, Darren Roberts.
A quick half an hour later, thanks to having laid out her clothes and leaving her computer bag packed and ready by the door the previous night, she sped along I-95 toward her office in midtown Baltimore. At least traffic was still fairly clear at this hour. A record twenty minutes later she counted off the floors as the elevator carried her to six. Thankfully, the management had updated the elevators in the old brick building.
Subdued lighting greeted her as she swiped into the quiet reception area. Only one or two of her coworkers ever arrived this early and they were at the other end of the floor, closer to the executive suites. She enjoyed arriving at her office before the crowd and the rush.
Quiet blanketed her as she docked her laptop in the privacy of her office. While the computer whirred to life, she let her gaze drift out her window, over the parking lot of the old church next door. She might not have the best view, but she’d worked hard for the promotion that had snagged her the tiny back office.
Not that she’d minded the long hours and extra work. She’d loved her job as a senior finance manager for Mana Health Care, a company specializing in managing long-term care facilities. Now as vice president of finance, she finally had the SVP of finance, as well as the CFO’s ear and could help implement some of the changes she saw as necessary for making them a more efficient and profitable corporation. That is, efficient now and hopefully profitable down the road.
Sighing, she settled into her chair. She had to put some finishing touches on the presentation she planned to share with her boss and his boss at their 10:00 a.m. meeting. Confidence filled her. She took pride in always showing up prepared.
Two hours later she blinked, trying to drum up some moisture to soothe the grit from her eyes. Her head pounded, the result of too little sleep. She grabbed her coffee cup, only to find she’d already sucked down the contents.
“Well, that won’t do,” she said as she slipped out of her office and headed toward the break room, cup in hand.
The consultant, who worked in clinical, whose name she could never remember, headed in her direction. Alex worked her mouth into what she hoped was a smile and nodded at the woman. The consultant frowned, passing her without comment.
Alex shrugged. Maybe the woman was having an off morning. She could certainly relate to that. The scent of strong coffee filled the air as Alex approached the coffeemaker.
Stifling a yawn, she wavered over the baskets filled with the little liquid creamers before grabbing a handful of French vanilla containers. Only the good stuff would do this morning.
Whispering sounded over her shoulder. She turned to find a couple of the junior financial analysts standing behind her. They straightened as she smiled.
“Good morning,” she said. “Sorry, let me get out of your way. I’m moving a little slowly today. Late night.”
The older guy, George, arched his eyebrows. “Working hard to get all of your reporting turned in, no doubt.”
“Actually, yes,” she said, satisfaction filling her.
Staying up until the wee hours completing her efficiency savings report for her boss had been worth it. She’d finished the summary and emailed it to him along with the detailed report before crashing for those few hours of sleep. He’d obviously given her work his seal of approval, since he’d copied her on his forward to the CFO early that morning.
“Yes, we all know,” the younger analyst said, anger evident in his tone.
“Oh.” She cradled her full coffee mug in her hands as she began to feel uneasy. Surely word hadn’t gotten out yet about her suggested pay cuts. “Have a good day,” she said, before turning to leave.
Two more coworkers passed Alex without comment or acknowledgement of her greetings. Dismay filled her as she slipped back into her office. They must have heard about her suggestion. Why else would she be getting the cold shoulder? Did that mean the company was planning to move forward with her plan?
Shaking off her nerves, she opened the report she’d poured so much of her heart into. The neat rows of numbers and totals at the bottom soothed her. Here in the cells and formulas everything made sense. She might not understand the people around her, especially not this morning, but numbers always spoke to her.
The printer hummed as it printed the summary spreadsheet. She pulled the page from the output tray and smiled as she reviewed the neat columns, the bold totals that all lined up and told the financial story of Mana Health Care in succinct detail. How satisfying. Darren would be very pleased to see her plan to reduce their spending and eventually increase their profit margin. With her suggestions in place they’d break even for the next quarter or two, then be back in the black by year’s end—quite a feat considering the current state of the economy.
The long hours over the past week and missed weekends had been worth it. Alex had drilled down into every area of their business, shaving off the extra expenses at each opportunity. Frowning now, she reviewed the savings they would gain from the small across-the-board pay cut. She’d hated to include it, but it meant keeping jobs they’d otherwise have to eliminate.
Yawning, she glanced at the time display on her monitor. She’d be meeting with them in less than twenty minutes. Surely this was the icing on the cake she needed, just in time for bonus incentive reviews, where she’d recommended only a slight reduction.
They didn’t want to destroy employee morale, after all.
The chirp of an incoming instant message drew her attention again to the screen. Anticipation filled her. A little balloon with Darren’s name displayed the incoming message.
