Friday, January 19, 2007

That Explains Things a Little

I've always wondered why the corporate habit of massive layoffs simply to meet projected earnings - even when the company is solvent and does not need to have the layoffs to survive or even be profitable - has never been a bigger blip on the media's radar. Everyone I know has been hit by it at some point.

Even having a corporate-friendly administration in the White House wouldn't entirely explain it away, because Republicans get laid off in droves, too.

The disruption in people's lives is nearly equivalent to a death in the family and other traumas of that level, but every year hundreds of companies do it, and the media reports nada. (Maybe they report the numbers.)

So, why the silence? Here ya go:

From "The Fix" of Jan. 19 on Salon:
Huge layoffs yesterday at Time, Inc.: The media company cut nearly 300 jobs, mostly from the magazines People, Time and Sports Illustrated, saying that the company is attempting to refocus its efforts in digital media. (Variety)

300 people a HUGE layoff? Wow. Methinks they need a little perspective.

I've been in companies no where near the size of Time, Inc., and they've laid off half a grand of folks just because. I once worked for a company that regularly laid off people who'd reached a certain pay grade, and hire someone in their place for less.

But, clearly the media doesn't notice it because it's not happening to them. Mystery solved.

TLD: True story: One layoff I survived was just amazing regarding the callousness and cluelessness of the company. No one knew it was coming (except, of course, some upper management), but then the HR people started showing up at cubes and asking the person to follow them.

"My" company had recently bought another company in order to utilize it as a component of our product. (This is done a lot, actually. Just open the "about" screen in Microsoft Word and look at all the companies they bought in order to use their functionality.)

Usually when this happens, the company that's bought faces the majority of the layoffs due to duplicated roles and depts., and at first that was the case. But they were a cagey bunch of folks, and complained that of those left from "their" company, none of them were in leadership roles, so some of "them" were rewarded with just that. Immediately they went to work insuring no one else from their old company got laid off, and boy did it work. So much so that "we," the existing company, suffered the most layoffs, and eventually were completely routed. The company "we" bought effectively took us over.

But before that happened (and when I finally got the boot), the first big round of layoffs for "our" part of the company (after "they" had gotten power and arranged it) was simply amazing in its scope.

We took up three floors of a huge office building. The building was essentially cut in half by the elevators, break rooms, and staircases. On either side of that column was a huge cube farm, about 10 deep by 10 wide - the typical rat maze/veal pens of corporate America.

I was on the phone essentially playing Master of Ceremonies with a group of about 10 people who were given the responsibility of sorting all our documentation into one pile, as it were. We had these calls that would take up the entire morning once a week for about a month to complete the effort.

Since I was the was who had to do the talking for what amounted to half of the 4 hour phone call, I couldn't go on mute or step away for a bit. The folks who got it first came by holding their cardboard boxes to shake my hand and mine various "call me", "write me", "keep in contact", "here's my card", and "let's grab a few cold ones tonight" messages as I kept having to say things into my headset like, "Ok, Stan, I agree that sections 3.5 through 3.8 should become the primary text for that product. Wendy, I think I recall from an email that you wanted to include the forward from the..." etc. etc. I couldn't say goodbye. I could only wave, shrug, gesture, and shake hands. The stream of shocked and sometimes teary-eyed comrades stayed steady all morning.

It dawned on me sometime during the call that I was probably laid off, too, but they knew what I was doing (it was supposed to be the final meeting/call of its type), and were just waiting for me to complete the effort. We got done at about 12:30, and I took my headset off and stood up.

Every single cube in my visual field was now empty. They'd nuked my whole side of the floor. Even some of the offices along the edge were dark. There was litter all over the floor. The desks and walls of the cubes had the dust marks where pictures and knick-knacks had been removed. Abandoned pens, paper clips, and rubber bands were everywhere. The push-pins on the cubie walls formed vast constellations. It was one of the saddest sites I've seen, because just that morning it had been bustling.

