Saturday, April 12, 2008

"All In," Part 1

Yesterday I got something over with, something I've been dreading, but something that needed to be done.

Some background, first.

Last year I was laid off of my job at the architects' office, because first I was taken off the biggest job I was working on.

Not because I wasn't doing a good job. Not because I wasn't pleasing the clients.

No, because, as far as I can piece it together, my boss thought I was pleasing the clients too well.

The project was an education facility cum meeting room cum museum. The client was a nonprofit group on whose board I serve.

My boss Egbert*always knew I was on that board. That's how I came to his attention in the first place. He'd come to our meetings to present schematic drawings and apparently I impressed him with my questions and suggestions. Eventually he hired me, and after a few months he made me project architect of the museum job.

I was not on the nonprofit's building committee. I never was. And I was formally asked to recuse myself in our board meetings whenever anything to do with project financing came up. To this I readily agreed--and adhered.

I worked on the project for well over a year. Then after the drawings had gone out and the bids had come in, my boss began to exclude me from client meetings. The first time he said, "They're yelling at me because the bids all came in over the original estimate. I don't want them to yell at you, too."

The second time, I noticed I'd been left off the meeting invitation list and that morning went to him to ask him if there'd been a mistake.

"No, Blogwen. At the meeting the other day the client building committee said they thought it was a conflict of interest for you to be on their board and also be the project architect on the museum. They want you off the job. They're afraid some big donors might think something's wrong and want their money back."

Gobsmacked. Floored. But it was done. Fiat.

After that, I researched conflict of interest law and wrote letters to the board president, asking him why they'd given me no choice of which office to give up. But answering me was postponed for nearly two months, until after I'd been laid off.

I was called to a meeting with the nonprofit's building committee and Egbert*, my former employer. There he admitted (and that without shame) that he was the one who'd suggested there was a conflict of interest, that I ought to be relieved of my duties just as the project was being "value engineered" and shortly before it was due to go into construction.

What could I say? I still needed him as a reference!

But what conflict? Where? Not against the client! They were getting a better job because I was identifying with them, as well as with the firm!

And not even against my boss or his firm. I was on salary. If I spent extra hours getting things right, it was no more money out of their pocket! If there had been other projects in the office that this museum was keeping me from working on, it would have been different. But there weren't.

That's what I thought. Over the past year, the picture has become clearer. Some of it should have been clearer to me a year ago.

I knew the day I was laid off that there were some projects the firm had expected to get and didn't.

I learned from other architects I've interviewed with that the firm laid several others off after I was put "on contract."

I'd discovered last winter that my boss had grossly underestimated both the building cost and the professional fees years before when the project was merely in concept drawings. And had no clue about the expense-inflating government regulations and jobsite conditions we'd be hit with by the time the project went to bid.

I'd learned around New Year's that my salary for the past several months, maybe since I'd come onto the project, had actually been paid out of other projects' profits, since our portion of the fees was long since shot.

I knew that every time my boss tried to update the estimate according to a current price given by a friendly contractor, Reginald* the lawyer, the head of the nonprofit's fundraising committee, had refused to listen, that he'd always said, "You said in 2002 that $X was the price all in! You have to stick to it!"

And I knew-- at least, I was pretty sure--that Egbert* never asked for higher fees. The price he'd given, he'd given for our services, all in.

"All in." I'd always taken that to mean only basic architectural services: Concept drawings. Design development. Construction documentation. Client relations. Construction administration.

But what about all those other things my colleagues at the nonprofit were always asking us to do? A rendering for fundraising. Publicity pieces and illustrated donor's catalogues for more fundraising. Writing newspaper articles and talking with reporters for even more publicity and fundraising. Every time the committee would say, "Egbert*, could Blogwen do this or that for us?" Egbert would always say "Yes, Blogwen will do it."

And I did it. What was the problem? I was on salary, wasn't I?

Yes. I was on salary on a job that wasn't pulling its weight. Being done for a client that always wanted more and more and more. For a client who apparently took "all in" to mean "any damn thing we ask you to do, regardless of whatever it is, even though we'd owe you over a hundred thousand dollars for legitimately billable hours, if you hadn't been so careless as to give us a minuscule "all in" fee bid back in 2000!"

The "conflict of interest" wasn't really with me, it was within my boss himself. If he'd told me, "No, Blogwen, we can't do that, not unless they negotiate a separate contract for that work," I would gladly have told them so. But I associated with these people outside work hours; it was far too easy for them to make arbitrary demands on my work time. And when I reported these requests to Egbert*, he apparently felt he couldn't say no. He'd given his word. The contract and fee were "all in."

This is becoming a long post. I'll finish the story next time.


whiskers said...

Wow, I've never been fired for doing to good a job. I've been severely taken advantage of, but not fired. I'm looking forward to your next installment...

St. Blogwen said...

The "amusing" thing was that as my boss put it, I wasn't being laid off or fired. I was being put "on contract." Ha. One such contract (a job I'd helped bring into the office) materialized, and after that, nothing.