Why I Was Fired From a Tech Startup and What My Boss Had to Say About It

Full Disclosure Facebook Home Message Fired

This morning I received a Facebook message. It was from my old boss. A boss who fired me.

The company I worked for built online applications that discovered and ranked the aptitude of software developers. I believed in that company. I did not believe in its leadership.

In accepting my offer to work for the company, I had turned down competing offers. I was told that neither salary nor equity were negotiable, but I was sold on the promise of the company. They were going to revolutionize the recruiting industry. And they wanted me to be a part of that revolution. And I believed them.

But what sold me above all is that they wanted me. “Everyone agrees you’re gonna be a great cultural fit here,” I was told.  That was a crucial statement for me.

I’ve started two companies – both a tech startup and a non-profit theater company. I have a relentlessly entrepreneurial spirit. I am not a “keep your head low, don’t make waves kind of guy”. I am the guy who says “Hey look this thing is broken and I think I have some ideas on how to fix it”.

But despite articles I would read about how collaborative startup culture was, despite the “we innovate” mantras heard through the halls, my work experience has shown me that most companies want to keep things exactly how they are. Most companies do not want to hear about what’s broken with them, or how they could be doing better. Most companies want you to shut up and operate what they have built, run what they have designed, do what they have done.

I was the first Account Executive for this company, tasked with not only running, but developing their inside sales process. It was only five weeks before I was fired from this company. In those five weeks, I closed my first sale within eight days – faster than any sale had ever been made. I was able to bring on huge clients such as Quantcast and Yelp. I was doing great and everyone around the company, including my boss, was telling me so, patting me on the back, sending company-wide emails that lauded what a great addition I’d been to the company.

The day that I was fired our office happened to be under construction, so employees were told to work from home. My boss emailed me the night prior, asking if I could meet up with him for coffee to discuss some things. I wasn’t nervous about the meeting in the slightest: as I said, I was doing great and he was quite vocal about this.

I went in to the cafe and ordered a mocha. I’m not a coffee drinker, but you know, we were about to get some serious business done.

“I met with [the CEO] last night. Unfortunately he doesn’t feel like you have the right look for the company. He’s uncomfortable with what your look might convey to clients, and we’re letting you go. This isn’t a performance issue. This isn’t a behavioral issue. You didn’t fuck up or anything – which is what makes this so hard.”

I nearly dropped my coffee. I had to sit down as not to faint. I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach, and was about to throw up. If there was ever a TV-moment “reaction to getting bad news”, I was having it.

Eric Barry Fired Startup Full Disclosure Glasses

What I looked like at the time I was fired.

It made no sense to me. What was wrong with my look? And could I even be fired for how I looked?

Well it turns out I could, unless it could be reasonably inferred that I was being fired for being part of a protected class. So had my boss said “The CEO thinks you dress like a faggot” or “The CEO thinks that’s what a nigger would wear”, things would have been different. But as it stands, the fact that my boss told me I was being fired related to appearance at all was definitely a dicey, questionable move.

I was bitter. I am still bitter. I trusted my boss – I even told him “You’re the best boss I’ve ever had!” and I meant it. But none of that mattered now.

That was a year ago. And then something happened. Something that led my boss to send me the following message this morning: 

Eric -

Don’t have you email address so sorry to reach out on facebook but hope this message finds you well. I’m sure you have found a great new opportunity and hope the comedy career is progressing as well.

This message is long overdue and one that I couldn’t write for a long time while I was at [the Company]. I’m no longer at [the Company] and just getting back to the Bay Area after taking some time off.

I wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed working with you and didn’t agree with some of the decisions made. My inability to influence leadership and stand firm for what I believed led to both of us no longer at [the Company] and I apologize for that. Your passion and work ethic are very admirable and will take you a long way. If I could do it all over again I would have done things different but can’t live in the past can only learn from it.

Anyway, if you want to get together and grab a coffee or better yet a beer, that’d be great. If not, I’ll understand.

Either way, hope all is well.

Best,
[My Boss]

Whenever any hurtful, inexplicable thing happens to you, you start to feel a little crazy. You can’t reason within yourself why the events took place. You try explaining it to others, but that makes you feel even crazier. “You were fired because they didn’t like the way you looked? That doesn’t make any sense.” You start to wonder if other people think that you’re making it all up. Surely, you must have done something to have this happen to you.