Well, my bladder had reached the proportions of a dirigible, and I wanted to see the damage throughout the building, and hopefully my wandering would keep me ahead of the HR reaper for a few more minutes while I located a sturdy box. I sauntered past the office of the guy who'd been my boss two reorgs back; he was a great guy, one of the best bosses I've had. He seemed shocked to see me, which I took as proof that I was marked. He asked if I knew if I had a job or not. I told him I didn't know, and asked about him. He said he was fine, but he'd need to catch up with me later, and closed his door, seemingly angry.

I later found out he immediately called my current boss and read him the riot act about how inappropriate it was that I didn't know my fate yet. When I returned to my desk, a message was waiting, which I assumed was from HR telling me to <Ironic Bob Barker Voice>Come on down!</Ironic Bob Barker Voice>, but it was my boss apologizing all over himself (he was really a good guy, too, btw), and telling me I was safe. He knew I was on the other call and wanted to wait until it was over, but then got sidetracked by the layoffs in his building. (Yes, there was another whole facility that was getting cleaned out, too.)

The five of us that were left moved into the cubes over by the windows. About two months later, someone from HR or facilities noticed what we had done, and reassigned us to cubes away from each other on another floor, as far from the windows as possible. They didn't want us to get uppity, after all. We should feel lucky, doncha know.

Shortly after that, the empty cubes around me started filling up with guys from India who mostly kept to themselves. I learned I had to wait in the morning until they started talking to each other before I could talk to them, because they all had pictures of Vishnu at the entrance to their cubes, and they would kiss their hand and touch the picture and bow to it for a while every morning, and then sit and say a prayer.

A few months later, I got laid off, too, along with the rest of those few left from the original company. This was when Bush's first depression had hit, and half the folks in my culdesac were unemployed as well. It was an amazing and rough year. (My primary shock that year was our loss of a baby through miscarriage just weeks before she could have survived. I got laid off the day I came back from my week off for mourning. So if you read those posts, that's what my primary focus was.)

And, for the record, the layoff I described here was the kind that I actually understand. Having redundant staff makes no sense. However, there are still vast swathes of companies that do layoffs merely to meet projected earnings, or to replace workers with slightly cheaper ones (while the CEO gets a million-plus bonus), and when it's not even close to a financial necessity. That's immoral, in my book.

So, I'd always wondered why the media just missed the boat on the pervasiveness of layoffs, and the immorality of most of them. Until today. Verdict: It's just not about them, so who cares? Crass loudmouths and millionaires with bad comb-overs feuding are more interesting, you see.


Anonymous said...

I've been laid off a lot. One time the company, which was very wealthy and had made headway through its financial investment and spending department (HR's boss), which again and whose entire force was actually going to be laid off because the company was actually an assembly line product manufacturer and builder and therefore now with the big jet and the big office building and the big plant could now focus on doing such fabricating and installing, didn't fire the financial department, who after investing so wisely, were evidently paying themselves way too much, and even though they were in charge of the lay off to save money, they laid off people from other departments, who were needed to keep the projects going, while the sharks themselves protected their own kind, even though their time had come, and they had performed brilliantly. Not three months later the company closed its doors. Your blog about meeting projected earnings is so true. Why do so many companies wait until it's too late? No two people can spend the same dollar. I love my company so much that I would sit here and work and just give my dollar to the boss. My boss would put that dollar in my gas tank so I could come back and just work. Harmony for the business.

yahmdallah said...

Yeah, that is another side of things. Sometimes we WANT to actually help "save" the company. But, oh well.

Here's another quick one:

Way back when I was temping (whenever I would move to a new city, I had to temp to get the income started), I was brought it as basically the office assistant to a guy who was helping close down a loan division in a bank. He was the only one who was going to keep his job. I replaced someone they'd laid off already. All the loan officers around me knew that when they finally closed or transferred their portfolios to the new company (their job was to call their clients and ask what option they wanted), they too would be laid off. Needless to say, they were a pretty gloomy group.

The guy I sat next to was working with one of his clients and was asked to fax something to them, so he said hold on, he'll go fax it. He comes back about two minutes later after discovering the fax machine gone, and says (to a client mind you), "Well, I guess they must've laid off the fax machine, too."