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Worst Firing Story. Ever.

Think you have a colorful story about a person who was fired? Try topping this one.
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A few months ago in a post about worst fireable offenses I shared actual stories from readers where they described the worst thing they--or an employee--had done.

Their stories were really good.

This one is the best.

Here's what happened (the only changes I've made are intended to make his or her story a little more anonymous):

The Good

I managed almost tens of thousands of Windows servers for a managed services and hosting provider. Our bandwidth was so good we attracted many intruders who were eager to re-purpose our customer's servers for various ends.

Among my technical responsibilities was determining how a compromised server came to be compromised. I was not part of the security team, though; other, better-qualified people tended our IDS, firewalls, etc., and as is the case with many companies there was a lot of blame game playing when intruders successfully breached our boxes.

When I couldn't get the results I wanted out of our security department, I did some research on my own and discovered a great many tools. Eventually I was fortunate enough to examine and document the work of an actual hacker. (Hackers are inventive problem solvers; crackers are people who use hacker tools to gain access to computer resources.)

I reported everything I found, and in time a software patch was issued by the vendor of the software that had acted as a doorway into my customers' servers. I got a lot of pats on the back.

Even so, after a few years my long-repressed inner black sheep began to assert itself. I found things I chose not to report or share with the community. I protected my affected clients, but I didn't do anything to help others protect themselves.

The Bad

Oh, and did I mention that I had an atrocious appetite for illegal drugs? Well, I did. It was bad enough that it frequently impacted my decision-making abilities. My communications with my peers were awkward and left them wondering about my stability, my sanity, and my physical and mental health. If I hadn't worked in an office with only one other person I surely would have been fired over the condition in which I reported to work months before I caused any harm.

Fortunately, as bizarre as it may sound, my email communications were unaffected. My writing was professional, my responses were timely, and my solutions remained elegant. My boss and I kept very different hours and almost never saw one another face to face. The president, corporate officers, and founders adored me because of my willingness to take on last-minute assignments and deliver results in spite of the fact those assignments were never well defined or even fully thought through when they were handed to me.

I know this seems a long digression, but it's relevant.

The Ugly

One day, I used an exploit I hadn't reported to anyone to gain entry to a government-controlled human resources and payroll database.  I stole a copy of the data and spent a sleepless night pouring over what I'd found.

It was all terribly interesting to me. I was having the kind of fun I hadn't had since opening presents when I was six.

Apparently, though, fun alone wasn't enough. I found it necessary to brag about my accomplishment to a co-worker, and I was stupid enough to do it in a voice loud enough to be heard by a guy who was standing nearby.

He took what he heard to human resources and he filled in anything he hadn't heard to create an expanded yet plausible story.

Fired: Not Once, Not Twice, But Three Times

I was fired three times.

First, the HR Director called a meeting between my accuser and my immediate boss, which resulted in an order to terminate me immediately.

My boss didn't do as he was instructed, however, choosing instead to plead my case to the executive above him. I don't know what they said (in fact, I didn't know anything was going on at all), but my firing was undone before it ever happened.

At the end of the day, as I staggered off the elevator and took out the keys to my office, prepared for another graveyard shift, my boss was waiting for me. He told me what had happened without even asking me if the allegations were accurate. I suppose they just seemed so outlandish to him he didn't even consider the possibility they might be true.

It took a week for firing number two to happen. During that time I had almost completed a new product offering. On the day of my penultimate termination I was not in my office but in a different building training the technician I had chosen to administer my new product. Sometime after lunch I was called and told to drop whatever I was doing and march over immediately.

On the way I stopped at my office and found the door standing open.  All the furniture was gone. All that remained was the HR Director and another executive. They fired me (again).

I demanded the return of my personal effects and had a bit of a verbal spar with the executive about our intranet's lack of security. I didn't get anywhere.

Nonetheless I made a phone call to the president of the company. I let him know I was no longer an employee and my current project was ready to go... except I had only just started the first of five days of training necessary to teach someone else how it worked. And all the documentation had been in my office--even the server I was using to host the project wiki was gone.

The president immediately told me I was rehired. He even offered to pay me as a contractor if I'd return to work in the morning to complete the training assignment.

He assured me that once he got to the bottom of what was going on that I would be reinstated and compensated for all my trouble.

Enter the SWAT Team

The next day I was met by armed security guards at the gate to the parking garage and advised against entering the property.

I made the smart decision and didn't argue.

The next day a SWAT team took my front door off the hinges with a battering ram and arrested me.

Though it took years to prosecute me, I wound up serving two years of an eight-year sentence. Why such a long sentence? The story the eavesdropper told included my "plans" to sell my stolen data to the Mexican Mafia, whoever they might be.

Despite all the embellishments and fiction, however, the charges were basically true.

The Aftermath

I no longer mind telling the story as much. I've been out on parole for several years now and have reinvented myself totally. I learned a great deal in prison, mostly about myself, and I know that I'm a better person for the experience.

Sure, I lost a great deal--pride, dignity, freedom, and my profession. What I gained no one can understand without traveling a similarly traumatic and, yes, stupid path. I ate more humble pie in a short time than a whole generation of my more successful peers... and after I choked it all down, I got the opportunity to reinvent myself.

I became a pizza driver at a badly managed mom-and-pop shop so desperate for help they overlooked all my confessed flaws. I learned that an industrious driver can earn as much as $3k a month, and that, combined with the frugality I learned in prison, allowed me to actually save money--enough money to create plans for the future.

As a result I opened a world of possibility, and I'm damned proud of how far I've come. Proud enough to risk telling how I got here in the first place.

Maybe another hotshot 20-something jackass will read this while teetering on the brink of a disastrous decision.

Okay, probably not, but if nothing else, that's what I'll tell myself.

Last updated: Jul 10, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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