Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Another Day Zero of Double-barrel Unemployment

While it is absolutely true that there's no nice way to tell employees you won't be employing them anymore, there are definitely some approaches that are better than others. The internet start-up where I landed following my 1998 job elimination is a shining example of both extremes.

I loved that job for a couple of years. We all did. We were growing every day and working on this super cool internet thingy -what's not to love? Our product was a web-enabled résumé management tool, hosted in-house. We had customers ranging from tiny architect firms to federal agencies to massive global Fortune-100 corporations, and most of the time, they loved us. My job was to train recruiters to use the product, and then to provide ongoing user support. I'm not a technical guy, but most of our users were touching the internet for the first time, so my coworkers and I felt pretty hi-tech. Business was still really brisk when the first layoff came.

The company had decided to outsource its data entry function, which would eliminate some 30 lower-level jobs from our company of no more than 100. I've never seen so much care and caution go into a layoff. On Day Zero, they brought in career counselors, a résumé-writing expert and a couple of undercover police officers (there had recently been a few incidents of layoff-related violence in the news - enough that the term "going postal" was changing to "going dot-com"). They gave the victims 30 days' notice. They offered the departing employees bonuses for sticking around for a two-month transition period. They paid them all four months' severance - unheard of, for data entry staff. It made me feel better about working there, knowing that if things went bad, at least I'd be laid off really gently.

About eight months later, as big competitors entered our marketplace and began to beat us badly - and as the dot-com boom began its implosion - we had a second layoff. This time, it was only about a dozen of our then 120ish headcount (we had resumed growing after the first layoff). This time, it was simply a cost-saving staff reduction. This time, there was an all-hands meeting and more talk of how hard it is to do this, blah blah blah. However, this round featured no notice, no stick-around bonuses, no job placement assistance and two months' severance. Not terrible, but a far cry from the first round.

My turn came another ten months later, some 45 days after 9/11. It is at this point that I realize I should stick to criticizing only the way my Day Zero was handled, but I just can't do that. One of the things that had made this company such a happy place at first was our president. He was a friendly, warm-fuzzy, outside-the-box-thinking, "vision guy." There were two problems with that. One was the fact that, as we grew and tasted some success and started to encounter competition, we needed management that was capable of managing the company, and vision guys, especially ours, are rarely thus qualified. The other problem was that his vision was wrong; in the long run, it simply was not going to work as a business model, now that the market was over the initial novelty of it. This guy had surrounded himself with experienced, savvy and highly-skilled technical people, but he grew tired of listening to them tell him his vision was flawed and wouldn't work.

Since that second round of layoffs, we had been joking about anything that looked like a bad way of telling us we'd been let go. Once, after someone had quit, the name tags on our mailboxes were rearranged, and in his momentary failure to find his name, a coworker declared that he'd been fired and no one had told him. Once, a few employees' access cards failed to open the door to the office and they had to enter through the reception area. "Are you trying to tell us we're fired?" No, not yet. Our I.T. guys reset the phone system once, resulting in all of our phones displaying "new employee" in place of our names. "A massive layoff?" No. Not yet.

Here's a tip for you employers who are planning on letting people go: Don't start shutting stuff off until you've had a chance to notify them. As user support employees, my group had a master password, with which we could access any customer's database for training and troubleshooting. I took a call the minute I arrived, and the master password didn't work. My manager tried it on her system. Fail. Went down the hall to the I.T. security guy's office, where we were informed, after some stuttering and stammering and lots of "ums," that it had been accidentally reset. He gave us the new one, and we handled a couple of calls.

Then our vision president called an all-hands meeting at 9:15AM, with about 5 minutes' notice. He made grand declarations that for too long, the company had been divided pretty much along either side of the post-9/11 flag hanging on the wall in the reception area. He told us of two phone conversations he had just had - one resulting in our Chief Technology Officer's termination, the other resulting in departure of our Director of Operations. Uh oh. My side of the flag. He grandly declared that from this day forth, we would be One Company again. He told us that our senior programmer would assume the CTO role. That's all. Dismissed. Oh and there will be individual meetings for the rest of the morning, followed by another all-hands at 1:00.

