Monday, July 12, 2010

Other People's Day Zeroes of Double-barrel Unemployment

One of the benefits of being laid off with advance notice, as I was in 2008, is that there's time for support groups to form. My coworkers and I had transition periods ranging from two weeks to several months. A few weeks before my personal Day Zero - around Day Minus-20 or so - several of us engaged in the modern therapeutic ritual of The Sharing of Layoff Stories. I know there are now approximately eleventy bazillion of these anecdotes floating about in cyberspace, but these are more real to me because they actually happened to my friends (or, at least, to friends of friends).

I've always found that having something bad happen to me, and then immediately hearing stories of worse things happening to others is equal parts comforting and just damned annoying, but what are you going to do? It's a natural response. "You got laid off? I know this guy who got laid off on the day his house burned down." "You got hit by a car and broke every bone in your body? I once got run over and decapitated."

It's my own fault. I started it by sharing with my coworkers a story my wife had just emailed to me, about her less-than-brilliant company doing its first layoff. They started with the receptionist and their Human Resources/Payroll/Benefits person - a person who had no backup. So, they had no plan for greeting visitors or answering the phones, and they put someone with zero experience - or interest - in HR/Payroll/Benefits in charge of trying to do those three jobs. The company also never said anything about this layoff of ten percent of their staff to surviving employees. No email, no meeting, no memo - nothing. The news was spread by the panic-stricken rumor mill.

A coworker in my department immediately offered us her story from a couple of jobs ago. She and about 80 of her coworkers were ushered into a conference room scarcely large enough to hold them all. They were given the 30-second "times are tough and you lot no longer work here" notification speech. The company was privately owned, and as far as the employees had known, it was doing well, so this was a shock to all of the rank and file. There were long-tenured coworkers, and she said there was crying, shouting and threats of violence. For the next thirty uncomfortable minutes, there was a very contentious "Q&A" session, in which their HR Director deflected every question except those about COBRA coverage.

Just as word was making its way through the crowd of victims that the front doors had been locked from the outside, an announcement was made that everyone was free to please leave immediately through the fire doors in the back, which opened directly into the parking lot. As the stunned and furious downsized rabble filed out, each was handed a box containing his or her hastily-packed personal belongings and a final paycheck, as well as a formal letter warning them that anyone returning to the premises would be arrested for trespassing. Sweet.

Another friend had a roommate who had been sent with a large number of his coworkers to an off-site meeting at a nearby college lecture hall. There, they were notified of their unemployed status and told not to return to the office, where their access cards would no longer work. Their belongings would be mailed to their homes. Charming.

Someone else had been laid off in a manner so pathetic as to almost be funny. He arrived at work to find his access card would not open either the parking garage door or the building's side entrance. Several of his coworkers were having the same problem, and a bunch of them made their way through the main lobby to the reception area. There, the receptionist leaped from her chair and blocked the hallway a couple of the employees were attempting to enter. My coworker was heading down the opposite corridor when the receptionist half-screamed "NO! WAIT! You all have to stay here and wait for the HR Manager." A couple of them waited there. Several made their way to their desks, where they were unable to log onto the network. At one point, the HR Manager was seen running after one of the wayward employees. It took all morning to get them all rounded up and fired.

In another story, a small company laid off one employee - their Jamaican-American receptionist, a single mother. The next day, a VP visited the office and uttered the following gem: "Sometimes a company is like a Holstein cow, and you have to cut away the black spots." The VP didn't mean it "that way," but given that the receptionist had been the only black employee, it did not go over well.

One of our sales guys chimed in with a tale of a CEO getting what he deserved. He thought this story would make us feel better about losing our jobs, while our own failure of a President took a huge bonus check and danced off to his next $300,000-a-year job. So, this CEO of a small brokerage firm was the kind of liar who was so detached from reality that he could scare away prospective investors. Once, when asked for an easily-verifiable forecast of the company's sales for the present month, he gave a number that was roughly ten times the real number. He did this in front of a number of employees from several departments, all of whom were fully aware of how ludicrous his answer had been.

Not long before being fired, this CEO was forced to set up one of those "sexual harassment in the workplace" seminars -- due to complaints by several women in the office - about HIM. He arrived just as the consultant/instructor was being introduced, tip-toed creepily up behind her and proceeded to massage her shoulders. Yeah, he was fired. He didn't take it well. In fact, he had to be escorted from his office by the police, as he refused to accept his termination and leave on his own. You know - that one did kind of make me feel a little bit better, however briefly.

These stories are just a handful of illustrations of what I have come to accept as a universal truth: Nothing is ever, EVER so bad that it can not be worse.


  1. I see my story! I see my story! Hey, I'm FAMOUS! Woohooooo!

  2. When one company I worked for did their first layoff, they gave very generous severance packages. After one particular woman in the IT department was canned on Thursday, they discovered that she was critical to some function or other and shouldn't have been let go. So on Friday they told her that she wasn't laid off, that her severance was canceled and if she didn't show up on Monday she would be fired.

  3. Wow. That is just wretched. We had formal Severance Agreements to sign at the Vortex of Doom, which would have helped that IT employee. Well, maybe. 99% of it was written with the company's protection in mind - not the employee (surprise, surprise). What an ugly side of business.