The message I received this morning carried a great sadness with it. Sure, it was nice to get some reassurance that I wasn’t crazy. But unfortunately my boss was right. He couldn’t stand up to leadership. He couldn’t stand for what he believed in. And worst of all, he couldn’t even tell me that while he was working there.

His ethics meant nothing as long as he was having a paycheck lorded over him. And trust me, knowing the CEO and his history of abruptly letting people go and ousting management, I’m sure he let my boss know as much. My boss didn’t like what he was having to do, but better I than he. And now it’s both of us.

Unfortunately, there is little that is unique to my story. Corporations are about making money, plain and simple. Once they’re making money, they can talk about doing good, about not being evil. But as soon as the money comes into question, so too do the ethics. Everything in a company is ultimately about making money. Human Resources is not your advocate. Human Resources is a risk-assessment department. They don’t care that you were sexually harassed, they care that you might sue the company because of it.

We all need jobs. We need to be employed. But at the cost of what? Our ethics? Our passions? Those that trust us? I’ve lost my employment. I’ve lost my trust. But as I sit here, writing in my bedroom, wondering if I’ll have enough Food Stamps to last me through the month, I take a small amount of comfort in knowing that my ethics are beholden to no one but myself, my passions living or dying of my own accord.
—-
UPDATE 8/23/2013: For anyone in the community that might be a in a position to help, I’m unfortunately scrambling desperately to pay rent for September 2013. It’s with a humble heart that I ask if anyone knows of any job opportunities or monetary assistance that they would please contact me. Much, much appreciated.  - Eric

About Eric Barry

Eric Barry is a Chicago comedian, writer, and creator of Full Disclosure, a podcast and media site dedicated to sex and comedy. He holds a B.A. in Theater & Performance Studies (he's not sure what that means either) from UC Berkeley. His work has been featured on Huffington Post, Broke-Ass Stuart, SF Chronicle, and more. He is a self-professed sex enthusiast, beer snob and pesto aficionado, and really sucks at lying.

Comments

  1. Hey Eric,

    Loved your post for today. I have you ever thought that maybe you were making the CEO and your boss look bad by doing such a good job? I have once was not hired for something, because during my probation period, I brought in more clients and sponsors and money than my boss and CEO combined. I was not trying to make them look bad in anyway, just doing my job. I was told I was not going to be hired on because my look and behavior (which had nothing to do with it), was not fitting in with the company. In other words, I did not look like an A&F model (both men and women), with clean-cut and Eddie Bauer clothing to match the company. I dressed nice, but I guess not their style. I later learned that it was because I was doing a better job. In fact after, I learned that the people I brought in left as of them knowing I no longer worked for the company…the clients and sponsors I brought in was because they trusted me and only me. At one point the company begged me to come back..even offered more money etc. But I said no!

    • Thanks so much, means a lot. No – I don’t think it was because I was doing a good job. It’s all speculation, but it could be that the CEO googled my standup, he thought I looked too “hipster-y” or who knows what.

      Per your situation, A&F is horrendous. They’re known for discriminating based on age and “attractiveness”, and have produced racist t-shirts, etc. I think you’re better off not being a part of that company.

      • Charles says:

        I came across your “Dear God, I Need a Job: The Struggle to Find Employment After Sex Work” Blog post. And I wanted to respond, however the comments for that article are closed. So I tracked down some more of your writing to here.
        Your story was similar to my experience in San Francisco. I found SF to be a very unsupportive environment. It is interesting that for a society that displays such a large level of acceptance, there is very little compassion. I felt like a healthy tree that chose to plant myself in a bare desert. No water. Only sunlight. Eventually I hit bottom. And stayed there. I never quite recovered in San Francisco. I recovered by letting go of San Francisco. One day if I move there for work it will be another journey. But for now I am in a place full of water, sunlight and compassion. The East Coast. ;)
        G Luck to ya.

  2. Did you get paid the commissions you were due?

  3. Wow, that’s terrible.

    Fortunately, you don’t need them.

  4. Quite frankly I felt an empathetic punch in the gut as well. I kinda don’t have words to express how frustrated just reading that has made me. I commend your ability to write rationally and thoughtfully about it. Most of the immediate thoughts in my head are much more fury-based.