We got back to our desks and took a couple more calls, and the new master password failed. Went to the I.T. security guy again. The man didn't try to lie again. Literally said, "Oops" and reset it again. Obviously, there were to be cuts in our department. I will never forget that feeling. I quietly began forwarding all my funny emails and updated résumé and anything important to my home address. The poor senior programmer-turned-CTO's first assignment was to play executioner for the day. He came for Bill, a senior I.T. guy not in our department, but two cubes down from me. Bill didn't even come back. "Geez - they're actually killing them!" Executioner came for my boss, next. She was back within 3 minutes, crying and packing up her desk while the executioner watched. Nice. Another coworker and I helped her carry her stuff to her car, where she said good luck - they wouldn't tell her who else was on the list, but she assumed it was going to go pretty deep.

I heard the executioner clear his throat outside my cubicle. "Joe? You got a minute?" I said "Nope! I'm very busy, here! Come back later!" No good. Two weeks' severance and a COBRA insurance form. I was given the option of coming back the next day for my personal things, which they would pack up for me, or clearing out now, with the executioner watching. I had more or less created a second home in my cubicle, and I wasn't about to leave it to them to pack it up. I couldn't, however, pack it up anywhere near as quickly as my boss had done hers. It took between 30 and 45 minutes and 3 requests by the executioner for me to hurry up, before I was cleared out. As an added emotional bonus, the receptionist had not been informed of who was being laid off, so twice she tried to send customer calls to me. On the first one, I simply said "what is wrong with you?" and she gave the call to someone else.

When she tried again to send me a call, I picked up, told the customer they should find another recruiting system provider as soon as possible, and hung up. Executioner didn't like that, but I was pretty much done packing up at that point, so he got over it.

I learned later that another one of my department was on the list, cutting the group by 50%. Overall, there were about 15 poorly-handled executions in our company of 80, that day. The company put a classy little post-script on this story when they refused to pay any of us our accrued vacation time. Luckily, that's illegal in Maryland, so they eventually gave in. Nice.

This company is no longer in business, but I'm sure its former president is still having visions.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Day Minus-75 & Some Day Zeros of Double-barrel Unemployment

As a veteran of four involuntary separations from employers, and the witness to a slew of others, I know that there truly is no good way to do them. It's like breaking off a romantic relationship. Unless both parties are really ready to go their separate ways, somebody is going to get hurt.

I have a degree in business administration and deep-down, I know that a company's need to reduce headcount is simply a business decision. It's not personal, and they'll go out of their way to make sure they tell you so. It has nothing to do with your performance, they say. We appreciate all you've done for us, they say. But we're only human; if you're in a department of six people, all doing the same job, and you're one of only three who get laid off, you can't help but wonder how the selections were made. They can tell you not to take it personally from now until the end of time, but there's just no way - especially in a smaller company - not to, at least a little bit. The bottom line, regardless of the company, the job or the manner in which the termination is executed, is that you are no longer needed there. No longer necessary to the company. No longer - let's face it - WANTED. So yeah - it's unpleasant.

While it's true that there is no good way to tell an employee that his/her services are no longer required, there are definitely better and worse ways to do it. I've seen both. Day Minus-75 at the Vortex of Doom was kind of fun, for me - mainly thanks to my months of advance notice. The acquiring company had been growing exclusively by way of purchasing firms and laying half of their employees off on the first day, so they had had a lot of practice. Individual managers met with the "affected" employees one-on-one and did the actual notifications. (By the way - "affected" is kind of insulting. EVERYONE at the company is "affected;" the laid-off people are LAID-OFF. I hate that.) After that was done, we had an all-hands meeting/conference call with the leaders of the new regime, telling the survivors (and those who would be kept around for the transition period) how wonderful the future would be.

That part is pretty typical, and they executed it very smoothly. The ugly part was the next day, when our new CEO rode into the office on his white stallion and immediately started insulting each and every one of us and our worthless failure of company. It didn't help that he had the demeanor and manner of speaking of a cheesy televangelist. The bit about his 9-year old son "crying himself to sleep" the night before, because "Daddy was going to Maryland to fire nice people" was just galling. For my part, I was relieved. It had been a long time coming. When called in to the CFO's office (Boss Lady was conveniently traveling), I practically skipped down the hallway.

