Calling the Chairman

A phone call far above the author's pay grade left his job in jeopardy, but not his conscience

Photo: iStockphoto

The call came on Friday around noon. It was the manager of the airport shuttle service. ”Carl, we’re finished. The bank’s not honoring our payroll this afternoon. That’s it.”

After operating for a year, the shuttle still hadn’t gotten enough customers. But surely they would. This was New York!

”C’mon, Jim. They’ve threatened this before.”

”This time they’re serious. My drivers know we’re in trouble. They’re quitting if they aren’t paid today. We’ll stop service at midnight tonight after the last runs.”

Three years of hard work were going down the drain. Dozens of people would lose their jobs. Airport travelers would be stranded. It would be all over—just like that—in a few hours.

Jim waited for me to speak. I sat there, stunned. ”Let me see what I can do and get back to you.”

I hung up and stared at a blank wall. It was very quiet. No one was around. This was before cellphones, and I was at an off-site location for a training session. What could I do? What should I do?

I could let events take their course. It was not my responsibility to keep this money-losing operation afloat. We had struggled to help this company build a business, but maybe it would be best to let it fail. Perhaps a new company would make a better go of it.

No. I couldn’t just do nothing. From a selfish point of view, too much of my recent career was invested in making this successful. And what about the drivers? And the traveling public?

I called my manager. ”She’s not here,” her secretary said.

”Tell her to call me as soon as possible,” I said. ”It’s urgent!” Both the director and his deputy were away. I phoned our executive director’s office. He would be around that afternoon.

I suddenly thought of the chairman of our public agency’s board of commissioners. I knew he was a golfing buddy of the president of the bank that was about to cut off the shuttle’s payroll. We could ask him to call the bank president and request that it honor today’s payroll while we worked to improve the shuttle’s finances. This could buy time. I called the chairman’s office to see if he would be available that afternoon.

”Hello,” the chairman’s secretary cheerfully answered.

I identified myself. ”I was calling to see if the chairman will be available later to take an important call from our executive director.”

”Oh, hello, Mr. Selinger. The chairman’s here. I’ll put you through.”

”No!” Too late. Staff were not allowed to talk to commissioners—certainly not without permission. What should I say when he comes on?

The chairman’s voice cut through my thoughts—a tentative ”Hello?” as he probably couldn’t place my name.

”I’m sorry to bother you,” I said, then identified myself and reminded him of when we had met a while back. ”I was calling to see if you were going to be around later today to take a call from the executive director on an important matter.”

”What important matter?”

Oh, no. I relayed the briefest details, suggesting it might help if he would talk to the bank’s president to buy time. There was silence.

Finally he said, in a monotone, ”I’ll see what I can do.”

I thanked him and hung up. I sat frozen, staring at the wall. Did I just get myself fired? I was a zombie, waiting for someone—anyone—to call back. I reviewed the events. What could I have done differently? The phone sat quietly, a witness to my pending dismissal.

Finally it rang! It was my manager. ”Carl, I just got off the phone with the deputy director. He said the executive director yelled at him, ’Why the f—k was Selinger talking to the chairman?!’ He told him he didn’t know, but there must’ve been a good reason. Okay, Carl, what’s the good reason?”

I recited the chain of events. She was quiet for a moment. ”Okay, I’ll tell him. Don’t do it again.” She hung up.

By now it was late afternoon. My stomach growled with no lunch as my thoughts churned. The phone rang again, startling me. It was the shuttle manager.

”Carl! The bank honored the payroll! What did you do?”

”That’s great, Jim!” I didn’t tell him all that had happened. I suppose I was happy, I don’t recall. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. What exactly had happened? Would I be fired?

I wasn’t. And I also never heard many details, except that the executive director ”went ballistic”—his executive assistant told me it was the angriest he had ever seen him.

The shuttle service’s ridership started going up, and it became profitable soon afterward. Over the years it has given me great satisfaction every time I see one of its vans on the road.

I never got a thank-you card or a ”battle star” on my lapel. Yet I still remember the tense loneliness of making those calls—and the discomfort and pride of knowing I had done the right thing but not what its outcome would be.

About the Author

Carl Selinger is an aviation and transportation consultant and teaches at Cooper Union, in New York City. He is the author of Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School (Wiley-IEEE Press).

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