I always have said, at AOL, I was there for 9 years and went through 14 layoffs. Two of those layoffs I actually DID get laid off, but managed, through charm and grace, to hang on in another department. The first few years, I worked for AOL member Services, where layoffs were random and frequent; about 2 big ones a year, with one or two little ones between. It was so bad, it was like being under sniper fire in some outpost: you never knew who or when, and it could be a peon or a big manager, you never knew. I always called my time to be laid off “the golden bullet,” because while I was able to sniff out an oncoming layoff that might have affected me, I wasn’t every 100% sure. This is one of my main reasons I left; AOL didn’t care how good of a job did, and employment with them was so unstable. I am lucky to have left on my own terms in the most satisfying way possible:
Boss: You suck.
Me: I don’t. I have a track record to prove it.
Boss: I question your record.
Me: I have companies offering me more money to leave.
Boss: No you don’t; prove it.
Me: Okay, here’s my 2 week’s notice.
My fear at this company was cliquishness, but so far that hasn’t happened, nor does it seem likely. Neither do layoffs, as we have had an influx of new business at a steady pace. “In the ten years I have been in business,” the owner told me during my interview, “I have not laid off a single person.” Later, I was to find out a few people had been fired, but that happens to any company.
But it seems more and more, people are being affected by layoffs in a general sense. Just last week, Pfizer laid off over 10,000 people, which is like 10% of their entire workforce. In my childhood, whole towns and cities went dead as factory work was being shipped offshore, or we lost the edge in manufacturing to a foreign competitor. There are a lot of small towns filled with elderly people on welfare,
Honestly, big companies don’t give a crap, and then they wonder why their employees don’t either. I think companies are getting too big, and then realize this too late, and have to fire a bunch of people instead of firing themselves. It always makes for a “quick patch” to save money, but really, if things aren’t doing so well, you should just wait a little, and not hire new people. People leave companies all the time, and just put in a hiring freeze, start reassigning people to other departments as holes open, and soon, you have moved a bunch of people around. I recall at AOL, we always had a personnel shortage, and layoffs made even less sense. You’d have active tables at job recruitment seminars right before, during, and right after layoffs. It was insane.
Management higher ups never see what layoffs do to people. It’s one thing to fire a loser fuckup who steals office supplies and does very little work. But it’s another to fire someone who does do good work, and it demoralizes them. Rampant layoffs do nothing but drill into worker’s heads, “It doesn’t matter. Do as little as you can. You will probably be let go no matter if you do a good job or a bad one, so why put out the effort?” Sure, okay, they don’t care. But laying off a good worker can destroy lives.
I was laid off from two former jobs. In both cases I was replaced by someone who could do my work for less. In both cases, that turned out to be a bad choice because each replacement stole from the company. The first layoff, I was out of work for 2 months. The second time, I was unemployed for 2 years. The first time, I lived with some roommates, and I had some money saved up, so I was never behind on anything before I got a new job that paid better. The second time, I was married with a child. It was devastating. We got evicted from our apartment, had our phone and power shut off, and lived in the projects for the next 4 years. There were days where I didn’t eat because it was between feeding myself or my wife and son. And despite all that, I didn’t have it as bad as others. I got a sense of vindication when the company that let me go did terribly when they decided to think of the profit margin instead of long-term business planning. Now they are no longer in business. And I have to admit, being unemployed and poor may have sucked, but it gave me some opportunities I might have never had before, like raising my son, writing a book, learning UNIX, and being in a comedy group. But it had severe long-term damage.
When I think of some of the people who use layoffs as a short-term gain, I think of the man who cooked and ate the goose that laid the golden eggs. I think of corporate mergers that did little for each company but inherit twice as many problems. I think of people who forgot the customers and employees, and placed their bets on the stock market, like a sickened gambler. I used to work for a defunct company that had a corporate conglomerate for an owner. Tandycrafts owned Cargo Furniture, Tandy Leather, Sav-On Office supplies, and dozens of smaller companies. And each time they bought a company, they over-managed it and drove it into the ground. Finally, they just broke apart like a drifting mat of garbage in the surf.