My other forced separations were not handled well. Okay - the one actual firing was, technically. I had been hired to be a customer service manager at this little tech company. Three months later, the owner fired the director who had hired me, and the plan for me went out the window. I floated around for a couple of months before landing in the sales office, reporting to the VP of Sales. My "customer service" job became mostly sales, something I had neither an interest in nor the aptitude for - with a quota and everything. I limped along for several months, selling what I could and making it look as good as possible. At the end of my eleventh month (the first one in which I had exceeded my quota), I was awkwardly called back to the office from a late Friday appointment, sat down and fired. Technically, my boss didn't say a single thing wrong, but he had a smugness about him - almost a smirk - that made it so remarkably easy for me to understand the allure of going postal. It really was for the best, though. I'm no salesman.

The layoff from the tiny gene testing company was not fun. My "department" consisted of just me and my boss - my friend since 7th grade. He was acting very strangely, unable to converse with me that morning. Our receptionist announced an all-hands meeting would be starting immediately in the main conference room. Normally, such meeting announcements came via email several days ahead of time. Odd. On my way to the conference room, I am practically tackled by our HR Manager/Executive Assistant (a great EA, but completely unqualified in HR). "Didn't you get my email?" I had not. "You need to come to the pre-meeting over in the small conference room." I am embarrassed to say that I did not understand what that meant until a few minutes later, when I saw who was in the "pre-meeting."

HR Lady, the company's lawyer, myself, and three employees from other departments, all looking extremely anxious. Our company and a larger competitor had been engaged in a lengthy legal battle over some genetics-related patents. The good news is we've settled all the outstanding suits. The bad news is, we're giving up the bulk of our business to these guys for a big cash payment. Bye, Joe. Bye, sales guys. Bye, a handful of biologists. You're welcome to go hear the remainder of the all-hands meeting, already in progress. Take your time cleaning out your desks and saying goodbye and whatnot.

It felt personal, thanks to the small number of "impacted" employees. (That's another way of saying "affected," and it makes me cringe every time I hear it.) But I got over it quickly, and was working again - at a better, more exciting job - within two months.

The next layoff was the worst, so I think it deserves its own post. Maybe tomorrow...

Thanks for reading. It gets better, really it does! :)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Days Minus-575 and Minus-545ish of Double-barrel Unemployment

Vortex of Doom Communications became a vortex back in 2007, at least 18 months prior to its eventual acquisition by a slightly-less-doomed company - possibly much earlier. One thing about riding a vortex is that you get to circle the drain many times before finally leaving the sink. It was far from a death spiral in mid-2007, but those first few long, slow arcs around the drain had begun.

My better-than-I-probably-deserved boss had thrown a couple of large raises and several spot-bonuses my way, but those days appeared to be at an end. She still couldn't stomach the thought of either replacing me or doing her job without me, and I wasn't particularly fond of the prospect of either replacing this job or doing it for some other boss. So, we had pledged our loyalty to each other. If she left, she had to take me with her and I would stick it out until she was ready to leave. As things at her VP level got unbearable, I would talk her in off "the ledge," and she would do the same for me when my job was made impossible by company actions beyond our control.

