If Carly Fiorina’s campaign for the presidency gains traction, we’ll be hearing a lot about the F-word.
The F-word is fired. Fiorina, it seems, fired employees at Hewlett Packard during her tenure (1995-2005) as the company’s CEO and was herself subsequently fired by HP’s corporate board. Fiorina started out as a secretary in a real estate office and worked her way into a corporate sales job at ATT before joining Hewlett Packard.
Most voters will want to examine her professional record—which is her primary qualification for seeking the Presidency—carefully. This will include the company’s performance under her tenure, her compensation and mode of leave taking from HP, and her treatment of employees. But the fact that she was ultimately fired from HP is potentially scandalous only to those living out careers in relatively fire-proof precincts (say, academia or perhaps a government bureaucracy, where it is virtually impossible to measure performance and be held accountable, and little regard for cutting costs).
Still, Democrats are gleeful that they can tie Fiorina to this f-word. Seizing the moment, the New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz’s latest satire purports to reveal the findings of a survey establishing that Fiorina, who is obviously less well-known than those who have been in politics all their lives, has “high name recognition among those she fired.”
Har de har har. The irrepressible Borowitz goes on, “Impressively, Fiorina’s hundred-per-cent name recognition among fired H.P. employees ranks her ahead of other names mentioned in the survey, such as Darth Vader (ninety-nine per cent) and Satan (ninety-seven per cent).” Nice that poor Darth, who has been a recluse since Dick Cheney left town, got an outing.
Not quite up to New Yorker-style satire, CarlyFiorina.org, which went live when Fiorina officially launched her campaign, announces, “Carly Fiorina didn’t register this domain. So I am using it to tell you how many people she laid off at Hewlett-Packard,” the website says.
Fiorina reportedly laid off 30,000 HP employees, a whopping number, but the website is not the handiwork of one of them. CNN Money confirmed that the man behind the website is Mike Link, a marketing employee at the Service Employees International Union in Washington, D.C., a union closely allied with the Democratic Party.
Leaving aside that President Obama, who likely never fired a soul before ascending to the presidency, has in effect laid off millions through ineptitude and bad policies, the public has every right to know about those who were fired during Fiorina's tenure. Why was a downsizing of this magnitude needed? How was it done and what provisions were made for those being let go?
After an unfortunate verbal infelicity, Mitt Romney was portrayed by the Obama campaign as somebody who got his jollies firing people. Firing people is one of the worst tasks there is, but sometimes it is necessary. In some instances, it is the only way to save a company. If this was the case at HP, old ladies dependent on dividends from stock portfolios that include a chunk of HP ought to thank Fiorina for doing something nobody likes to do. CNN quoted sources recalling that stock declined under Fiorina, a charge she must also answer. Unlike Mitt Romney, who seemed stunned and unable to fight back when portrayed as a heartless executive who found pleasure in laying off employees, feisty Fiorina is likely to confront these charges aggressively.
In addressing this issue, Fiorina can do a public service in educating people about some important economic realities. There was a time not long ago when the economy was growing that it was assumed that workers who lost a job would be able to find another job. That this is less the case now is a reflection of our current economic doldrums. Fiorina must explain how businesses must meet budgets, create profits and service customers in order to create jobs and add value. She must take care to show that she understands and cares about the hardships faced by those out of jobs, but also understands what it takes to make a business—and an economy—grow.
Ms. Fiorina knows something about being fired, since she has been fired herself. Most people don’t get the golden parachute of a Silicon Valley CEO, but being fired publicly is a mortifying event than can change the course of a life. Fiorina was fired in part because Hewlett Packard’s acquisition of Compaq, which she pushed through, did not solve HP’s financial problems. The firing was very public.
Fiorina knows better than most that in the business world, failures of the sort that might be hidden in government are punished. Unable to depend on endless funds from the taxpayer, a business has to hold people responsible in order to survive. Often the punishment—losing a job in public—is humiliating. But surviving such a failure can be a valuable learning experience. In The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, Megan McArdle argues that “pain is how we learn.” Unconditional bailouts and cosseting are not in the long run beneficial.
If you work hard, get a job of some prestige and then get fired, and still get back in the saddle, that builds character. I hate to brag, but it so happens that I belong to the sorority of the fired. I was fired from a gossip column, and, adding to the sense of disgrace, it was mentioned in a rival newspaper. "Next week, after I am out of this job,” I all too accurately reflected, “I could get run over by a horse carriage on Fifth Avenue, and it would not rate a mention.”
In the weeks afterwards, I sat on the green sofa in my living room looking green myself. I suffered. But it was ultimately a good thing: I love gossip, but I found a career path that has been more meaningful. I would never have edited the The Women’s Quarterly, a publication of substance, published by my current employer, and possibly never have written a single book if I had not been fired and forced to adapt.
Think how much better a leader President Obama could have been if he had been fired somewhere along the way and had to go through the concomitant soul searching required to come back from the experience. He might have learned humility, how to talk to people who disagree with him, and to make needed changes.The good news for Fiorina is that, if she talks about the F-word in the right way, she can make having fired and been fired an asset. After all, most Americans have at some time in their lives or had a serious setback and had to go ahead with their lives. Fiorina can use having been fired and having had to fire people to show what gumption, courage, and coming back from a fall mean. Americans love nothing more than a comeback story.