I remember a story about a watch maker who was offered a huge sale to the US Navy. The deal would triple his business. But he declined, stating the business was too much, too fast. “I can’t manage a project that size, and I’d have to hire a bunch of new people. Quality would go down. And then when the deal was over, then what? What do I do, but keep trying to make more and more money? It would be out of control.” Some people say he’s an idiot, but he knew what he could handle. And a lot of the mega-conglomerates did NOT know what they could handle during any merger plans. In the end, it was always about a few people making a lot of money in a short time, and thousands of workers shafted in the process.
I was always taught that firing people is a last resort. When it’s obvious they don’t have the skills, can never learn them, or don’t care, you let them go. But firing someone is always costly. I am not talking about unemployment insurance, I am talking about the time it takes to train someone new. AOL was the worst at this, because they’d lay off perfectly good people, and then hire new ones... at the same or higher salary. We had a bunch of techs who were laid off once who went to a job seminar in Vienna, where AOL was recruiting new people for their position at higher pay. “How come we don’t qualify?” they asked. Finally, someone spoke up at one of our stock holder meetings and asked that directly to Steve Case, live on satellite and everything. “How come our company is laying off techs, and rehiring new ones for more pay? Wouldn’t it make sense to just promote the people we have?” he asked. “Are we being blacklisted?” he added. You’d think it would be an awkward thing to ask via open mike, but Steve calmly responded with surprise, said he wasn’t aware of any blacklisting, and he’d look into it. And, god bless him, he did. And because of that, I didn’t get laid off when they outsourced my department; I became a telecom programmer for AOL (you know the “Press one for tech, two for billing?” That was my work). AOL got their money’s worth with me. But how about all those talented people who got let go? Dumbasses.
The 401k thing ended pension plans. I never had one, I used to think pension plans were what old people had, and that does seem to still be a valid observation. But when my mother-in-law died, her pension plan paid for part of the funeral, even though she hadn’t worked at the glass factory for decades. 401k changed the owner of your retirement fund from the company to you, and that’s probably a good thing. Social Security isn’t in a locked box, and if I see a dime of what I put in when I retire (which, if the limit isn’t raised past 65, will be 2033), it will be a shocker. I was at a Vasa Drott Lodge meeting last year, where one of the members said, “I just got my first social security check, announcing my retirement. I only wish I could afford to retire.”
I was reading some articles about how the Japanese have had to come to terms with no company loyalty recently. It used to be you worked at the same company from the first date of hire until you were too old to work, and then they took care of you. But a lot of older men are being laid off at 50 or more, facing the fact that their company made some bad decisions, and went bankrupt. No one will take care of them but their families, who they had alienated by being so loyal to the company and working 12+ hours a day. America has gotten used to the idea that you don’t stay with the same company all your life. In fact, it used to be if you got a resume where the applicant never stayed with the same company more than 3 years, you’d see that as a warning flag. But now, especially in IT, working at the same place for more than 5 years is considered “legacy.” It doesn’t matter if you are loyal: you could get laid off, outsourced, bought out, sold out, whatever. Younger Japanese people seem to be taking this well, but their older counterparts are falling apart with stress.
In my view, I rank my priorities from highest to lowest: morals, family, self, friends, religion, then work. I owe it to myself to stay morally on track, otherwise, everything falls apart. Family will always be there for me if I take care of them, too. And I have to stay alive, so then I take care of myself. Friends are SUPER important, and all of these are very close together. Then there’s a gap, and religion helps out (where it’s not covered by morals), and then work. Lower still is fun and community, which may be a problem I have to work on. But the sad thing is, work is not loyal tom me, Maybe my current workplace is more loyal than I have encountered, but AOL? No way. They outsourced their payroll and HR, they didn’t know me from a serial number. None of the retail companies did, either. Big corporations simply can’t see you as an individual, they are simply too large.
And this may be the crux of the problem: in order for companies of that size to work efficiently, they can’t think of you independently. You become a number, and not just a serial number, you also become a statistic, like “one of twenty in accounting.” When budget cuts come, you get something like, “lay off 20% of accounting.” Then it becomes a game of personality. I have known brilliant programmers with social skills so sub-par with the norm, that they were almost impossible to work with. And thus, got fired by clueless managers.