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.


  1. Sorry, but I'm LMAO at what you said to the customer whose call was put through to you while the executioner was watching you pack out. Heeheeheeheehee.

    Imagine being that poor receptionist that day? She probably hadn't even been given a list or any guidance whatsoever. Poor sod.

    Not to make light of your being laid off, but you DO tell the story in such an amusing way - it's totally your fault that I'm still chuckling at your misfortune!

  2. No no - laughing at my misfortune is what this is all about! And, despite the wretched way in which this termination was handled, the ensuing layoff turned out to be one of my easiest. I started temping pretty much full-time withing a couple of weeks, and by Christmas I had an offer for a higher-paying job even closer to home. It doesn't diminish the scuzziness of that Day Zero, but it was a great example of that "when one door closes, another opens" phenomenon.