One of my best friends has a deep knowledge of cars and motorcycles, so we always have plenty to discuss. Recently, though, our conversation drifted to corporate life. His employer has been promoting him. From leading engineering projects, he now manages people and that includes letting people go. This is disturbing and is upsetting him. After we talked last week, I thought about lessons I’d learned being in a similar spot myself. Letting someone go or being let go, is never, ever fun.
With a near photographic memory and a passion for great engineering, it was no surprise to me a few years back when he began to get noticed and promoted. But more money and bigger titles began moving him further away from solving engineering problems, which he loves, to being closer to and dealing with people. Someone once said, “The world would be a nice place if it wasn’t for other people.” While my friend is not one to suffer fools gladly, he’s able to keep those feelings to himself, and is respected as an intelligent, thoughtful and fair leader.
However, the impact of the Coronavirus on his company’s business has forced him in the past month to lay off almost a third of his team. It has been brutal and I sensed how difficult this was for him, no matter his stoic attitude. Firing an employee is one of the most difficult and unpleasant duties a manager has to perform and most avoid it for as long as they can. “Well, we may have let ‘so-and-so’ go too soon,” said no one, ever. The number of euphemisms for this occurrence are many: sacked, canned, axed, expelled, furloughed, fired, laid-off, let go, released, down-sized, discharged, RIF’d (reduction in force), re-organized, involuntarily-separated, lost one’s job, pink-slipped, dismissed, got the boot, kicked out, retired, removed, and cut loose among others.
His experience made me think back to the fall of 1985. After leaving Open Systems, I was offered a management position at AT&T. Arriving too early on my first day at the office of my new employer, I killed time at a nearby breakfast place, grabbing a newspaper and cup of coffee. I opened the business section and the headline at the top of the page screamed, “AT&T announces 24,000 person layoff in Information Systems Division.” Humm, “That does not sound good – that’s the area that had just hired me,” I said to myself. Scanning the story I noted the announcement would impact 6% of AT&T’s total workforce, but would directly hit the 117,000 Information Systems division. Perhaps my first day will be my last, I thought, setting some sort of personal record
Entering the office suite of Area Vice President Gil Rainier at the top floor of the AT&T building, I held the newspaper up and said, “What’s going on with this?” Not expecting this sort of greeting, he hesitated and then said, “Well, it’s one of the reasons you’re here.” He went on to explain. His regional branch offices weren’t just in Mpls/St. Paul area, but included St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Chicago, each with 100-120 employees each. He’d been ordered to downsize those branch offices to between 25-30 people each along with taking his area staff down from 30-40 to less than 25. Gil explained, “I know most of these people personally. We’re friends. I can’t do this objectively, so I am wondering, if along with your other responsibilities, you could help us make these painful reductions?” It was my first day on the job; it was impossible to say no.
Amazingly, before the reduction in force could be implemented, I’d had time and budget to hire one of my top past colleagues. Together we constructed a plan to exceed the Midwest Area’s annual quota for selling AT&T computers and equipment. Managing that effort is a story I’ll leave for another time. Just when we had moved into full execution mode on our sales plans, the layoffs began. My team continued on the plan and I put the cloak of doom over my shoulders and headed to the branch offices.
AT&T was not heartless. It cushioned the layoffs with a generous “separation package.” I don’t recall the exact details, but it was close to one month’s salary for every year you’d been with the company. So if you’d been with the company for ten years, you got almost a year’s pay in a lump sum after signing the “I won’t sue” paperwork. Plus, AT&T covered health insurance for two additional years or until you found other employment. A softened blow is still a blow and many of the meetings were full of tears and anger. Employees told me AT&T was the only placed they’d ever worked and after twenty plus years, could not imagine what they would do. They frequently wept, feeling a major part of their lives was over. Sometimes they yelled and screamed. AT&T had not only been a workplace, it was where they met and socialized with some of their best friends. They had few ideas on how they would go on and I felt ill-equipped to deal with the despair, frustration, and hopelessness they expressed.
But here is what I told my friend: For years after I left AT&T, it was impossible to attend an industry conference, trade show or event, and not be approached by at least one of these former AT&T colleagues. They’d begin by asking if I remembered firing them from AT&T. They told me how much they’d hated me and the company for doing that. But here was the surprise. Every single one said, in only slightly different words, “that was the best thing to ever happen to me,” or “that was the day my life changed for the better, and I’ve never been happier.” They all told me, in retrospect, how much they’d been stagnating at AT&T. They’d lost themselves in this behemoth company where their efforts were unseen, largely unappreciated and disconnected from what made a company successful. They told me how they were now working at a place where the impact of their contributions was obvious. They knew the value they were adding and so did those around them. This was a feeling they hadn’t had before. They were thrilled. And of course, it made me feel better, too.
I’m sure not everyone managed through it with such positive results, but I came to see things like forcing people to wake up and change to not be entirely negative. Everyone is afraid of ambiguity and the unknown. Being let go is never fun. But venturing out, whether you take the step yourself or are pushed, can sometimes turn your life around.
Epilogue: In the spring of 2020 we had a market crash and a national quarantine which precipitated the closure of many businesses and resulted in innumerable lost jobs. This take is not about hourly and day workers whose lives have been turned inside out and for whom I have the utmost sympathy and compassion. This story speaks to people who can and will bounce back. For those people, fold your damaged ego gently and put it in your pocket for later.
https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-1985-08-22-8502040337-story.html (link to an achieved story from the SunSentinel in 1985 about the announced lay-off).