Monday, December 20, 2010

Dial L for Layoff

A few weeks ago, Sanofi-Aventis (big pharma) had a conference call layoff. Employees were sent an email, telling them to be on the lo0kout for an email a few days later.  That email contained a dial in number for a conference call.  If you were invited to the 8 a.m. conference, you still had a job.  If you were asked to the 8:30 conference. Well, sorry, “a voice on the other line …told them to stop working immediately.” (Source: HuffPo.)

Time’s up; pencils down.

(You wouldn’t have to tell me twice to stop working immediately, although if the layoff happened during a conference call, I probably would have been surfing the web, IM-ing with a colleague, or playing Tetris.)

At Sanofi-Aventis, for employees working outside a central office, a squadron of picker-uppers showed up on the doorstep of those let go to get them to let go of their laptops, smartphones, cars and whatever else they had by way of company property.

I guess that Sanofi-Aventis wanted to improve on the efficiency of a 2009 layoff, in which folks were told to sit by their phones and await news of their fate. I don’t know whether those employee received a personal call, or a robo-call.  But, to me, it does make some tiny bit of a difference.  At least if there’s a person on the other end of the line, you can vent a bit. At least until they inform you that they have a bazillion more calls to make and they can’t tarry with you and your outrage, hurt, and confusion forever.

For this year’s Sanofi-Aventis call-in conference,the event was strictly a one-way broadcast.  Those getting axed had no opportunity to ask questions. They just got to listen to the disembodied voice telling them they were history.

In truth, there’s really no good way to tell someone that they’re being let go.  And I suspect that goes double in today’s trembling and fragile economy, when it’s not clear that jobs of a certain type and level are ever going to be coming back.

But a mass, hands-off lay-off does seem especially cold and heartless – even worse than the hired hatchet man portrayed by George Clooney in Up in the Air.  At least the news was delivered by a human messenger, even if, by the end of the movie, the human messenger was via telepresence.

Of course, mass announcements are pretty much how blue-collar, industrial workers have been laid off for years: the plant’s closing on the 15th. Wham-bam.

Now the same sorts of mass events are being orchestrated for white collar workers, too.

There is one thing to be said for the Sanofi-Aventis approach: no one’s left on pins and needles, trying to figure out if the angel of death that’s grabbing people out of cubicles for a brief, Kleenex-filled conversation behind closed (glass) doors is going to pass them by.

A friend of mine works for a company that was recently acquired.

Onesie-twosie, they’re pinging off employees.

No communication to the rank and file.

Just the steady, insidious drum-beat of  “10 Little Indians”.

Although the initial pink slips went to senior execs, who’d gotten rich during the acquisition, and who left with a smirk, the layoffs are now working their way down through the ranks.

No one can figure out the “whos” and “whys.” Or the timing. So there’s a whole lot of speculation going on. Are ‘expensive’ workers, who’ve been there a long time, more vulnerable or less? Are you safe if you’re in an area that makes money, or will there end up being cuts across all the boards?

Managers were asked to grade all their people on a Bell-curve.

So just how does that work if you have three folks in your group?

I was asked to do this kind of report card at one point during my career, and it ain’t easy. Especially if everyone in your group is pretty good, if they all have different areas of expertise, etc., etc. For all the “science” of management, when there are no absolute ways to measure things – no sales folks with quota; no production workers stamping out x widgets per hour – if can get completely arbitrary. Especially in the later layoff rounds, when the low-hanging fruit has been plucked and all your marginal performers are already history.  (With respect to rounds of layoffs, no company ever seems to have a one-and-done layoff, unless they go completely out of business.)

Employees at my friend’s company are kind of hoping that there’s a Christmas Ceasefire called, and that there are no lay-offs during the next couple of weeks.

But no one knows.

In 1939, just turned 20 and just out of secretarial school, my mother was laid off from her job on Christmas Eve.  The boss needed to give the work to his niece.  Stop work immediately, and, hey, have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Living with that kind of tension that’s happening in my friend’s company – not knowing the magnitude, timing or criteria being used to decide who goes and who stays – can be scary, and numbing. It’s difficult to focus on “work-work” when there’s all that speculation to work through. Yet at the same time, no one wants to be perceived as a slacker.

Layoffs were exceptionally odious when I worked at Wang Labs. Practice didn’t exactly make perfect for Wang – in my less than 3 years there, I believe I lived through nearly a dozen major layoffs – but the company had mastered the concept of the long drawn out layoff run-up. If they announced that a layoff would be held on or before December 1st, you could pretty much plan that December 1st would be doomsday.

Since the layoff would likely have been announced a couple of months in advance, there was maximum time allotted in which everyone could drive themselves and each other nuts by trading rumors. Against this backdrop, the more earnest employees kept doggedly at it, hoping that if an exec overheard them talking about the release of the new XYZ (rather than speculating that only marketers at Level 27 and above were being let go), they would be spared.

At least at Wang you were told face-to-face that you were a goner, a combo of your group manager and someone from HR. In one memorable layoff, the manager of our group had engineered a European trip, and left the honors to the nicest guy in the group.

We had one Russian fellow on our team, and when ‘they’ came for him, he said he felt like the KGB had showed up at his door.

Is that any better than calling in to a conference bridge and hearing that your numbers up?

In some ways, in terms of tension, it may even be worse.

But there’s something to be said for someone having to, if not exactly look you in the eye, then be in your presence when the word comes down.

Unfortunately, the folks doing the actual laying off don’t tend to be the ones who’ve made the overall decision about the magnitude and timing of a layoff. Nor are the disembodied voices making the announcements over Webex.

Nope, the ones making the “hard” decisions are seldom those who have the carry them out.  That’s why they get paid the big bucks, I guess. At least the guy who fired my mother on Christmas Eve carried his decision out in person.

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