The Sting Sticks Around After Layoff Wounds Heal

On Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2001, the magazine where I worked as a marketing manager for more than two years laid off 69 employees. I was one of them.

The layoffs weren’t a surprise. We’d heard about them internally and on CNN and in the New York Post. In fact, for at least a week prior, not an hour went by without someone mentioning the pending reorganization. I wasn’t immune to guessing exactly how many jobs would be cut and whose.

Both the press and the rumor mill had the incorrect date. I came to work that said day full of nervous anticipation. When I arrived, it was business as usual until a co-worker told me she heard it would be the next day. It was.

Several co-workers were positive my job was safe; they said that I’d been with the company almost as long as it had been around and helped build the New York office. I fluctuated between agreeing with this reasoning and reminding myself that seniority often played no role in these decisions.

Because the job cuts were out in the open, I decided to flatly ask my direct supervisor, who worked in the company’s headquarters in San Francisco, what my fate would be. She said that although she knew, she’d been told she’d be fired if she said anything. She added that whoever was laid off needed to remember to not take it personally. (“She’s hinting…that means it’s me,” I thought.) When I said I wanted to have a meeting with the sales team, she said, “Do it on Thursday — after the dust settles.” (“She’s discussing a date after the layoffs…that means it’s not me.”) This exchange caused my prediction about my job’s survival to swing back and forth almost hourly.

The day before Layoff Day, my boss proceeded with our weekly department meeting, which she often postponed. A colleague in New York and I called in as usual. A main topic was new policy as the company reorganized. (The department had lost jobs in a round of layoffs six weeks earlier.) After the meeting, a co-worker said we definitely wouldn’t be affected, because why would our boss include us in a discussion of upcoming policy? She’d at least have the courtesy to postpone it until afterward.

“We’re safe!” she said.

Unable to stand the suspense, I almost looked forward to going to work the next day. At least it would be over soon. I tried not to speculate anymore; I had a 50-50 chance. I walked into the office around 8:15 a.m., about an hour earlier than usual. It had been difficult to sleep the night before, and I was wide-awake. When I arrived, the door to the vice president’s office was closed. Sometime between nine and 10 a.m., two people were called in and laid off. Both came out crying.

The door then opened, leading most to believe it was over. “Why would they take a break and lay off more people a few hours later?” I heard a few co-workers say. Breathing a sigh of relief, I headed downstairs for a cup of coffee. As I was leaving the building, I was startled to see my boss from San Francisco walking toward me. She hadn’t mentioned that she was coming to New York.

It was obvious that either I or my colleague or both of us were doomed. “I was just leaving you a message,” my boss said. I asked her why she was in town. She said she was here to discuss changes in the department.

When I returned with my coffee, my boss called me into the office she was using. As I walked in, I noticed a gray folder on the table. I saw my full name typed on a large white label on the front. “Have a seat,” she said, and, as I did, she placed the folder in front of me.

Now that I knew, I couldn’t wait to get it over with. I wished she would hurry up and get through her speech so I could pack my stuff and go home.

She told me that due to the reorganization, my position was being eliminated. “OK,” I said with a straight face. Although I’m an emotional person, I forced myself to stay calm. I was a bit choked up, but I didn’t allow myself to cry. I felt that it would be perceived as a weakness. Still, I couldn’t concentrate on what she was saying about my package. I was only half listening. It was all there in black and white anyway, and I would have ample time to read it. Thoughts were running through my head. I visualized all kind of things, including moving in with my parents if I couldn’t find another job soon, sleeping late, how I would find health insurance, and how everyone I knew would react to the news.

She ended by saying I had to be out of the office by the end of the day, and “Don’t forget to leave your office key and credit card.” Finally, she told me the decision wasn’t based on performance, and “Don’t take it personally.”

I walked back to my office to find a computer technician already at my desk. “You can keep your laptop, but I have to delete all your files. I’m sorry,” he said. And before I could respond, he clicked the delete key.

The following day, I sat at my home computer reading e-mail from friends and colleagues with phrases like “blessing in disguise” and “when one door closes another opens.” I tried to focus on making the experience a positive one. I hadn’t liked working in a branch office, and I’d hit a ceiling in terms of growth at the company. Now I had the push I needed to find something better.

I thought of the layoff stories that had flooded the media. In addition to “numbers” reports, I’d read features about how employees were treated unfairly in the process. It wasn’t uncommon to be given no severance pay, and, in extreme cases, people didn’t receive all the money owed them for time worked.

In light of these reports, I was pleased with my package. I received the maximum severance that my company was offering, a pro-rated bonus and vacation pay, and I was allowed to keep my laptop, Palm Pilot and cell phone (of course, I’d be paying the bill now). The company also paid for outplacement counseling for a month. Yet, it isn’t the specifics of the package that I’ll remember. What will stay in my head is the overwhelming tension and painful behavior leading up to and directly following the event.

Most excruciating is the awkwardness I feel when I think about these meetings and conversations. The discussion on policy that we wouldn’t all be there to implement. The directive to hold a meeting “after the dust settles.” The tongue-tied conversations with surviving co-workers, including those who had predicted I’d escape the ax. “You’re a great worker. Don’t take it personally,” one said, avoiding eye contact.

Looking back, I can say that being laid off was, in fact, a blessing in disguise. Six months later, the company filed for bankruptcy protection and dismissed the remaining staff. Most learned they’d lost their jobs by reading the newspaper during a forced company vacation. They didn’t receive any severance. I’ve since gotten a job that is a better fit and takes my career in a new direction.

Still, I don’t agree that a layoff shouldn’t be taken personally. Perhaps it wasn’t personal in view of my performance or in the sense that I wasn’t liked as a person. The delicate looks, the avoidance by co-workers, and the thoughtless deletion of over two years’ work are among the most unsettling moments of my career, if not my life. If those things aren’t personal, I don’t know what is.

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