Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Oh those poor Wayfair-ing ex-employees

Having spent my career in an industry - high tech - notorious for lay-offs, I decided years ago that there really is no good way to conduct one. And plenty of bad ones.

I had a friend whose small tech company called everyone into a large meeting room. At the door, when they checked in, each employee was handed a colored card. Blue cards got to keep their jobs; the folks holding the pink cards were told they were being laid off. So long, it's been good to know you.

One of my cousins was laid off at a group meeting, when his boss announced that he and another colleauge no longer had their jobs. Thanks for letting us know!

During a major RIF at Wang, when thousands of folks were losing their jobs, employees were told to stay at their desks on a Friday. A team of executioneers HR people then went around and individually tapped those about to be let go on the shoulder, brought them into a private room, and handed them their package. (One techie in my group who lost his job was a Russian immigrant. He said when they came to his cubicle to tap his shoulder, it felt like the KGB was coming for him) While it was good to see that each person was treated as an individual entitled to privacy during a tough time (most rank and file Wang employees worked in cubicles), the company ran out of Friday. 

So late in the afternoon, they announced that they hadn't completed the layoffs yet, and everyone had to come back on Monday, sit in their office, and wait to see if they had a job. My group was given the all clear for some reason, so we all us survivors went home knowing we had jobs. Everyone else spent an agonizing weekend. (This was my 40th birthday - a real cheery one! When the grim HR reapers were on my floor, there were people standing on the desks, yelling out the names of those who were being laid off. "The've just taken Alice." "They're coming for Jay." A spectacle beyond belief.)

One of the most despicable human beings I've ever known laid off an employee while that employee was in the NICU with his newborn son, waiting to see whether the baby was going to live. Couldn't have waited a day or two to give my colleague the news. Shortly after this incident, I was in a meeting with Mr. Despicable, and he told us that he had really enjoyed laying off this person. (It goes without saying that the fellow that was fired was a) a good employee; b) a great guy.)

Years ago, I read that some company - was in Radio Shack? - laid folks off via text message.

Last Thursday, it was Wayfair's turn to figure out the "right" way to lay off 350 people who were working in their downtown Boston headquarters.

There had been rumors. (There are always rumors.) Last November, Wayfair had implemented a "headcount review process," which is always ominous. They'd started rating employees on a stricter curve, which is always ominous. (Grading on the curve: now there's a post for another day...)

And then:

At 2 a.m. Thursday morning, employees got a Slack message that said some internal systems were being locked so that engineers would not able to deploy code or make significant data changes. Also on Tuesday, an IT team in the Berlin office was laid off, according to an employee who was among those who lost their jobs. The former employee, who asked to remain anonymous, said more layoffs were to come in Boston.
Around 10 a.m. in the Copley Place mall, scores of employees began to descend the escalator from Wayfair’s offices. Many were visibly upset and declined to comment about the layoffs.
One employee, who was not laid off and declined to give their name, said hundreds of employees were called to a general meeting this morning, and all of them were laid off. The employee said those who were not called to the meeting still had to talk with their direct supervisors, and were told they needed to be more efficient.  (Source: Boston Globe)
Ah, the mass layoff. My first thought was, this is appalling. And then I reconsidered. Is it any more appalling than sitting around on a Friday, frozen to your office chair, all day, waiting to know if you have a job - only to be told to come back in on Monday to find out? Yes, being laid off is upsetting - there are tears, there's anger, there's fear - and a lot of people prefer to vent their emotions in a private setting. But in many ways, it's preferable to hear all at once, rather than agonize over if and when "it" is going to happen. And misery does love company.

Anyway, Wayfair has been - in terms of hiring - a real high flyer, growing aggressively, and renting top-of-the-line office space in downtown Boston. They've grown their revenues, too, but they've yet to make a profit. And Amazon has apparently set their sites on them. If I were Wayfair, I wouldn't bet my supply chain against anything that Amazon can do. So the handwriting's been on the wall.

Still, I hate to see a local company in distress. And I know it sucks to lose your job.

I was laid off 3 times. Once, I volunteered for separation, so my only agony was waiting to find out whether my offer to part company would be accepted. (I had been one of 50 midmanagers who a few months earlier had been selected to spend a week at Babson College trying to figure out how to turn the company around, and the company president didn't want anyone on his golden 50 list to leave.) 

Another time, I was collateral damage in a battle between the Tall Guys and the Short Guys. My boss was one of the leaders of the Tall Guys faction, and when they lost to the Short Guys, those of us most closely identified with "our" Tall Guy knew that all of our days were numbered. (They were.)

The other time, I was fired after getting into an argument with the company president on how we were going to position our looming layoff to the surviving employees. He won, I lost. Oh, well.

So when I was a layoff-ee, it wasn't done the traditional way.

But I've survived many a layoff, and I know how rotten it is in the days/weeks/months leading up to it. Talk about fear factor. When I worked at Wang, one fellow was so stressed out in the runup to a major reduction that he had a heart attack in his cubicle - which was near mine - and died. 

But I've never actually experienced how terrible it is to get tapped on the shoulder, to sit on the other side of the table and be handed the package. I do know that, as one who's done the tapping and been there for the handing, that the layoff-er side of the table is pretty awful.

And, let's face it, for most of us, our colleagues form an important part of our social circle. Even if it's temporary, it's your fellow employees who you see every day, chat with at the coffee machine, grab lunch with, etc. It's not just the loss of a paycheck, by any means.

Good luck to the newbie-ly laid off from Wayfair. May you find new work quickly, and land in a better place. 

As for the survivors, you heard your supervisor. You've just got to become more efficient. And, if experience counts for anything, I'm guessing that there will be more Wayfairing layoffs in the future. 

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