He never saw it coming.
He arrived early on that Friday morning, wanting to get his desk cleared before a 10 a.m. company-wide meeting on corporate restructuring.
But something was wrong. First, he noticed the empty boxes outside his office door. Then he couldn’t log onto the company computer network.
Then he saw the note. His boss wanted to see him.
It turned out to be the last thing he expected.
“You know,” his boss began, “part of the announcement today was some rightsizing.” Rightsizing is corporate lingo for firings.
“Yes,” he replied, “but I’m head of R&D (research and development). Surely we’re not going to cut back on that.”
“We’re cutting back everywhere. Sacrifices have to be made.”
“And I’m one of those sacrifices?” His head was starting to spin. Anger welled up. Then tears.
“Yes. I’m sorry.” Funny, He thought. The boss doesn’t look sorry.
The next few minutes brought the standard spiel: Six months salary continuance, outplacement help, a strong recommendation from the company. He listened without hearing. He was 46 years old. What good would severance pay, outplacement and recommendations do someone like him?
His boss stood and offered his hand. He shook it and turned for the door.
“Uh, by the way.”
“We want those of you who are leaving to have your offices cleaned out before the rest of the staff gets back from the meeting. You understand.”
He left without turning back. He didn’t understand.
It took a little over an hour to pack up 17 years with the company. An hour to box up all those years of 12-hour days, missed vacations and working on weekends.
The last box was ready to go down to his car when a secretary from human resources stopped him and asked for his employee i.d., corporate American Express card, phone card and garage card. He’d already tossed his business cards and letterhead, so he surrendered the last of his company identity and walked out.
On any given day, thousands of men and women who have given their lives to some corporate ideal are put on the street because someone in a position of power decides it’s the thing to do.
The action is swift, thoughtless and uncompromisingly devastating to the individual who is downsized, rightsized, surplused or just plain fired (depending on the corporate slang in vogue at the moment).
Corporate CEOs call it protecting the bottom line. Those most affected call it dirty pool.
He arrived at the outplacement office at 9 a.m. on Monday. The door was locked. Several others arrived right after him. Strange, he was the only one from his company, even though 23 others had gotten the ax on Friday. At 9:20 a.m., a woman appeared and opened the door. Each were given offices and told someone would be with them as soon as possible.
He went to the seven-by-nine windowless office and starting working up a list of who to call. At 10:15, a terminally-cheerful young man walked in and introduced himself as his new career counselor.
“Sorry for the delay, but we’re swamped around here. Everybody’s rightsizing these days. It’s a zoo.”
That’s great, he mused. Won’t that make it harder to get a job?
“Let’s talk about that. First, we need to talk about what’s best for you.”
He struggled to control his emotions. What’s best for me, he said, is working for a living and paying my bills.
“But we need to see if what you’ve been doing is really what you’re suited for. We know this is a rough time, but just think of it as a controlled free fall.”
For the first time since Friday, he laughed. What he thought he was best suited for was what he had been doing for the last 25 years. For the first time in his life, he didn’t feel in control of anything.
“Not necessarily. We often find that this is a good time to reevaluate. It may be a good time for a career change.”
So he took tests. He talked with counselors. He took more tests. He sat in group sessions. He took more tests. After five weeks, the counselor announced the results.
“You’ve been doing what you’re best suited for.”
Film at 11, he thought. He wondered what the company was paying for these startling revelations.
“Now we have to structure a program to land you that perfect position in your field.”
That was the final straw. He told the counselor to get the hell out of his cubicle (he couldn’t think of it as an office any longer) and slammed the door.
Not that long ago, companies laid off employees because business was bad. Now they do it when business is good. AT&T announced record profits one day and massive layoffs the next. General Motors did the same thing.
In a recent survey, Fortune 500 CEOs were asked to list their top priorities. Most said protecting the investor was job one. Protecting their employees didn’t finish in the top five.
When an assembly worker at General Motors is laid off, he expects to get his job back when sales pick up. When a manager is fired. His job is gone. Forever. If the job ever comes back, it goes to someone younger and cheaper.
He never went back to the outplacement office. He and his wife talked that night. They talked for hours, well into the morning.
The next day, he worked the phone.
First he called his old company. Forget the salary continuation. He wanted a payout. Now. They said the check would be ready in 48 hours.
Then he called his retirement fund. Cash it in. Now. He’d have the check in 30 days.
Then the Realtor. Sell the house. Now.
Then the Post. Classified ads for his Porsche and the BMW. Priced to sell. Now.
It took two days to sell the Porsche. Another week for the BMW. A month for the house. Six weeks later, he and his wife were homeless, carless and on a Harley headed out of Washington.
They stopped by on the way out of town. They would, he promised, check in from time to time.
“Where are you headed?”
“Hard to say.” They both smiled when they said it.
“Are you going to be all right?”
“Yeah,” he said. “We’ll be just fine.”
— Doug Thompson