Reviewed report. Please stop by to discuss.
Now? she replied, glancing at her calendar and their 10:00 a.m. meeting entry.
What about her boss, Pete? Had he also been called in early? Surely, he’d want to be present in any review of the report.
Her heart thudded as she typed, On my way.
The scent of overheated coffee wafted over her as she passed the employee break room and headed toward the CFO’s office at the far end of the floor, three fresh copies of her presentation in hand. She padded along the carpet, pacing herself so as not to arrive too soon while remaining prompt. She didn’t want to give the impression she was overly anxious.
Instant messages offered little insight into the sender’s mood. Had Darren been pleased with all her hard work? Did he want her to find more savings opportunitesin any of the departments? Did he agree with her assessment on where they could trim the fat from their company?
She stopped outside the CFO’s closed door and turned questioningly to his executive assistant, who was stationed at a desk across the aisle. Alex said, “He asked me to drop by.”
The young woman continued typing without looking up, saying, “Stevens is in with him.”
Alex nodded, though the woman remained focused on her typing. Mark Stevens was head of procurement and that department had played heavily in her report. She’d identified some serious savings opportunities in both their capital expenditures and daily operational expenses. Was Darren discussing her findings with Mark?
“Did he call Pete in, as well?”
Again without looking up, the woman shook her head. “I believe he’s taking the morning off.”
“Oh,” Alex said, surprised. Maybe Pete would call in for their meeting.
She faced the closed door and squared her shoulders. The CFO had summoned her. She tapped lightly, then pushed the door open far enough to duck her head in.
Darren glanced at her and held up his index finger. “Give us a minute, Alex.”
“Sure,” she said. She withdrew and quietly closed the door, stifling her impatience. Why had he asked for her if he wasn’t ready? The efficiency report was only the beginning. She had a pile of spreadsheets waiting for her to review, a conference call and committee meetings to prepare for.
She hovered outside Darren’s office as muffled laughter sounded from inside. She frowned. They couldn’t be discussing her report. Her recommendations hadn’t included anything laughable.
She glanced at the two upholstered chairs in the nook between the CFO and CEO’s offices. Should she take a seat to wait? She glanced again at the CFO’s executive assistant. The woman continued her intent typing.
Alex settled into the closest chair, folding her hands over her notebook and presentations. Too bad she’d left her smartphone in her office. She could at least have been tackling some of her email.
Anticipation filled her as the moments ticked by and more laughter sounded through the door. Obviously, Darren was in a good mood. Could his good spirits be a result of her report? She’d presented a solid plan for putting them in the black by year’s end. Certainly this was reason to celebrate.
Five minutes later the CFO’s door opened. Darren stood in the doorway, shaking Mark Stevens’s hand. “I’m glad we’re on the same page in this, Mark,” Darren said. “We’ve got to hit the ground running with this new initiative. I knew I could count on you.”
New initiative? She’d suggested a very specific action plan to go along with her report. Could that be this new initiative? Alex straightened all five feet four inches of herself, still feeling small next to Mark’s six plus feet of bulk. All smiles, the man seemed to be taking the cuts to his department in stride. Plastering on a smile, she waited patiently while the men exchanged pleasantries.
At last, Mark headed down the hall and Darren turned to her, gesturing toward his open door. “After you.”
With a nod she stepped into the lush inner sanctum of the CFO’s office. Mahogany gleamed among the splashes of potted plants strategically placed throughout the space. She perched in one of the chairs at the conference table dominating the area near the floor-to-ceiling windows. Where her view reflected the gray of the worn parking lot next door, his view took in the leafy green trails of the park below.
“Good morning, Alex,” Darren said as he took the seat across from her, his hands steepled before him.
“Good morning, Darren,” she said, gripping her pen. “Mark seemed to be in a good mood.”
Her boss nodded. “His son is headed for regionals.”
“That’s great,” Alex said, though she had no idea what regionals were, or that Mark even had a son, for that matter.
“It is, actually. My daughter was into competitive swimming at that age. She made it to state.”
Again, Alex was at a loss, so she smiled and nodded. “Is Pete calling in?”
He frowned. “Pete has personal business he’s attending to this morning.”
“Oh. I guess I can follow up with him later.” She slid a copy of the presentation over to him. “I put together this slide presentation to show how we can implement the new strategies we’ll need to execute some of the savings in my report.”
He flattened his hand on the presentation without looking at it. “How’s your family, Alex?”
“My family?” she asked, again tamping down her impatience.
The company’s current spending trends were slowly bleeding away any chance of stability. If they didn’t take quick action, even her plan wouldn’t be able to help them. They needed to act and they needed to act now.
