I once got revenge on the CEO of a company for which I used to be employed. I didn’t cause him any of the detriment that he caused me. Instead, I was given the opportunity to teach him a very valuable lesson.
Here’s the story:
I was 16, and was given the opportunity to work at the grocery store in the small town where I lived. It was basically the only place for a teenager to work in town, so I was lucky to have the job. I never worked past 10:30 PM, my boss made sure my work didn’t interfere with my school activities, and the work made me happy. In the beginning, my duties included stocking shelves at night, and cleaning the entire store. My boss quickly recognized and rewarded my hard work with more responsibilities. I went from stock boy/cleaner, to cashier, to evening manager (once I graduated high school). My duties as the evening manager included running the store at night, reconciling sales, taking deposits to the bank, and locking up after work. I had a great relationship with my store manager, and the regional manager over our area of stores.
The store was one of a few dozen in a chain started by the owner of an oil company as a way to distribute his gasoline. The employees held a high regard for the owner. In the few times he visited the store he was kind, and thanked us for our work. He was working toward his retirement, and his son-in-law was transitioning into the CEO role.
As many teenagers in the 90s did, I grew out my hair. As my hair was growing longer, my regional manager asked me kindly to keep my hair out of my eyes (either in a store cap or in a pony tail). There were no rules for appearance in the small company, but he wanted me to be as professional and approachable as possible since I was in a position of management. I was happy to oblige.
In the late 90s, store was being remodeled and ownership and C-level folks in the company were coming around more often. Evidently, one of the ‘good-ole’ boy higher-ups in the company didn’t like my appearance, and said something about it to my regional manager. I was a valued employee, and my regional manager made it clear that my appearance was a non-issue. He reminded him that there were no rules against my long hair in the company guidelines. Nevertheless, my regional manager made me aware of the situation, and warned me that this higher-up might be around again and to be on my toes if he said something.
A couple of weeks later, this ‘good-ole’ boy came back to the store with some paperwork to deliver to the store manager. I had been instructed ahead of time to take the paperwork on her behalf, but she did not know who would be delivering it. I had just cut off my long hair days before, and pierced both ears. The same guy-with-long-hair-hating guy walked up to the counter where I was checking groceries, and asked for the manager. I told him that I was the manager on duty and I was expecting some paperwork to be delivered. I don’t remember the exact words, but they were something like:
“You couldn’t be in charge. Our company would never put someone that looked like you in charge.”
I was completely caught off-guard. I asked him what he meant.
He said that I looked like a girl with my ears pierced, and that there’s no place for that here. He said that I had to take off the earrings. I respectfully defended myself. I told him that there were no rules established for appearance. I had been a model employee for several years, and was entrusted with the store every evening that I worked.
He reprimanded me in front of some of our regular customers for talking back to him. He left the paperwork and walked out of the store. I saw him pull out his cell phone to make a call as he was leaving.
It was only a few minutes later when my regional manager called the store to talk with me. He wanted to hear my side of the story. He apologized, but told me this guy was hell-bent on making an issue of my appearance.
A week went by and I saw that I was scheduled for a Saturday morning. That was unusual since I was the night manager. I arrived for work and the regional manager was there. He talked with me in the office and told me how sorry he was to have to let me go. I asked on what grounds. He replied with insubordination.
I was at a loss. Even to this day I’ve never been so much as “written up” at any place of employment. I told my regional manager that I was going to fight this. He even did me the courtesy of writing the number down for the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) from the poster in the office.
I went home (which was with my parents as I was home from college for the summer), and explained to my dad what was happening. He didn’t really want me to pursue the EEOC thing, but I was determined to stand up for myself against the ‘good-ole’ boy corporate bully. After speaking with someone at the EEOC office, she believed I had a case for wrongful termination. They offered to see me that afternoon.
Before driving to Dallas to meet with someone about my case, I decided to give the company a chance to rescind the firing. I really liked my job. I loved the people at the store, and all the customers I got to interact with every day. I didn’t think I would be able to find another job that gave me the flexibility to work weekends through music school and give me full hours at every break. I really wanted to make this work. So, I called the corporate offices.
After some time on hold I was actually passed along to the CEO of the company (remember, the son-in-law) who was now fully in charge after the wonderful owner had retired.
He was aware of the firing (because he likely approved it), but had only heard the side of the story that came from his entrusted bigoted corporate bully friend.
I respectfully told the CEO that I would love to meet with him and have the opportunity to share my side of the story. I wanted to give him the whole picture of who I was, not some idea based on my appearance. He told me that he didn’t need to meet with me to understand that I was a brat trying to get away with being disrespectful to an administrator in the company. I told him that I was planning on meeting with the EEOC that afternoon, and thanked him for his time.
