On Wednesday morning, February 2, 2012, at 9:45am the company I work for laid off a third of its workforce. This included half of my department and everyone on my team except for me. Within 15 minutes the people who I have spent 9 hours a day with five days a week for the last three and a half years, some of them now good friends, were gone.
Welcome to Corporate America in The Great Recession.
I’ve gone through several rites of passage in my life, from my parent’s divorce to cross-country moves, to the death of my Mom. I’ve felt a strong economic pinch for over a year now and have radically altered the way I spend money, even getting a second job. But coming face-to-face with the bitter reality of business in a bad economy was like being in a plane crash. It was a rite of passage that I didn’t expect, but one that has changed me irreversibly in the blink of an eye.
The day that it happened my boss went from desk to desk whispering for each of my doomed coworkers to join her for a meeting. I accidentally went with them into the conference room even though she hadn’t invited me, confused because the whole rest of my team was there. When I asked my boss if I was supposed to be there she looked at me, tears in her eyes, and said “Oh no, not you.” I left with the worst feeling you could possibly imagine, rejoining the confused members of my team who were not invited to this meeting. Five minutes later those doomed coworkers returned, some smiling, some stunned. They had been told they’d been let go and asked to leave immediately. It sounds harsh, but that’s standard practice in Corporate America.
They were gone. The survivors stood around, stunned, mouths literally hanging open. We clustered together looking to each other for answers, shocked, confused. Ten minutes later there was a company-wide meeting. The survivors of the cut gathered in our largest conference room. It was silent. Everyone’s eyes scanned the remaining faces, like Titanic survivors picked up by the rescue boat, looking for friends. Our company owners spoke to us, let us know why it had to be done, and spoke briefly about where the company is going.
I know that a lot of the people who were laid off are exceptionally bitter and some of those who survived are pessimistic. But I gotta say, our owners know exactly what they’re doing. Exactly what they’re doing running a business. It’s not pretty, it’s not fun, and sometimes these things have to be done. And one thing that I’ve learned from my last few Corporate America jobs is that no worker is ever irreplaceable. No one. Ever. It’s sad to lose people, but that doesn’t mean the company as an entity is going to go down in flames. Is it greed? Corporate egoism? Blood-thirsty management? No, it’s a business. Hard decisions need to be made. But that doesn’t mean they don’t hurt.
We left the company-wide meeting and returned to our area for a department meeting. As we all sat in our small conference room, made awkward by the fact that we all actually fit around the table. We were overwhelmed. How were we supposed to move on? How were we supposed to get everything done with half of the people we’d had to do the work an hour ago? Honestly, we didn’t have the focus to do anything for the rest of the day. We tried to work, tried to reorganize and do what needed to be done immediately, but throughout the day those of us who were left kept clustering together, like the last Cheerios in the bowl, to talk about what had happened, how we were feeling. Tears were shed. Desks were cleaned out.
Cleaning out your coworkers desk after they’ve been laid off is like going through the personal effects of someone who has just died. Desks are full of not only work but personal items as well. You find yourself remembering something silly that someone said at lunch two years ago when you find a take-out menu. You discover that there is a fine line between organized and OCD when you locate a stack of meeting minutes from 2008. You wonder what someone was thinking when you realize they printed out every email that was ever sent to them. Death or lay-offs, you learn more about a person after they’re gone than you do while they’re still alive.
I couldn’t sleep Wednesday night. By Thursday the shock had worn off and the panic set in. Our department was halved, but we weren’t the only ones. I found myself inheriting half-finished projects that I hadn’t even known existed the day before. When I attempted to call the person in charge of one project I discovered they had been laid off too. It got to the point where we were calling people just to find out if they still worked there. I also discovered pile after pile of work that some of my team members should have done ages ago that hadn’t been done. My desk was a mountain range of piles.
By Friday I had had a good night’s sleep and things were beginning to come clear. I got busy and felt strongly as though the dust was settling. Meetings had been held to determine which department should take over which duties and tasks. We had a very positive meeting with the survivors of our department in which we discussed what each of us had on our plate, what we’d taken on from our departed coworkers, and what priority should be assigned to each task. I came out of that meeting feeling good. We have a plan. We’re moving forward. We’ll get through this and be strong again.
Lay-offs aren’t pretty. They aren’t fun. They happen. They happen for a reason. I found out much, much more about why and how the people who were let go and the people who were retained were chosen than I should know. I’ll take those secrets with me to the grave. Those decisions make sense. The problem with mass lay-offs is that they make sense. We want to look at these kinds of things emotionally, make decisions based on who we like, who our friends are, but business doesn’t work that way. Business is business, and in a poor economy it’s brutal.
It’s a rite of passage in this modern economy. It’s the moment when you realize that your life wasn’t on as steady a course as you thought. It’s the time when you have to step up your game because you never know when round two might happen. The workplace is not the schoolyard. You can have friends and laugh and chit-chat, but at the end of the day there has to be a quantifiable result or the business can’t sustain itself. I feel like I’ve aged years in the last few days.
The saddest thing for me now, the thing that makes me the most upset, is not the job I have in front of me. I’m there because I’m a good worker, and now I have an amazing opportunity to shine and advance. The thing that upsets and worries me the most is the potential to lose some of the closest friends I thought I had. The real tragedy in this whole thing is not that my friends are temporarily out of a job or that I have a huge amount of work to do, it’s that I could lose the people who helped me make it through ordinary days and extraordinary challenges. Life goes on, true, friends come in and out of our lives, but I’m no more ready to lose some of these friends than they were to lose their jobs.
So stay in touch, guys! I love you!