Home SiteCynic Scenes from a Layoff

Scenes from a Layoff

By Paul Reynolds, Seattle24x7
8.01.2001

It’s been the best of times. It’s been the worst of times. Allright, it’s been the worst of times — the worst in recent memory — for our non-union brothers and sisters who have not only lost their jobs in the latest rounds of employment cutbacks, but increasingly their dignity.

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The darkness before the Internet’s new dawn has begun to seem more like a black hole in this region of cyberspace, a gravity well that has unceremoniously sucked in not only foosball tables, juice machines and network routers from defunct dot-goners, but real flesh and blood, hard working men and women with families and car loans and mortgages. And boy does that suck!

The series of events that has been spiralling southward in Seattle for months, punctuated by Black Friday, (March 30, 2001), so named for the simultaneous dot-com-bustion of several Net-tech employers at once, has transfigured the landscape like a wicked wildfire that continues to burn up jobs and dreams as fast as it does capital. Occasionally the fire dies down to a smoldering heap of embers, but then it is revived by another wind gust of misfortune, sparking more spectacular flare-outs.

Last week, led by the latest round of downsizing by Onvia.com, a cut of another 135 jobs (62 locally), GreaterGood.com closed its doors (in spite of its altruism), Internap laid off 130 (even while gaining $100 million in new credit), and RealNetworks, in the biggest surprise of the week, let go140, roughly 15% of its workforce.

According to Seattle24x7’s own published Pink Slip Report, 15,260 jobs have been lost since Jan 2000, and 11,000 since the start of 2001. The numbers, by themselves, can seem dehumanizing. Real lives are being affected, real people displaced by these churning economic forces. The truest measure of what has happened here is to hear from those who have gone through the travail.

In mailing lists and discussion groups around the Puget Sound, the testimonials about layoffs range from saddening to chilling tales. Some of the most disturbing accounts portray how after being terminated, employees quickly become persona non grata, escorted from their offices to the door like prison inmates by security guards where they are stripped of their ID badges, E-mail accounts, and with the indignity of it all, their personhood. Here are some of the more recent episodes in a passion play that might otherwise be entitled Scenes from a Layoff, Act II:

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“I was laid off at the beginning of the month with the admonishment that “it’s nothing personal we just have to cut numbers”.

I was in a training shortly before being escorted out of the room. I had been doggedly trying to logon, only later realizing that they had cut my security access. Then I was walked to small dark room where the manager that three days before had sent me a sunny note about my outstanding job performance shoved some papers and sternly told me not to make a scene.

I had to beg to be able to return for my purse. In fairness, their severance was more than fair but the experience was humiliating.”

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” A few months ago, a friend of mine told me of one company that invited a large group of people to lunch one day, and it was kind of random who was invited and who wasn’t. It turned out that it was a “congratulations, you’re still employed” lunch, and everyone who was not invited was supervised by security cleaning out their desks while the rest of the group was out. they figured this was the best way to save morale of those who were staying. But it seems like an even bigger kick in the teeth to those who are leaving.”

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“I think the layoffs at imandi.com could have been handled better. Although rumors of massive layoffs circulated for weeks, we came in one day to find a note on the door saying “Server problems, network is down”. While we all sat at our desks wondering what was up, the office manager went around handing out envelopes to certain employees. Inside was a note to report to the conference room. You guessed it… those who got envelopes were being laid off! Although I found a way around the network block to retrieve some of my personal files from my workstation, others were told they’d have to submit a list of files they wanted to management and copies would be made. We were, however, allowed to pack up our stuff on the spot (management even provided boxes!) and cart it on out of there.”

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“When I was looking to move from a company a few years ago, my manager knew and was encouraging me in my search to move up in responsibilities elsewhere (it wasn’t going to happen at the current company – for many reasons that had nothing to do with me).

Many people were quitting, at this time. When Each one of those people gave their 2 weeks notice to their managers, they were immediately walked out of the building by their manager – given a few minutes to pack up, and out you go – all supervised. Two weeks pay given in lieu of working out your 2 weeks notice.

So I thought to myself, “Woo hoo! 2 weeks of being paid to do nothing! I can’t wait until I leave…”

I found another position, and went to my manager’s office to share the good news. She congratulated me and mentioned that on my last day, they’d have to take me out to lunch.

Um, my last day? Aren’t you going to walk me out now?

“Oh no, Linda – we know you would NEVER do anything wrong. We want to enjoy these last two weeks with you!” AUGH! :)

Damn. That’s what I get for being such a trustworthy employee.

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” I have heard a rather funny twist on the layoff horror story, although it may be acrophyal…

Big company is laying off a big chunk of staff. They have a meeting room that can be divided by the movable wall thingy, so they split it in two, send everyone to one room or the other.