  5. Eric,

    Excellent post. Something to keep in mind though: Some people need that paycheck, not for themselves, but for those they support (whether that person is their non-working spouse, their children, their elderly parent(s) doesn’t matter).

    In a perfect world, we could all let our ethics carry more weight than in the circumstance encountered by your manager. I look forward to that world.

    Thank you for sharing,
    Brandon

  6. Paul Clark says:

    Hi, Eric. A friend posted this and I had to write, to say the same thing happened to me at a “disruptive’ start-up in SF. They did the same thing, sold me on the company, convinced me to leave an OK gig, etc. …, only to lay me off a few months later. Not because of my “look” but because I wasn’t content on just doing random photoshop mockups that the product couldn’t support, and made it known. Frequently. Don’t rock the boat – their moat is full of people who rocked the boat. Sucks it happened but I’m glad I’m not unique in my opinions of most startups. Keep fighting the good fight!

  7. stupid ceo, hard enough to find a sales guy, let alone a competent one… i’m guessing your old boss realizes this now, and is in need of someone that can actually sell… 3x your asking price!

  8. Rube Suckerberg says:

    I’ve worked in tech for 20+ years now. To say that employers have integrity problems would be an understatement. I wish “at will” employment were replaced with mandatory severance based on tenure, and a two or three month minimum. Employers would have an incentive to make things work rather than treat people like a fungible commodity. It sucks that you had to work for people with integrity problems. Been there myself, being fired while painful in the short-term is preferable to working for unethical people (who sadly are a dime a dozen in the tech industry with all of the fast money sloshing around).

  9. Learnt this the hard way in Berlin, Germany as well. I made a complaint to the HR department of my company for harassment against two colleagues who were making my life miserable – actually in a fairly constructive manner, with hope to fix the problem.
    They fired me the same evening, bringing me to the door straight after telling me I was dismissed. Of course they claimed it had nothing to do with my claim, as that would have been illegal – though I had my boss compliment me on my performance publicly two days before.

    He was actually crying while bringing me out. I completely lost faith in work ethics. And HR are worth even less than what I thought in the past (which wasn’t much already).

  10. I feel your pain. I was laid off because I wasn’t a bro – they kept the bro that replaced me. Really hurt since I took a huge paycut because I believed in my boss (and I turned down a job that would have been a dream job for me), but truly, every time I’ve lost my job I’ve ended up in a better place. Once I didn’t see it for 10 years, but I did eventually get there. You will too. Working for a douchebag who judges you on your appearance isn’t worth your time. Unfortunately, it’s not illegal to be a jerk. :( http://i-sight.com/employee-relations/it%E2%80%99s-not-illegal-to-be-a-jerk/ Related: CEOs are 4x more likely to be psychopaths: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovici/2011/06/14/why-some-psychopaths-make-great-ceos/

  11. None@anonymous says:

    What a nigger would wear? Really dude.

  12. Article was going great until you used the n word. There is nothing else you can compare bad dressing to? Wow. That’s a low blow man and not needed at all.

    • The implication wasn’t about dressing poorly, it was about specifying that my manner of dress might be associated with a particular protected class. If he said that my shirt “looked ethnic” or my pants were “effeminate”, that would not have been legal. Obviously saying nigger or faggot probably wouldn’t happen, but I’m trying to illustrate why just saying “because of what you look like” isn’t actually illegal, per se.

      • Stephen Bayer says:

        So many people jumped on the n word, but the other discriminatory word didn’t seem to be noticed. “Oh no, you can’t say ni#$*r, wtf is wrong with you, but hey, people shouldn’t act like f#*$(ts”. So I guess it looks as if some discrimination is taboo, while others are acceptable.

  13. I got a really strong sense of empathy reading your post.

    When I was made redundant after working at a company for 10.5 years I was utterly gutted. I immediately got sick and wondered how I could possibly support my family without a job.

    Luckily I found another job within a month, but that company went downhill 12 months later, and the next one I went to also failed after 6 months.

    Now I’m in my dream job surrounded by people who astound me with their brilliance on a daily basis.

    If it wasn’t for all the failures, I would still be at the first place, probably earning nowhere near what I’m getting now, and stuck with a bunch of uninspiring people.

    I sincerely hope your story ends the same way.

  14. Eric,

    Nice (sad) to read this. It’s great to see where our rocky horror picture show parties have taken us.