Day Minus-575 - Friday, May 4, 2007

joe: morning!
bosslady: yes, it is.
joe: yikes. hey - did we ever figure out how i'm gonna invoice that stuff that doesn't exist in the system yet?
bosslady: yes, but i don't want to do anything to the system until "we" figure out how the fuck we're pricing our product.
joe: um...
bosslady: marketing and product management should have a pricing model done by
joe: 2011?
bosslady: 2018
bosslady: KMN
joe: i will not kill you now. how about you FMN!
bosslady: fire?
joe: :)
bosslady: no i will NOT fire you now. or ever. you're stuck here until the bitter end.
joe: when is that? have you heard something?
bosslady: not soon enough.
joe: now now...
joe: ((hide under desk))
bosslady: do NOT "now now" your boss when she's on the ledge!
joe: i know it's beautiful outside, but that doesn't mean the ledge is any kind of place to be. it's covered in all manner of bird poop and whatnot. just stay inside.
bosslady: i'm okay with bird poop. i deal with shit all day.
joe: dammit. i walked right into that one.
joe: ok. well, stay off the ledge because i'm asking nicely and saying please.
bosslady: not gonna throw me another softball?
bosslady: it IS very poopy out here!
joe: WAIT!! step back off the poopy ledge. i have a reason for you.
bosslady: please share.
joe: 3 words - Spring Shoe Sales.
bosslady: i'm in a meeting that was scheduled for 12-1. it is now 2:15. kmn.
joe: yikes.
bosslady: and speaking of shoes - i bought a fab new pair on monday. i think i'll wear them to my new job...
joe: nooooooo... here will be just fine.
joe: you might end up where fabulous shoes of awesomeness are totally unappreciated.
bosslady: that's ok. i will appreciate their awesomeness.
joe: hey - that's only 50% of the purpose for which fab shoes are designed. the shoes will be sad if they're only appreciated by the wearer.
bosslady: damn. that's a good one. i hadn't thought of that.
joe: yeah - you don't want your shoes to be sad, do you?
bosslady: ok - i am impressed with your awareness of my mental state and that of my shoes.
joe: thank you. are you off the ledge, yet?
bosslady: that would be a yes if i had jumped, you know.
joe: now listen you!
bosslady: fine. we're done here anyway. on my way back to my office...

Day Minus-545ish - Week of June 4, 2007

joe: if this hold music is my "bonus," i think i'll pass.
bosslady: chill out i'm dialing in now, smartass.
joe: are all your meetings and conference calls as depressing as this one?
bosslady: yes. not to mention boring.
joe: super. ok then. see you on the ledge tomorrow. i'll bring the rum and tequila.
joe: maybe a lime or two. health be damned.
bosslady: you're not allowed to die - just like you're not allowed to quit.
joe: if the stuff of the past 8 months didn't kill me, the lung surgery didn't kill me, driving here on Vicodin every morning hasn't killed me and this place hasn't killed me...
bosslady: are you still on that stuff?
joe: [whistle innocently, look around]
joe: what?
bosslady: lol
joe: there's still some pain at night. so, yeah. some mornings, i float here on a cloud of hydrocodone and broken dreams.
bosslady: ROFL
bosslady: it's cool. you do what you gotta do. just be careful.
joe: aye - i am. but you know what?
bosslady: ?
joe: i have you to thank for my love of tequila (and [Maris]'s, for that matter). i never touched the stuff until you gave me that Patron Silver (see -- i even stop to do caps!) last christmas.
bosslady: um, sorry?
joe: no, no - it's awesome stuff, and we are forever in your debt for the introductory bottle. just sayin'. when this place goes kablooey, we'll be left with Patron taste and a Cuervo budget! :)
bosslady: ah yes. hadn't thought of that. now for your off the ledge talk...
joe: oh whatever, boss.
bosslady: don't make me come over there!
joe: lol
bosslady: seriously. don't. i don't like it over there, now. i feel like whenever i come to your desk, all the engineers shut up and listen to our conversations.
joe: can't hear you. out on the ledge...
bosslady: no ledge! let's see here... you like your boss...
joe: well, "like" is a little strong.
bosslady: shoosh!
bosslady: you have a great commute...
bosslady: there's free sodas and cup-o-noodles...
bosslady: um...
joe: wow is that weak.
bosslady: you get to put the top down when you do your bank runs...
bosslady: you get to listen to fascinating engineer debates outside your cube all day...
joe: okay, if i come in off the damn ledge, will you stop?
bosslady: yep!
joe: thank you.
bosslady: HA! i'm queen of the ledge talk!!
joe: that you are, ma'am. that you are, indeed.
bosslady: =))

Monday, June 7, 2010

Days Minus-1,151 & Minus-696 of Double-Barrel Unemployment

Since one of the big differences between my prior stints as an unemployed person and this one is the fact that this job had been for most of its duration beloved, I feel it would behoove me to take a minute and shed some light on why I had so adored it. Long before this latest unemployment story began and even longer before it became "double-barreled," there was a story of employment bliss. I can't really do justice to the coolness of this little software company, my job and my boss, so my natural inclination is just not to try at all. But - wait a minute. Did I actually just use "behoove" in a sentence? Whoa! What is that about? Quick - somebody hire this guy, before he says behoove again!