The CEO goes to the group that is staying first, talks about the impending layoffs of everyone in the other room. Cracks a few bad jokes about how lucky the ones in *this* room are, not like the losers on the other side of the wall…

Well, the losers on the other side of the wall could *hear* the entire thing! Including the insults and derisive laughter. After a few awkward minutes of listening, most of them left and started packing desks.

By the time the CEO hit the ‘loser’ room, there were only a few who stayed, and they were ready for the CEO with all sorts of awkward questions. Made it downright difficult to do the ‘security staff is waiting outside the door to escort you out’ cause most of them weren’t in the room…

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Okay now that I am over the initial shock, I feel a need to talk about what happened yesterday [at RealNetworks].

This was an ordinary week. I was really busy due to the fact that I had been assigned to project that was just taking off. I spent the week writing an install guide and addressing problem reports.

I was a lot busier than I had been recently. My boss came to me on Wednesday to assure me that “the rumor” was just that – a rumor. At that point I had not heard “the rumor,” I was just sitting in my office working away, glad to be busy.

Yesterday, I had something come up and I needed to restart the servers that we were testing and I went to notify someone else on the team that the servers were going down. One of the managers was in talking with him and he motioned that he would come see me when he was done with the meeting.

He came to my office with tears in his eyes and told me that he had just been laid off, but then assured me that my job was safe. Of course I was soothed by his statement. He was rushed to the third floor to get his “packet.” I went to the office if a co-worker in the office next to me. He got the “if you are getting this email you still have a job” email. Needless to say the three of us in the office at that time rushed to see if we had gotten the email.

I did not get the email. My co-workers came to my office to see if I had been saved from the layoff, but alas there was no email. They urged me to check again. I did – same results.

I saw the manager making the rounds in the offices around me. Somehow I knew I was next. I asked the manager if “I was next.” He verified that he needed to talk to me and would be right with me.

Meanwhile, I spotted my manager. I peeked into her office and said “you should have warned me.” Obviously by this time it was clear what was happening to me. She said she had no idea what I was talking about. At that point I spotted the manager heading to my office so I hurriedly walked to my office.

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Today I went to pack up my office and move out. I was “greeted” at the door by the same security people I had seen on Thursday. I had to sign in for a visitors badge and then wait in the lobby for my “packing assistant.” I also had to turn over my courier bag to the front desk to be searched and held until I left. The security guard, who I had seen on many late nights and conversed with, was shaking when he wrote my name on a post-it and placed it on my well used book carrier that I call a bag.

I handed my VPN and my bus pass to the security personnel, but I had no sense that they would actually keep track of the fact that I had turned these things in. I dug through the paperwork that I had brought and handed him the form that listed what I needed to turn in and asked him to keep it with the equipment so that I would get proper credit.

After a few minutes, I was called and assigned a “packing assistant.” He told me that unfortunately, these measures had to be followed because some people – not me of course – could not be trusted.

Interestingly enough, the GM on duty to check people out happened to be the GM from my group. I turned in my paperwork and he asked me if I had cleaned out my office. I said that I was on my way to do just that.

My husband and I got to my office and I noticed right away that my name had
been removed. They couldn’t even wait until I removed my belongings to remove my name.

I also noticed that the things in my office were a bit rearranged and that my computers were gone. The monitors were still there – so it looked normal, but there were no computers.

I boxed up my sushi erasers and my books, little things that my daughter had made for me to keep in my office and headed back to the training room to be searched again so that I could leave.

My Windows 95 CD was withheld as well as my copy of RedHat and a CD of MP3’s to be “scanned” and returned to me in 2 weeks if the CDs passed the test and did not hold anything that I was not supposed to have.

My GM came over and asked me about my ID,VPN, and bus pass and proceeded to check out my boxes that were already being gone through by security personnel. They did not even do a thorough check of my boxes…just asked me if I had any Real Assets and then confiscated my CDs. They didn’t open notebooks or folders, just checked the stuff that was lying in the open.

One thing that did make me smile through this ordeal was that when I got to my office I found a personal business card form one of my co-workers that had also gotten laid off. So at least all is not lost.

I was given an explanation and handed some papers and told to report immediately to the third floor. By this point shock had set in. I was filled with more emotions than I knew what to do with. I tried to go to the third floor.

At the escalator, I was met by a female security guard who would not let me go upstairs. She insisted that I had to go downstairs to get out. I tried to explain that I needed to go upstairs but she would have nothing to do with me other than to tell me to go downstairs – which I finally did.

When I got downstairs, I was told that I needed to go upstairs – duh. I went back up, tried to explain again to the security guard that I was in “the other group” – you know, the group that needed to go upstairs. Someone finally spoke up and gave me the clearance to go upstairs.

I got to the conference room and picked up my packet. There was a benefits meeting to start in the next few minutes, but to be honest – I just wanted to get out. I had the packet – I could read.

So I headed back down to get my bag from my office so I could leave. I hit another roadblock. I was told that I would not be allowed to get my bag, even though the paperwork stated that I could pack up my office until 6:00 p.m.

