Dark Side of Holiday Humor

After one of my storytelling workshops, a participant handed me his business card and invited me to call him because he wanted me to share his story. Anonymity is important to him, so let’s call him Mike. 

Sixteen years earlier, Mike was a rising star as a design engineer. He was being groomed for advancement with high-profile assignments and access to leadership. He thought he was invincible and headed for the fast-track to the top. In late-November, he received a humorous, but off-color holiday message from a college buddy. A colleague was looking over his shoulder as he opened it and asked for him to forward the message. Thoughtlessly, he sent it on … Laugh! Click! Send!

Three months later, on an overcast day in February, Mike was called into his boss’s office and confronted with the e-mail, which unbeknownst to him had been forwarded around the company. Mike couldn’t deny that he had brought an inappropriate communication into the company’s system. He was sent home immediately … put on temporary leave … and waited with knots in his stomach for three days until he learned that he was terminated. It was torture to go back in to meet with HR and pack his desk with Security watching. Part of him wanted to lose his temper and fight it, but he knew in his heart that he was wrong. He swallowed his shame, admitted his mistake, and graciously left. 

Mike found another job, but maintained his network in the old company. Six years later, he had a chance to apply for another job with the company. He was hired and worked there for over 10 years. Reflecting back, Mike would like others to learn three lessons from his humiliating experience:

  • The company owns all electronic communications, and they’re all searchable.
  • Never burn a bridge.
  • Admit your mistake and take responsibility.

Accepting Hard Lessons and Rebounding

I initially posted Mike’s story in December 2014. Current events caused me to resurrect it. Mike shares a painful tale that starts with carelessness and insensitivity, progresses to a dark place, and ends with humility, compassion, and wisdom.

Many people spin downward after an experience like this. Mike found a way to choose the high road after making a foolish (even low-road) choice. All of his lessons are empowering, but he offers deeper reflections about the last one.

Oh, It Hurts—“I wish I hadn’t done that. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Shame and guilt can make us want to run away. It’s really hard to own the pain and take ownership of it. Many of us want to blame others and find scapegoats for the pain. Mike was courageous, and he was rewarded.

I Want to Run Away—Who doesn’t want to escape from a shameful and painful experience? Most of us try to distance ourselves from the people and situations that trigger these feelings. A new job and new colleagues provided that outlet for Mike, but he overcame the easy path forward. He faced the fallout—judgment and possible rejection—with his old colleagues by owning his mistake, while still representing the authentic and talented parts of himself that are bigger than this one defining episode.

I Learned Important Lessons—When Mike was invited back to interview for a new position in his old company (of course they knew the history), he faced it head on with level eyes. He demonstrated that he had learned and grown. Never again would he let a frivolous personal communication interfere with the business at hand.

I see Mike’s story as a transformational journey from a pitfall to renewal with greater wisdom. Have you ever transformed after a terrible experience? What did you learn?

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