“Yes,” he said, his gray eyes intent on her. “I know you don’t have a husband or kids, but surely you have a significant other, or at least parents, siblings…”
The mention of her family sent the familiar unease skittering through her. Her family was the epitome of dysfunctional and, as far as a significant other, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d even missed having one.
What did any of this matter?
“I don’t… They’re fine,” she said. She hated to admit that beyond her younger brother and sister she had little idea how the rest of her family was doing.
“Good.” He nodded. “Family is important, don’t you think?”
She shifted in her seat. “I suppose, though…it really depends on the family.”
His eyebrows arched. “I guess you’re right. For me, my family comes first.” He stopped, his gray gaze again piercing her.
She nodded, saying, “That’s great.”
“I think it’s important we’re all on the same page here, Alex.”
“Sure,” she said, her discomfort intensifying. What was he talking about? Why weren’t they discussing her report? “It’s important we’re all team players.”
“Yes, we should all want what’s best for the greater good of all,” he said.
She exhaled. “Yes, and I think my findings support that. I know an across-the-board wage cut might not be met with the greatest enthusiasm, but when everyone understands it’s for the greater good, we shouldn’t have too much trouble implementing it. Surely it’s better than the massive layoffs we’d need instead.”
He picked up her presentation, but rather than flip through the pages, he rolled it into a tight tube. “You did good work on that report. I want you to know I appreciate your efforts. We can rest assured we looked at all alternatives before moving forward with the new company initiative.”
“Yes, I heard you mention something about that to Mark. Do you mean an initiative based on the cost- effective measures in my email and supported by my report?” She gestured toward the tube in his hand. “I’ve detailed an action plan—”
“We’re going with the layoffs.”
Surprise filled her. She blinked. “What?”
“You did good work. Your report summarized in clear detail how far off our profitability mark we are. Unfortunately, your findings indicate we’re not in a position to play around with this.” He dropped the rolled presentation. “We need drastic action.”
“No, wait. I think maybe you misinterpreted the data. The across-the-board cut would eliminate the need for layoffs.”
He shook his head. “The board won’t go for it. They held an emergency conference call early this morning. They’re taking an aggressive stance. At this point it wouldn’t be enough. They’re banking on a profit this quarter. Break even isn’t going to do it.”
Her stomach knotted. “But you’re talking about people’s livelihoods.”
His lips tightened into a thin line. “We’re talking about the greater good of all, or of the majority in this instance. I was hoping we’d be in agreement on this.”
Confusion filled her. “I don’t understand how the board can do this. It really isn’t necessary to lay people off.”
“It’s done, Alex. I forwarded them your findings as soon as I reviewed them. They’re all appreciative of the work you’ve done. We’re all happy to give you glowing recommendations.”
He nodded toward his closed door. “My assistant is already drafting my letter of reference.”
“What?” she asked again. How could this be happening? “Are you saying I’m fired?”
“It’s a layoff, Alex. These things happen. Don’t take it personally. It’s business. While the board appreciated your efforts, the members feel your position is extraneous.”
Her mind whirled. She was being laid off? And because she’d killed herself to give them the report that had helped them decide this was their best move? She stared at him, speechless.
Darren had the decency not to be able to make eye contact. “Again, you’ve done an impeccable job. HR will be contacting you this morning regarding your severance package. Actually, they were supposed to be in on this meeting with you, but they’re tied up with the rest of the layoffs. I assured them you’d be okay with a separate debrief. Pete really felt I should wait for him to discuss this with you, as well, but I also assured him you’d understand.”
She slowly rose, leaving her copies of the presentation on his conference table. Her reflection stared back at her from the polished mahogany. A mixture of anger, disbelief and despair rose in her.
Without another word, she turned toward the door.
“Alex,” Darren said. “This isn’t easy for any of us. These are the times we all draw on the strength of our families.”
She merely shook her head as she pushed through his door. There was no strength in her family. For as long as she could remember, her father had owned a hardware store. Duct tape was his magic fix for just about everything. One day her aunt had borrowed their vacuum cleaner, only to find it held together with the silvery tape. She’d jokingly dubbed them the Broken Family and the name had stuck.
The knot in Alex’s stomach tightened. Her senior year in high school her mother had caught her father cheating on her. They’d gone through an embittered divorce that truly left their family broken in the worst way.
No, Alex didn’t have family to support her through this, nor did she want one.
She straightened. She was a strong, independent woman. She’d find a way through this mess and she’d do it on her own. If Darren thought believing in family meant they were on the same page, it was just as well she was leaving. That was one page she didn’t care to decipher.
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