    I have a suggestion.

    Write a business plan, find some techy folks that want to work with you, raise a ton of money, and put your former bosses boss out of business. I would say people being terrible isn’t exactly a function of being inside a corporation and neither is abuse of power. I think knowing they have a business model that is working and that they are losing good people through poor management, you have a pretty good chance of crushing them.

    If you need some help talking it through (I’m in business school now!) or want to reconnect after 8 years (really!?), give me a call 510 207 3850.

  15. Crying about your feelings but felt okay to use the n word, while attempting to associate it with the dress sense of a whole people. Yet in the imortal words of Tupac ‘everyone want to be the have not’s’

    Maybe its an American thing, still doesn’t escuse it. The article was okay without.

    • I don’t think you understood that I was citing an extreme instance of something the character of my boss would have had to say in order to have his comments be tied in with a protected class – if I can glean anything from what my boss said, it was my CEO who was attempting to associate manners of dress with a group of people.

  16. I was fired after I developed a mental illness from all of the stress I was under. I went on short-term disability for a few months to get my head together. When I returned to work I found out that HR lost my doctor’s notes and that I was to be terminated for missing too many work days. It was a major law firm in downtown Saint Louis Missouri. I could not find a lawyer who did not decline the case and send me back to the bar association. After that my career was ruined and I never recovered and ended up on disabilty. No company wanted to hire me. I am mentally disabled and over 40 now. I have little to no friends left and 95% of my family left me. Nobody believes in me anymore and I have no support from the community. No charities can help me either. I’d kill myself but then they would want that and gloat over my dead body. I am not sure what I can do now but I will keeo making an effort to improve.

  17. Mike Graf says:

    “We all need jobs. We need to be employed. ”

    I disagree. All we need is food, water, shelter. I know its a little chicken and egg, but if you have land or some other asset that provides for you, you do not need a job. And its not binary either, if you can get 1/2 your needs met through something that is not a job, then you need a job less than others.

    Some people do need jobs because they’re incapable of figuring out how to get what they need, but most of us given a piece of land and a few simple tools would live reasonably well. Maybe not a tesla S, but good food, friends, family, warm home etc.

    Someday I dream I can leave debt peonage to become a free man w/ land and some low labour forms of necessities (solar panels, orchard, animals etc).

    What do you think?

    • Mike – a very valid point and one with which I agree. But the system entrenches you within itself. It’s hard to go all Into the Wild-sy. But even with this site and the podcast I’m trying to create a a self-sustaining form of self-employment.

  18. We live in a global pandemia of online catharsis. By writting, commenting, posting, sharing and twitting we ease the pain of the tragedy and find the strength to keep going. I wouldn’t be surprised if very soon head doctors start telling their patients to ‘write a blog’ to help them heal.

    But catharsis does not change shit. Action does!

    Learn to live within your means and be free.

    Do it!

  19. Your post made my stomach ache. But it also made me smile because of your depth in analyzing it. I’ve worked at a startup for nearly two years in the PacNW and I see stuff like this happen to people all the time. I also bought in because of the best boss ever, but my best boss ever just bailed last month for another startup. In the end, he started flaking really bad. I love the guy, but wow, he has seriously mind-blowing highs and lows. Nevertheless, I always had his back and he had mine. He tried to take me with him a couple days after he left, but I had just given my word that I’d stay to the new veep. Blah, blah- anyway. I am now being railroaded by this punk with whom I’ve clashed for over a year. I’ve fought him all the way, but I’m growing weary. And without my old boss who knows the full story, I’m all on my own with new management. Long story short, this scumbag is going to win. You know how I can see that coming? I’m a chick and he’s playing the boys club card. Just like that punk-ass CEO played the A&F card on you. But you know what- I’m going to rock on even after the axe comes down. People like us don’t just sink, Eric. We can write and raise consciousness about this crap. And we can laugh at these d-bags and bust ass at our next gig.

  20. When I was 20 I worked for a while at a high-end printing company here in Las Vegas doing digital pre-press. (By “high-end” I mean they printed billboards and the facades for slot machines, which are done using RGB, not CMYK, printers.) I was eventually fired for taking too many breaks. I felt awful about it, because I liked my supervisor and I felt like I had let him down.

