Monday, November 03, 2008

Ten things to do when the lay-off's looming

I can't (virtually) pick up a (virtual) newspaper these days without seeing yet another headline about big lay-offs coming.

Whether it's 40 folks at some Web 2.0-ish place that everyone publicly thought was a winner (and now claim to have privately known was a loser), or thousands of folks at American Express, lots and lots of people will be losing their jobs over the next couple of quarters.

Lay-offs are never easy, never pretty, and never come soon enough after they make the public announcement that they're coming.

No, once the word is out - by that public announcement, or via the often stunningly accurate rumor mill - folks will start acting the way they always do when pink slips are in the offing.

Just in case you've never been trough it before, and you're wondering whether you and your work-buds are normal, here are at least a few of the thing that people do when lay-offs are looming:

  • Act like everything's hunky dory. God knows, I never fell into this camp, but when I worked at Wang - where we always had a couple of months warning about the next "big one" - you'd get on the elevator, and there'd always be a couple of folks in a serious conversation about whether the XYZ was shipping next week. Which would have been just hunky dory - life goes on while life goes on, and we were, after all, still being paid - but you always got the impression, from their ultra-earnest tone of voice and rigid posture, that these happy talkers were hoping some executive would laud them, take down their badge numbers, and remove them from the potential lay-off list for not being defeatists.
  • Try to get some work done.  Unlike hunky-dory-ism, where you're pretty much faking while quaking, you can actually just put the bad stuff out of your mind and try to get your job done. This can be harder than it sounds. I've been in places that so completely shut down before the shut down, that you had to concoct things to work on. Truly, whether you're on the target list or not, it does feel better to leave at the end of the day knowing you've done something. So give into that urge to write the datasheet, fill in the cells in the spreadsheet, and comb through every last piece of PowerPoint clip art on Microsoft Online. It'll keep you mind off of things, and it's less nerve wracking than hanging around trading rumors all day.
  • Hang around trading rumors all day. Let's face it, this is where most of the pre-lay-off action is: It's only people hired after 2006. It's only Level 27 and above. It's only Level 27 and below. It's only marketing and finance. It's only research and HR. It's everyone who got average on their last review. It's all the satellite offices. It's only at HQ. It's everyone that Dave hates. It's everyone that Dave likes. It's everyone who skipped the holiday party last year. It's no one who went to the strategy off-site.  In the absence of information, people will naturally make stuff up, and you'll probably be one of them. You'll speculate with your morning rumor buddies, then pass your collective speculation on to your lunch rumor buddies. By late afternoon, something that you completely made up in the morning will be coming back to you from your afternoon rumor buddies as the official word. In a weird way, all this rumor mongering can be entertaining - especially when you spot your rumors coming back to you as fact. But it's also completely enervating - surprisingly, much more fatiguing than actually doing some work.
  • Dredge up every cliché you can think of. Favorites include: "These a-holes couldn't find their way out of paper bag." (May be accompanied by an actual paper bag, posted in a public place, with something like 'Try finding your way out of this' scrawled on it, as happened once in a small, falling apart company I worked for.) "They're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." "What goes around comes around." "We don't need no stinkin' [revenue, products, worker-bees]."  When these and other stock sentiments are uttered by anyone other than yourself, you nod, act as if you've never heard it before, and say "ain't it the truth."
  • Resort to morbid humor. See "Titanic" (above). And, in general, sprinkle words and phrases like death, dying, funeral, dirge, casket, coffin, death rattle, eulogy, obituary, six feet under, hearse, wearing black, mourning, crepe hanging, pall bearer, cemetery, ghost, and ghoul into every conversation. (E.g., if you spot the CEO pulling up in his chauffeured limo, say, "I see that Mr. Big has just arrived in the corporate hearse.")
  • Resort to anger. Complain loudly and furiously about how "they" (i.e., company management) have f'd everything up; how if they'd only asked you what to do, the company never would have gotten to the point where they had to lay off so many people (possibly - maybe even probably - including you).
  • Bug your manager. Your manager may or may not know anything. They may or may not tell you. But this won't stop you from bugging them, now, will it? Best if you've already developed a trusting enough relationship with your manager so that they'll tell you what they can (as long as you promise not to pass it on, a promise which you're honor bound to make and keep, by the way). If you don't have this sort of relationship with your manager, guess what? You're not going to develop one now, so save you're breath and stop bugging them.
  • Bug anyone you know in HR. Yes, they can be perfectly kind, warm, good-hearted, nicey-nice, or even really nice. But keep in mind that, despite the somewhat humane sound of "human resources", at the end of the day, they're there to represent the company's interests, not those of any one individual within in. (Nice if both can happen, but if push comes to shove...) And, even if they're your best-est friend, if they're in HR and they're any good, they're highly unlikely to blab very much to you. (If you do have a good and trusted relationship with someone in HR, however, you might get a teensy-weensy head's up or piece of mind tidbit. But, as with your manager, if you don't have that kind of trusted relationship with someone in HR, you're not likely to develop one now. So save your breath.)
  • Take a "mental health" day. This is actually a really foolish thing to do, since all you're going to do is sit around like a mope wondering what's going on at work. If you take this "mental health" day off to do look for another job, tsk tsk: you should really have taken it as a personal or vacation day. (No wonder you're on that lay-off list.) If you do insist on taking a "mental health" day, do something "mental healthy": long walk on the beach, Candy Land with your 4 year old, clean out a closet. Whatever you do, do not go shopping: you have enough stuff already, and you might be on unemployment benefits in another month. What are you thinking?
  • Do a little planning. I do not advocate using work time to troll job-sites, send out your résumé, or conduct informational interviews. In fact, I forbid it (except, maybe, during your lunch hour). But you might want make sure that you've backed up any personal information (files, contacts) onto your handy-dandy thumb drive; that you've gained a sense of who you might want to use as a reference; that you have contact info for those you might want in your network.

Getting laid off is not the end of the world, of course, but don't underestimate just how terrible it is. If it's not the end of the world, it's the end of a world, and it's probably a big and important part of your life. And, having been through sooooooo very many of them during my career, I have to say that the days leading up to the actual event are typically far worse than whatever the aftermath is.


Fan O'Maureen said...

True story: My friend Kristan worked for Wang years ago. A prankster at heart, one April 1st she devised a fake org chart that shuffled the usual suspects into the most crazy positions and combinations imaginable. She was yanked into HR when a copy was found on a copier and was nearly fired -- not because it was false, but because it was so close to the {upcoming} truth that senior management wanted to find and plug the leak.

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Maureen Rogers said...

Fan o'maureen: I had something similar happen to me. My boss, who usually confided in me, came into my office really annoyed, and said, 'I told you not to tell anyone about xyz.' I had to laugh. He hadn't told me about 'xyz' - I'd figured it out myself by reading some tea leaves.

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