Lots of lay-off news in the news lately. EMC, waking up with a post-acquisition hangover, is trimming 1250 employees. The cuts coming up over the next few years are of such a magnitude it's hard to even grasp. (Easier to just gasp.)
Unless your working at Ford, where the lay-offs are so wholesale and structural, you're more likely to be laid off in a pick-and-choose situation, in which someone is picking you
rather than the guy in the next cubicle.
Let’s face it, this is personal.
It's only human to ask ‘why me?’
Having lived through over two dozen rounds of lay-offs over the course of my career, and having been on the picking and choosing end of things on a few occasions - and having been among the chosen as well, I can tell you ‘why you’.
Sometimes, although not often, there’s a performance problem - and if this is the case, you're probably at least vaguely aware of it. You may have gotten a less than stellar review. You may be in a position where the job is not a great fit but you haven't done anything about it. You may have seen everyone else in your position move up and on, while you've stagnated.
It's not pleasant to think of yourself as such, but lay-offs are a great way of sweeping out deadwood. Plain and simple, it may not be great management practice, but it’s a lot easier to deal with a problem child in the “neutral” setting of a lay-off. So many managers, hoping to avoid the unpleasant task of confronting a performance issue head on, will wait for a lay-off to occur. During an early round lay-off at Genuity, one in which my group was not affected, I was asked if I wanted to take the opportunity to get rid of any problem employees. I had one, but I kept him in reserve knowing that another lay-off was inevitable, that I would be asked to reduce headcount, and that the number of names I would have to fork over would be the same whether I got rid of him now or not. So I stock-piled him, and six months later he was gone.
Sometimes the people getting laid off just don’t fit in with the culture. Outliers, odd-balls, hiring mistakes… there may not necessarily be a performance problem, but if someone doesn’t fit in – the guy wears a jacket and tie in a jeans and flip-flops workplace, the uptight woman who radiates disapproval whenever someone tells a joke – unless they have some skill or knowledge that no one else has, at lay-off time they’re gone. If you're someone who's been uncomfortable in the culture - you don't like the in-jokes and horseplay, or you're the one always trying to goose a really dull environment into something higher up the conviviality scale - it may well have been your demise.
There’s a recurring response to every lay-off I’ve ever been through: the complaint that the “little guys” are hit disproportionately when it comes to lay-offs, that more junior people are too often let go. Well, having thinned the ranks of my team largely at the expense of the more junior people, I can only say that bringing on less experienced people to join a group is a growth strategy, not a contraction one. When I had to cut 6 of the 16 people in my group, I had to keep the ones I knew who could do the most with the least supervision, the ‘been there, done that’ folks rather than those in learning mode who required a lot of my time, and the time of the more senior members of the team. I couldn’t afford to keep the newbies; I needed the old hands.
Another complaint is that those who ‘tell it like it is’ are often laid off. Yep, they are. Although I personally have high regard for the truth seekers, preferring their company to that of the cheerleaders, sometimes ‘telling it like it is’ comes across as pissing and moaning. And, frankly, after a lay-off, a manager may just want to keep those who will put their heads down and PLOW, rather than those who, however correctly, keep letting you know that all that’s happening is the rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Unless they are completely non-productive, the “tell-it-like-is” brigade are seldom let go in the early rounds. But when it comes to the later rounds of lay-offs, when the skills are relatively evenly matched in a group and the choices harder, most managers will dump the malcontents. Grousers beware!
Sometimes your project, your product, your business line, gets canceled. Sometimes they just do away with your function, viewing it as a luxury in tough times. Sometimes the other person who does the same job you do does it just a shade better. Or knows more. Or has been there longer. Or is protected by someone “higher up” (who knew that this guy was married to the president’s niece?). Sometimes you irritate your boss. Sometimes you irritate your boss’s boss. Sometimes it’s a toss-up. Sometimes it comes down to a decision to keep the guy who’s wife just had a baby, and let the woman go whose husband has a great job.
As lay-offs go on – and I can’t think of any company that ever had just one lay-off – the decisions get harder and harder. It’s hard not to take it personally. It is, after all, you, and it doesn’t get much more personal than that.
But it’s just a numbers game.