    Years later, I ran into him. “I’m sorry I was a screwup when I worked for you,” I told him. He laughed. “Are you kidding? You were the best employee I ever had. It was [the owner] who wanted you fired! He was pissed because he kept seeing you sitting outside smoking. I tried to explain to him that it was because you worked twice as fast as anybody else — so fast that you were actually waiting for jobs to come in. But he was an asshole, and he didn’t care. I hated working there. Him making me fire you was part of the reason I quit, not long after.”

    Weird to feel guilty about losing a job, but I did, until that point. I felt much better after that.

  21. Yeah, I’d not use the slurs. whatever point you were trying to make suddenly gets lost and just like that you are part of the problem. Also, I’m not even sure what “protected class” means.

    • There’s this cool thing on the Interwebs called GOOGLE that lets you search for unrecognized terms. There’s this other cool thing called wikipedia that often defines terms, and in this case, “Protected Class” is well defined by wikipedia. Putting “Protected Class” into GOOGLE serves up the wikipedia definition as it’s first result, thus allowing those who aren’t, to become sure of what “Protected Class” means (and it would have been fewer keystrokes than making the statement about not even being sure about what “protected class” means. It is through this knowledge that one gains the understanding that the use of the slurs was necessary to make the author’s point. He isn’t suggesting that anyone dresses in an unacceptable way, he is stating how inappropriate it would have been IF the CEO’s statement was just slightly different than what it actually was. This allowed the CEO-Hole to get away with something that SHOULD have been AS egregious as making a stated slur, but wasn’t because the CEO-Hole just didn’t utter either of those slurs.
      Making a point in this way requires the reader to apply the “If A=B then C must equal D, but doesn’t, but it should, if not for X” type of logic. Throw in the N word, and that becomes the focus the reader will (sometimes) take on, and forgets that a point was being made. They just get pissed because someone used the slur. Clearly, it’s risky to try to make a point with such hot-button terms. He could have instead used “You dress like someone of a gender I like to discriminate against” or “You dress like someone who’s genetic information I despise” but it would not have made the point nearly as profound or impactful.
      Eric didn’t mention this (please let me know), but unless he did a complete makeover after he was hired, my inclination would have been to swing by CEO-Hole’s office on my way out the door to ask if the stupid motherfucker was blind (no offense to the visually disabled here!) when I was hired – he must have seen Eric before he was hired – or if this was a new “disruptive” technique of management, to just go for a certain “look” over talent, skill or productivity. I probably would have keyed his car in the parking lot too, but that’s just me, sinking to CEO-Hole’s level…

      • Thanks – it was definitely frustrating to have the point of the article (and that specific sentence) lost on some.

        When I interviewed I met four people I believe, including my boss and an SVP (I became the 14th employee at the time, though they had gone through massive cuts through the years before re-branding). The CEO was traveling on business but was very emphatic that he wanted to see me in person as opposed to a phone interview. Because I had competing offers, however, and because everyone else had given me such glowing feedback from my interview, an offer was extended after I had the phone interview with the CEO. He didn’t see me in person until I was already hired. For what it’s worth, at the time I had tiny plugs and a fauxhawk, and a little bit of stubble, all of which you can see in the picture in the article. While maybe not the MOST conservative of choices, certainly didn’t seem too outlandish for an SF startup, nor was I ever asked to alter my appearance before this decision was made, nor made aware of the specifics about my appearance after I was fired.

  22. Forgive them, and go ahead.

  23. You made some respectable points generally there. I looked on the internet to the issue and discovered most individuals should go along with along with your website.

  24. What people say when they do things… and the REAL reason they do them… man, that’s a book right there! I’ve had it happen more times than I can count – In business (I was accused of stealing – untrue, and the company perjured themselves in front of the judge!) and in relationships (OY!) and again and again I find that my intuition and perception of WHY things happened are accurate and correct… BUT NO ONE WANTS TO CONFRONT OR ADMIT IT AT THE TIME! A year later, 3 years later, 5 years later…. someone ALWAYS comes back and in essence tells me “your insights were correct!”…

    And, it does do me good, ’cause when it happens again… I KNOW MY PERCEPTIONS ARE VALID. I’ve gotten a bit zen about it.. .I wait… and I then again get validated. Doesn’t help the pain of whatever it is, but at least I’m not beating myself up for other people’s issues….
    HANG IN THERE!!!

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