It's pretty simple, really. The actual work I was doing was just challenging enough to keep me from getting bored, most of the people around me were really cool, the pay was good and the commute short. More importantly, I was blessed with a relatively hands-off, extremely smart and smart-ass little boss lady who had the rare gift of ample common sense. She also happened to be the most upfront and candid boss I've ever known, and within my first few months at the Vortex of Doom she was sharing details about the company, its executives and board and its future plans. She wasn't reckless with information; she decided that she could trust me, and although the Vortex is now long-gone, I won't betray that trust by sharing it all here. I'll only share illustrative examples of our work communications - names changed and all that. By the way - she swore like a sailor, especially once the company's downward spiral was underway, and she made me cuss, too. Before I met her, I never used profanity. What? Why are you looking at me like that?

Anyway, this little company, and Bosslady in particular, relied very heavily on instant messaging to communicate. This came in handy, because she was constantly in meetings and/or off-site. She was the VP-Finance and Controller for the Vortex, and worked with the salesdudes and customers to help structure - and ultimately approve - their deals. She loved the salesdudes, and they worked and partied HARD when they attended trade shows and such, but she was tough and mature enough to still be the bad cop when they tried to push through bad deals. Despite all the promise of this still-growing little company, by the time I joined her (about a year after she had started), she was not only becoming cynical about the Vortex, but had decided she didn't even really like accounting, anymore.

Day Minus-1,151 - Friday, September 30, 2005

bosslady: you there?
joe: nope.
bosslady: sucker! have i taught you nothing? you shouldn't have answered! now i'm gonna ask you questions and annoy you.
joe: DOH!
joe: joe's not here right now, but your IM is important to him. please leave a message about how awesome you think he is, and he will consider whether or not to get back to you. thank you. (BEEP).
bosslady: lol - nice try. how many orders so far?
joe: um... it's only 10:30am, lady. try zero. zero orders. i was about to take a nap.
bosslady: OK, so you're getting used to the whole quarter-end madness. that's good!
bosslady: but i was told there would be like a million in orders from asia and they were supposed to be here by now. it's already like 10:30 at night in tokyo.
joe: ROFLMAO APAC orders! you slay me.
bosslady: now now.
joe: really? you're gonna now now me at 10:30. ooh, it's going to be a long day.
bosslady: i reserve the right to now now anyone at any time. now now is my thing.
joe: you don't own it.
bosslady: yes i do. i own it. it's mine. nah-nah!
joe: by the way - where are you?
bosslady: :)
joe: i won't tell.
bosslady: i'm at starbucks. there was a big accident on the bridge, and i couldn't sit in that traffic for one more minute. deals are being made, left and right.
joe: ugh.
bosslady: don't cry - i'm heading in soon. so where are we in bookings? $6.5ish, right?
joe: roughly. and what are we expecting today? eleventy?
bosslady: lol
joe: :(
bosslady: try eleventy bazillion, but that includes the missing apac orders.
joe: Kill. Me. Now.
bosslady: hey - KMN is kind of my thing, too. you can say it, but i'll never kill you! i need you too much. besides, you know you love this stuff.
joe: eleventy bazillion is an awful lot of beans. you'll have to help CFOman count them. :)
bosslady: hey - there's no reason to throw beans at me this early! besides, can i tell you a secret?
joe: another one? sure!
bosslady: fuck beans!
joe: wow! fuck beans???
bosslady: i HATE the beans. i don't even like accounting. i haven't for a while. shhhh...
joe: huh.
joe: i hear the fax! brb...
bosslady: yay!
bosslady: is it an order?
bosslady: is it for eleventy bazillion dollars?
bosslady: is it a new customer?
bosslady: is it a clean order?
bosslady: whose customer is it?
bosslady: ANSWER ME!!!
joe: i can't help but think that a customer whose PO numbers start with TWELVE (12!) zeros is maybe just a bit too . . .
joe: optimistic.
bosslady: LOL
bosslady: =))
joe: (their accounting manager in a meeting with their accounting software rep...)
bosslady: killing me
joe: "we need more zeros, man! we're going to be doing close to one quadrillion POs."
bosslady: literally crying here. people are staring at me.
joe: sorry. had to get that out. it's a little $30K hardware-only order for BlahBlah.
bosslady: shit. OK, i'm heading in now.

