Monday, August 01, 2016

Let’s share our feelings about layoffs

Here’s why I once got my self fired:

The small software company where I’d worked for nearly a decade was about to have a layoff. Nothing we hadn’t done in the past. But this was going to be a big one. We had around 50 employees, and 15 of them were going.

While I would always cringe/laugh when the company’s president called the management group his “executive team”, I was on it. Not to mention that I was his prime advisor. Now, with the lay offs scheduled for early the following week, he and I were discussing how to talk about it when we met with the survivors after 15 of their colleagues had just packed up their personal items and left the building.

I was in favor of acknowledging that we had screwed up and failed to execute our strategy. (Hey, we were executives. Shouldn’t we have been executing?) Which was why 15 folks had just been given the axe.

He wanted to say that the people who’d just been let go weren’t the right ones we needed to succeed and that, while they were good people, they just didn’t have the right stuff for us.

We got into a bit of a back and forth, and it got a bit heated. I recall using the expression “au con-fucking-traire”.

And then I threw down the gauntlet, telling him: You say what you’re going to say, and I’ll say what I’m going to say, and we’ll see who they believe.

Guess that wasn’t what he wanted to hear…

This was just one of a number of times in which I was involved at some level in figuring out who was going to go, how we were going to let them know, and how we were going to pick up the pieces afterwards. (Mostly at a group, not company level. Layoff decisions were made at the top, and the numbers we needed to come up with just trickled down with little or no explanation.) I don’t know what it’s like now, but if you got to any management level – let alone to the glorious executive team – in a tech firm in the 1980’s, 1990’s, or 2000’s, it’s very likely that you had the grim experience of taking part in a lay off in which you were a giver, not a receiver.

Although there were exceptions, very few people I know took any joy in it. One exception: a truly malevolent individual who, after he had just called someone in his group who was at the time in a hospital NICU with his wife and newborn child, came away from the phone call and said what a pleasure it had been. I’ve also seen interviews with Jack Welch, and he did seem to relish his role as the grim reaper.

For most of us, it’s just not easy deciding who gets to stay, and it’s not easy letting them know. Even though, if you’re in a company experiencing bad times, you’re often better of getting the heave-ho. (Not always the case, especially now with such rampant age discrimination in hiring.)

Anyway, during lay-off time, I had plenty of sleepless nights and blinked back plenty of tears. But, because we didn’t have social media, no one took to social media to share their angst. That’s not the case today, and last week the Wall Street Journal had an article on a number of West Coast millennial entrepreneurs who’ve blogged recently about their experience with layoffs and, in one case, with the company’s shutting down entirely.

If I’d just gone by the WSJ article, I would have thought that the posts would be about feelings, and about personal disappointment. After all, the millennials are sharers, and sharers are carers, etc. Not to mention that startups these days all yearn to be unicorns, and entrepreneurs all want to be billionaires. (Millionaire is so yesterday.) No one goes all in expecting to be a zombie. So there are all these dashed expectations to share/care about.

Anyway, talking about expectations, mine were pretty low for what these millennials, hell bent on sharing and blinded by their commitment to transparency, would have to say. As my sister Kath had it, I was expecting TMI and NEI (Not Enough Insight). Which, based on the article itself seemed a reasonable expectation. But when I clicked through to the posts – each of which I gave a skim read to – I was pleasantly surprised that there was a fair amount of analysis on what went wrong, what happened that culminated in the need to issue those pink slips, what they’d do differently.

Oh, there was plenty enough woe-is-me going around. But there were also plenty of looks at mistakes that were made.

Which made me go into my way back machine to note that, in my day – at least at the places I worked – there seemed to be precious little acknowledgement of mistakes made, lessons learned, etc. At least not at my level, and at least not when I was an “executive”.

I was, of course the type of Debbie Downer who always wanted to go into root cause mode. Maybe I was just ahead of my time. Maybe I should have been a millennial. Who’d a thunk it.


Here are the links to the posts:

 Ryo Chiba, Tint

Joel Gascoigne, Buffer

Alex Fishman, Dishero

And a Pink Slip shout out to my sister Kath for sending this article my way.

1 comment:

Frederick Wright said...

Losing one's job is never a pleasant experience, but I'd much rather hear the plain undoctored truth than some coded Newspeak jibberish. Also, if your investment company is executing mass layoffs during a time of record profits, when the CEO has just raked in $90 million in bonuses, you aren't allowed to refer to 'tough economic climates' or 'making the difficult decision'.