Layoffs have been in the air for a while now, and have even hit quite close to home for me, so I thought I would share a story of a different layoff from a different time, to put some things into perspective and (hopefully) offer a modicum of comfort to folks who’s LinkedIn profiles currently sport that fancy green “OpenToWork” banner.
Back in 2006, I was working at one of the top-rated regional banks in the US. In 2008 this bank found itself very much on the wrong side of the housing crisis, and as a result was bought out by a much larger bank for pennies on the dollar.
After the buyout things were relatively quiet for a month or two. Everyone knew changes were coming, but nobody could predict what would actually happen. For example, my bank had an IT department of over 2,500 people. The bank who was acquiring us had an equally mammoth tech organization. So we knew there were redundancies in more than just the typical service groups like accounting and HR, but we had no idea which projects, skills, and staff were missing from the buyer’s side. We didn’t know who might be “safe”
The result was that my bank’s IT organization became even more risk averse than usual (which is saying something, given that this was a bank in the mid-2000’s), so on top of uncertainty there was little chance of getting involved in an exciting or meaningful project in order to prove one’s worth.
And then there came a special Friday morning, when 15 minute meetings appeared on everyone’s calendar. When I say ‘everyone’ I mean all 2,500 IT folks. Starting at 8:30am, people began filtering off to one of dozens of meeting rooms across the facility, staffed by an apparent army of HR folks who’d been contracted for this purpose.
In those early hours, we who awaited our appointed time worried whether we would lose our job.
By 10:00am the reality had become shockingly clear: we were ALL losing our job. As the morning wore on, we realized the question wasn’t “would we keep our job” but rather whether we’d be let go that day, or in 30 days, or in 90 days. And also whether we’d receive 3, 6, or 12 months severance.
The following Monday HR released a report showing that, of the original 2,500 IT staff, under 1,000 would be retained. Despite the delayed end date and generous severance, over 1,500 people began to process the inevitable shock that comes with losing your job.
BUT… and this is perhaps the critical point of the story… in the coming weeks it became clear who had truly dodged a bullet. Surprisingly, it was the ones that were leaving.
This was due, in large part, to the “shit rolling downhill” effect. With each wave of departures, the workload fell to those who remained behind. Initially, this cascade was another kick in the teeth for those who had been let go. The 1- and 3-months-to-go folks found themselves taking on the added workload of those who’d been let go the previous Friday.
In that first wave, and even through the departure of the 1-month-ers, the impact was bearable. In most organizations, a surprising amount of tasks can get kicked down the road a month or two with no noticeable effect. But, as the 3 month mark approached, and the workload began piling onto the fraction of folks who’d be left behind, and cracks started to show, and it was more than just the workload contributing.
Everyone who’d been laid off had not only salary and insurance for the duration of our severance, but also received resume services, job coaching, mental health resources, and more. Not only that, but while we were working out our last weeks, we could come into the office to use all the office equipment to manage our job hunt. (Once again, it was the early 2000’s. Work from home was not quite the thing it is today.)
Meanwhile, to the very last person, the team remaining behind was miserable, bitter, angry, and felt cheated.
But possibly more valuable than any of that, was the free pass we all got on the most dangerous question in any interview:
“Why are you looking to leave XYZ company?”.
I’m here to tell you that there isn’t a manager on the planet who gives even a microscopic shit why someone would want to leave their current job. What they want to know is if you’re a “leaver”. Do you bail on a job at the first sign of discomfort, or do you have an ethical core that they can trust?
(Side note: whether this is a valid assessment, or even valid question, is a worthwhile discussion but beyond the scope of this blog post. )
All of us had a get-out-of-jail-free card for this question. Being laid off is usually reason enough, but being able to say “I was laid off along with 1,500 other people” served as proof that it had nothing to do with our performance or abilities.
The moral of my story is that being laid off sucks. The mass layoffs which have become a weekly part of the tech news cycle aren’t measurably better.
What might just suck more, though, is being left behind.