Finally, it was agreed that I could get my bag with an escort. We got to my office, the voice mail light was blinking. Not only was I forced to leave the light blinking, I was not allowed to call my husband or use the phone at all – even with a security representative at my side.

I got my bag and had to go to the training room to get my bag examined. The security folks directed me to the Kleenex on the end of every table in the room and proceeded to go through my bag. The security personnel actually looked embarrassed when they asked if they “could” go through my bag.

I was asked if I had any Real Assets in my bag and I said no. Then they requested my ID and my bus pass. Well at this point I had had it and I said “you mean you want to take my bus pass so I can’t even get home?”

They allowed me to keep my bus pass until I pick up my belongings tomorrow.

I was then informed that I had to make an appointment to pick up my things from my office. On the way to sign the appointment sheet I ran into my manager – who had also been laid off. This explained why she wanted to reassure me that we would not be affected by the rumor. She gave me a hug, and told me that she really didn’t know.

By the time I made it out the door, the security representative at my side was looking pretty embarrassed by the whole situation.

It is really a weird feeling going from “trusted employee” to “someone who needs to be watched” in the matter of a few hours.

I want to say thanks to all who have shared their stories here – it has helped me more than you know.

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“I’m unfortunately a veteran of layoffs. I’ve worked for three companies that cut staff while I was working for them, and was a consultant at a fourth deciding on who was going to get cut (YECK). Of the four companies, two did it REALLY right, and with a lot of fairness. In their defense, three of the four companies I went through this experience were very large solvent corporations, with a lot of resources, and no real way for a rumor to spread company wide – even as the boom was getting lowered on folks.

I was at Conoco when they were cutting heads and I’ve never, ever, seen a fairer process. Conoco is owned by Dow, consistently one of the top 100 companies to work for, and in my time there I saw why.

Everyone being considered for layoffs was discussed by a committee. We looked at tenure, job performance (played a HEAVY role), their personal situation (family, kids, sole income), whether a spouse worked for the company or not, and marketability within the company. Employees then fell into three categories. One – too valuable to release or release would cause severe hardship (yes, we actually cared), two – their job has to go away but a good employee, try to find another job in company, and three – need to be laid off.

People that fell into the second category had an incredible package. They had the choice of taking an immediate layoff (and getting what group three got) or they could go into a special program. For six months they would stay on the payroll at Conoco. Their full time job would be to look for another job, inside or outside of the company. Hiring managers got weekly lists of people available and a company wide hiring freeze was declared (which stinked for me as a consultant who wanted to get in). If during the six months a job came up – it would be offered to you. There was ONE wrinkle, if you declined, then you were out of the program and got your layoff package. The job offered to you could not be more than a 10% reduction in salary, or increase of any amount – pretty fair. If at the four month point you still had not found a job inside the company, you no longer had to come in to Conoco if you didn’t want to, and you were paid another two months to look for work inside or outside of the company. If you didn’t find any work – you went to the package group three got.

Group three got 12 to 40 weeks pay depending on tenure with the company. They got COBRA covered for three months, use of the outplacement center, and top priority on jobs within the Dow family of companies. Employees who were laid off were told one on one. They were allowed to pack on their own with a manager. Security did escort them out, but if you haven’t been to Conoco in Houston, their compound (it is huge) is more like a military base then an office area – so I wasn’t shocked about this. Everything was handled with honor, dignity, and respect, and the personal situation of employees were considered. It is the only time (but maybe because I was part of the process) that I truly felt that people not giving 100% were truly the first considered for layoff, and that it had very little to do with office politics on I don’t like this employee or that employee.

Compaq when I went through it there did very similar things, first Compaq asked for volunteers, managers could then decide if you were critical or not. I was declared critical (damn it!!!) so I couldn’t escape with the package (I was weeks away from giving notice and changing jobs anyway) – although job placement within the company wasn’t offered like Conoco. You got 8 to 29 weeks, COBRA for SIX MONTHS paid, access to ESP for six months, outplacement help, and people were told one on one with managers. Managers helped you pack up (many just let people pack unsupervised, although there were war stories), and would escort you to the security desk. Security would take your badge. Communication on a company wide level could have been handled a bit better, but it is hard to get 24,000 employees and put them in a room to say layoffs are coming. One bad thing, the first round of cuts at Compaq were VERY political as line managers made the choices. Compaq learned the lesson in successive layoffs, and centralized the decision process. Sadly, many good people who weren’t in political favor got kicked to the curb.

Well – those are my stories. In the interest of full disclosure, these are both back in the 90’s and both big companies who had the money, time, and resources to do it right. I’ve learned that it doesn’t get any easier no matter how many times you go through it. I wish I could talk about more on the inside of RealNetworks and what is going on – but alas I’ve said about all I can. These aren’t easy times, and I can only hope that the wild ride returns some day.”