After my meeting, the person in charge of my case filed paperwork for wrongful termination. She said it would take a little time, but that the company would likely have to pay me an average salary for the next six months. I wish I could remember all the details of this. It was a pretty sweet deal. I got to take a semester off from working and fully focus on my college studies, while getting a paycheck in the mail. It was great!
Then came the lawsuit. The company stood by their claim that one instance of insubordination was a legal grounds to fire me, and that I was being insubordinate by not complying with the demands of a high level employee.
I received a letter in the mail that the company was suing me for a sum equal to the pay they had given me over the six month period. I don’t remember exactly everything from that letter, but I do remember something about there being so many labor lawsuits that they did their best to handle them over the phone. I was to call in to a number at a specific time to have a conference call hearing with a labor judge.
I had to tell one of my professors that I would miss class one day for the hearing. I sat on my bed in the my college apartment while I listened over the phone to two attorneys for the company argue their case against me. The CEO of the company was on the line as well. The judge had a copy of the employee handbook from my time at the company, which had no mention of employee appearance. My manager and regional manager had given positive testimony on my behalf.
The judge essentially told the company that this was petty. That their legal costs far exceeded the six months of pay they had given me. He told them it appeared they were making this personal. His ruling was that I would keep the six months of pay (thank goodness because I had been spending it)!
But that wasn’t my revenge.
After my job-free semester of college, it was time to get a holiday job that I could hopefully keep on the weekends and change to full time during my last summer before student teaching and graduating. I applied at a retail giant that had an extensive electronics section. I wanted to sell electronics.
During my final interview the human resources agent asked about my firing. She had a great time listening to the story! She asked if I would mind taking off my earrings for work there as it was against corporate policy for men. I told her that I would absolutely take off my earrings for work. Not only was it against their policy, I was planning to be a teacher soon anyway (male teachers in Texas just didn’t wear earrings at that time).
I did well at this store. HDTV had just become a thing, and projection big screens were selling like hotcakes. I was working on commission, and the paychecks were great. I worked with a lot of folks that didn’t understand all the facets of the transition to HDTV, and really couldn’t answer important questions for customers. HDTVs weren’t priced like they are today. Most of the name brands were $4,000 and up at that time. Consumers desired a lot of confidence with purchases of that amount. I quickly became the go-to guy on this. Happy customers would send friends and family to me. I loved this job!
I was lucky to make one of my best sales to a retired couple that had means to buy the best of everything. They wanted the best, but they wanted to understand all of the details and be confident in their purchase. They had been to a few places that weren’t able to answer their questions, then they came to me. There was something familiar about the gentleman. I felt like I knew him from somewhere, but I couldn’t quite place it.
When making the purchase, customers had to give me their name and address for delivery. I was absolutely stunned to hear his name…former owner/now retired of the grocery store chain where I used to work. I hadn’t recognized him in casual clothes and out of the store environment.
His wife was wonderfully sweet, and very complimentary of me. She said that she was about to give her family some monetary gifts for the holidays so that they could have HDTVs at their homes. She was going to recommend that they come to see me for the purchase.
I still remember how I felt the day the son-in-law CEO came to my store, and asked for Greg (only our first names were on our name tags). He didn’t really visit the grocery store like his father-in-law, and ran the company from the company headquarters. I had only seen him once in my years at the company, but I knew it was him when I shook his hand and he told me his name.
I actually trembled with nervousness (and probably a little anger), as I answered his questions. I must have seemed strange before I composed myself. I smiled as he mentioned how much his in-laws thought of me. I got him set up with his needs. He thanked me profusely, and told me that it was hard to find reliable information and good service these days.
I told him that if he needed anything to come back and see me. I rarely used them (because I was only going to be there for a year), but I pulled out a business card and handed it to him. I told him to ask for Greg, Greg Hamilton. He looked at the card and slowly looked up at my eyes.
“Yes sir, Greg Hamilton. I’m so happy I was able to help you today. I take a lot of pride in my work, and I hope that it shows.”
There was long awkward stare before he walked away. He actually turned back and took another look at me before leaving the store. I’ll never know what he was thinking. But I like to think that he realized that he fired a respectable young man that took pride in his work, solely based on bias.
The best revenge doesn’t come from hurting someone. Deep down, what we really desire is to help someone learn a lesson. I’m so thankful that I had the chance as a young man to teach an important lesson to this CEO.
Thank you for reading!