Don’t call it schadenfreude. That’s the term for taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, and I’m not guilty of that.
What I feel today, as I review the news that former Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio’s conviction has been upheld, isn’t about pleasure in his mighty fall from power. In fact, it’s not “pleasure” at all.
Instead, tell me what the word is for “taking satisfaction in justice served,” because that’s what I’m guilty of. Right now I’m feeling powerfully and righteously satisfied that a man who caused so much misfortune is getting at least a small slice of what he deserves.
Sadly, there will never be full justice for the likes of Nacchio – and Lay and Skilling and Ebbers and Kozlowski and Rigas and Madoff – because our system of law simply doesn’t allow for it. Any punishment you could mete out that would legitimately count as justice for annihilating the lives of hard-working people the way these men did would run afoul of the 8th Amendment before it was 1% administered.
It’s a curious and unfortunate quirk of our legal system that one man can spend longer in jail – a real jail, not a federal country club – for selling comparatively harmless drugs to consenting adult customers than another man who destroys the life savings of hundreds and thousands of people who never did anything but show up every day and work their asses off in hopes that they could afford to retire one day.
If it seems like I’m taking the Nacchio case personally, there’s a reason. While my case pales in comparison to those his actions harmed the worst, the arrogant bastard did me significant material damage, as well. When Qwest’s “merger” with US West was finalized in the summer of 2000, I was one of the many USW employees shown the door. Joe had a burr under his saddle where the USW PR group was concerned – we’d worked pretty hard to protect our interests against what we saw coming, and he didn’t much like it – so when the deal was sealed a host of were kicked to the curb. To be honest, Nacchio fired more talent than most companies will ever have. Lean and mean, that was the mantra. His favorite metric was “revenue per employee,” and if there was any question about somebody’s ability to drag cash in the door, they were useless.
I’d had the pleasure of working on some really interesting projects prior to my turfing. I had been given the freedom to develop programs so innovative that, to the best of my knowledge, they had never been done before. We had online PR successes doing things that many companies still, nine years later, think of as “new.” We were in the process of rewriting the book on how PR was and could be done. We were aligning these efforts directly with community concerns, and other parts of the business (which also got axe-murdered on day one of Nacchio’s reign) were responsible for dramatic levels of corporate giving. If I described the benefits that USW employees received you’d think I was making it up, but rest assured that nobody today – nobody, short of very high-placed executives, gets anything like the benefit packages USW provided for its managers and workers. It’s true that a lot of our customers weren’t happy with us and rejoiced when the stake was driven through US West’s heart, but I predicted – accurately – that the day would come when they’d wish they had us back.
In other words, US West was a pretty good company, and I personally was doing some of the best work of my professional career. I had unfinished business, and that gripes me to this day. And financially I’ve never quite recovered. The fact that he damaged so many people so much worse than he did me is infuriating.
I’m not the only one who hasn’t recovered, either. Neither has the company. In the wake of the Nacchio debacle it has charted a course that frankly looks a lot more like US West than Qwest, but even though it has figured some important things out, the damage the man did wasn’t of the sort that’s going to get fixed in just a few years.
I can’t imagine a tool, a method or a metric that would allow us to fully asses the damage, the sheer unbridled havoc that Joe Nacchio has inflicted. Even if there were, I’d be afraid to see the results. So while I’m glad to see that he’s going to jail, I lament, and will until the day I die, that he’ll never see true justice.
But imprisonment isn’t the only way life punishes us, I guess, so maybe justice will visit Joe Nacchio in another guise. Whatever the case, let it not be said that I’m a malicious person. I wish for Nacchio nothing more or less than the same thing I wish for every single human alive – that he gets precisely what he deserves.