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If Your Name Is Not On This Slide, You No Longer Work For This Company

September 19, 2013

That was how my friend Paul found out he was laid off. Novell is a different company today than they were 20 years ago. In the summer of 1992, Novell bought WordPerfect. I had left WordPerfect six months earlier (Leaving WordPerfect And Going To Microsoft.) WordPerfect did their own layoffs prior to the “merger.” But, there was still a lot of duplication.

Paul was a manager at WordPerfect and much of his team stayed intact though the move. However, not too many months after Novell bought WordPerfect Paul’s team and several other teams in the department were called into a meeting.

We need to make some changes to the organization. This is the new org chart. As you can see we’ve consolidated several of the teams and greatly streamlined our processes. We really think this is going to allow our department to be more effective and help the employees as we remove duplication between teams.

Excuse me? I don’t see my name on that chart and there are several other managers who don’t appear on the chart. What’s our new role going to be?

If your name does not appear on this slide, you no longer work for this company. Security will be available after the meeting to escort you out. Now, this next slide shows how our department goals map to the corporate initiatives.

At that point, Paul collected his notes, stood up and walked out of the meeting. He was the only one who thought to take the initiative and just leave. What did he care what the department goals were?

This is probably the worst layoff story I’ve ever heard. Why is it that companies who are so good at recruiting and retaining people completely blow it when it comes time to fire people?

I’m gonna have to let some people go.

Why do you say let them go? They don’t WANT to go. Why don’t you just say fire them?

Because it sounds better.

Not to the person getting fired it doesn’t.
(In Good Company (2004))

If you work in the technology field long enough, you’re going to go through a layoff, or a Reduction in Force, or RIF. We love TLAs, or three-letter-acronyms in IT, even when we are no longer going to be in IT.

WordPerfect did layoffs, that I managed to just escape. Microsoft did layoffs. Novell was famous for doing layoffs right before Christmas. They didn’t do this to be mean, they just needed to clear people off the books before the end of the year.

And the terrible thing about a layoff, especially around Christmas, for example, is that it impacts your entire company, even those who are staying. No one wants to go spend a bunch of money for toys when they aren’t sure if they are going to need that money for food.

Did you know that consultants teach managers how to fire people? Wednesday. That’s the day to announce layoffs. There’s a logic to it, of course. If you lay them off on Friday, which is what most managers would prefer, your staff, you know the ones you want to keep, go home not knowing who got let go. They will come back on Monday morning and spend hours or days talking about who is no longer here.

If you do it on Mondays, then you pretty much destroy the entire week. People will spend all week talking about it, worrying about it, obsessing about it. So, pick Wednesday. You get two days of productivity. Wednesday will be shot. But, by Friday, the shock has worn off and by the following Monday everyone is back to normal. Well, except for the people who got “let go.” Their Monday is gonna suck.

Not all layoffs have to be terrible experiences. I went through one layoff where the department director personally met with each person to thank them. The company offered six months severance and a full year of cobra coverage. They tried to make the people feel important and realize that it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.

But, more common is the horror story. The head of WordPerfect Support once got let go while he was out of town. His boss fired him over the phone.

In 2004 I was headed to Fargo, ND to do some migration work. The initial customer meeting was me, another consultant and the sales guy. On the day of the meeting, the sales guy called in on a conference call.

I can’t be there. My boss called an emergency meeting. You guys get to know each other and I’ll be out there tomorrow. I have to go, the meeting is starting.

You guessed it. He was being let go.

What are some of the worst layoff stories you’ve had to deal with? And is there a right way to let people go?

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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  1. Ohhh boy, Novell. The company who’s known more for their layoffs than the product they sell. Attachmate has done a lot of good for Novell, but man… I know a guy that has somehow managed to dodge the pink slip for 20 years. They used to do quarterly layoffs… it was almost expected. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to work there with the knowledge that you almost certainly were going to be canned, it was just a matter of when.

    The friend that works there told me a story about a guy that got canned… He had accumulated something like 8 months of vacation, which they cashed out. They also gave me 6 months severance. A month or so later, they decided they wanted to get the guy back. He negotiated his return in such a way that he got to keep his vacation and severance. They agreed. Well, 3 months later, they canned him again. Yep, you guessed it… he cashed out his vacation and got another 6 months severance. He was laughing out loud as he was being escorted from the building. When all was said and done, he’d pocketed something like $200,000 in pay without lifting a finger to earn it. THAT’S the kind of company Novell is. Not sure how a company like that sticks around with such a dead culture and nearly zero respect for their labor. Sure, it’s just business… but how expendable do you want your people to feel?

    Like you said in this article, there’s a certain way these things should be handled. Novell didn’t understand that.

  2. Too often it’s the employees feeling guilty about getting laid off. Makes no sense, but I like your friend’s story. You shouldn’t take unfair advantage of your employer, but you also shouldn’t let them walk all over you on your way out the door.

  3. Wow, that’s harsh. A few months ago, our unit at the university fired a few folks. Strangely, only two of them (on different days) were given X hours to vacate their offices while HR hovered in the background; the others were allowed to out-process and transfer their work assignments in a more leisurely (and dignified) fashion. We call the day of the big announcement “Black Tuesday,” and honestly, things haven’t returned to normal at all.

    Keep up the good blog,

    • Thanks, Gary. The last company I got laid off from did it as well as possible. They cut 7%. But a funny thing happens when you do layoffs. People who DON’T get let go no longer feel safe. So at my last company, there was a massive brain drain AFTER the layoffs as the best and the brightest leave for other higher paying jobs. I was working for a non profit and many of us felt we were trading a higher salary for increased security. Once the security was threatened, people figured, “if this job is no more secure than somewhere else, I might as well take the higher pay.”

  4. Miss Mary permalink

    I’ve had some doozies and some good ones. Best one ever: Josten’s Learning, great severance package and nice outplacement assistance. That one taught me a lot and I was grateful for the way they handled it.

    Worst handled ever: Sarcom/FrontWay. President walked out and left the board to announce over a conference call that we were all let go, save those few with existing contract work. No word that security would be standing outside the door and that we would be expected to leave all of our equipment behind. I refused to hand over my personal cell phone and proceeded to lambast the poor rented security guard and make the HR rep cry. Had to threaten to get my lawyer involved to get my last check and go collect my stuff. This was about 6 months after the Inacom Corp. disaster and I was still hearing the horror stories from friends. I also refused to allow them access to my personal laptop that I’d had to purchase for work.

    • Wow. Never had them try to go after my personal stuff. I had to get a lawyer when I left WordPerfect. But, it wasn’t as bad as you describe.

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