Day Minus-696 - Friday, September 30, 2006

bosslady: the monsoon of orders is coming. you ok out there?
joe: kill me?
bosslady: not a chance.
bosslady: wow - you are an order-scanning MACHINE
joe: i put crack on my corn flakes this morning.
bosslady: lol and you didn't think to share?
joe: i kinda thought everyone else around here had already had more than enough.
bosslady: even me?
joe: no - not you. you're running on pure audit-hell aggravation energy, i assume.
bosslady: ugh. you got that right!
joe: ah, quarter-end. where the fun never . . .
joe: . . . starts.
bosslady: lol - i was going to say begins.
joe: i need drugs.
bosslady: me too!
joe: oh and btw - those little baby valiums = useless.
bosslady: so THAT'S why you've been so complacent today!
joe: lol
joe: well, that, plus my new attitude of whatEVER. and the fact that i haven't really gotten to the hard part of this pile, yet.
bosslady: atta boy! that's why you're my favorite order processing machine! =)
joe: yeah, yeah. don't get too excited, i'm also just pacing myself with my ranting, this time.
bosslady: i know. just keep the rants directed at me. i may be on the same page with you, but others, not so much.
joe: aye-aye, cap'n!

Okay - this is running a little longish. More about the Vortex of Doom later. Much. (Much more - not much later!)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Customer Disservice Fantasy Call #2

Me: Barney-Fife-Custard-Nervous-spank-you-floor-gloating-this-is-painful-may-I-tease-off-your-heresy-fumbler?

Caller: Hi. This is Edward Something. I'm calling about my mother's policy.

Me: Of course, sir. How can I help... Wait - you understood my greeting?

Caller: What greeting?

Me: When I said, "Barney-Fife-Custard-Nervous-spank-you-floor-gloating-this-is-painful-may-I-tease-off-your-heresy-fumbler?" That greeting. You understood all that?

Caller: Well, I thought I did, but now that you mention it...

Me: You must have mis-heard me, sir. Perhaps it's a bad connection on your end. I am required to greet each caller thusly: [clears throat] Bummer Life Customer Service, thank you for holding. This is Gern - may I please have your policy number?


Me: Well?

Caller: It's my mother's policy.

Me: Super. Does it have a number?

Caller: Is this fun for you?

Me: Sir?

Caller: I want to talk to your supervisor.

Me: No problem, sir. My supervisor requires us to give him the policy number of any caller we transfer to him.

Caller: I don't care what he requires. Let me talk to him.

Me: One moment, sir... [Places the caller on hold, just as the digital loop of hold muzak is starting the Yes masterpiece "Gates Of Delirium." Twelve minutes and fifty seconds later, just as Steve Howe is launching into the soaring third movement...] I'm transferring you now--


Me: Of course. [Returns the caller to hold, waits an additional nine minutes, one second...] Sir?

Caller: Wow! That is the best Asia song I've ever heard!

Me: WHAT???

Caller: It was just amazing. I mean, so many changes, so many moods and movements in one song. And the guitar! Oh! It's like poetry and war and an intricately choreographed car chase filmed by Stephen Speilberg - all rolled into one diamond-studded package. The Asia of the 80s was good, and I have nothing bad to say about Trevor Rabin's guitar, but there's just no comparison to Howe and Wakeman and the psychedelic transcendental art-rock majesty of albums like "Relayer." You know?

Me: Did you say "Asia," sir?

Caller: Yeah. That was Asia on the hold muzak, just now.


Caller: Hello?

Me: Asia, sir?

Caller: Yes. Asia. What is your name? When am I going to get to talk to your supervisor?

Me: It should only be a moment now, sir. He's listening to "2112," by Triumph.

Caller: I don't understand.

Me: [click]