I went through 14 layoffs in the 9 years I was there. Even when the company was doing well they sacked entire swaths of people. Most of them were rather sudden until you grabbed a pattern of about September and December, with some straggling bursts in March, but then you didn't know WHEN during those months it may happen. Some were mild; most of the unexpected ones were mild. Some of the bigger ones loomed over the horizon for weeks like giant buzzards, and killed all productivity until the axe finally dropped. I was laid off twice, but managed to get transferred at the last minute. I am the only AOL employee I know who worked there as long as I had and quit rather than ended up laid off.
The method to the madness was never quite clear. The general sense was that the bigger ones were when entire departments had to go due to outsourcing or redundancy during a buyout (like CompuServe and Netscape) and the smaller ones were opportunities to get rid of the chaff or people upper management didn't like but had no justifiable reason to fire. But that was not always a guarantee. Nobody was safe; upper managers got axed as well as lowly peons. Sometimes popular and hardworking people got canned while lazy and useless people stayed. Or vice versa. Even Steve Case got booted after the Time Warner merger, but I suspect he knew what was coming years ahead of time (you had to know him, he was pretty smart and down to earth) and him being removed from the board was just a classy exit where he could sell all his shares or something. He's fine.
Once, I had this project with a guy named Al. I was working in telecom programming, and I had been handed this important project. AOL's call centers were going to outsource their tech support for US Robotic modems. It was a big deal back in 1997. A three million dollar deal and five year contract that made the news and everything. Al was in charge of making sure those call centers got set up. I was in charge of making it happen at the technical level. Three weeks before launch, Al ceased contact with me. I left him a few voice mails after the call centers reported that they were having trouble getting all the agents trained on time. Then his office phone reported no such extension. So I sent him e-mail, and it bounced. So I walked across the building and saw his pod completely empty. So I went to his boss, and she was out. So I spoke to the head of HR, which seemed weird, but okay. The conversation went a little like this:
We: Where is Al? Did he move?
HR: Um... Al is no longer with the company. Sorry.
Me: So... who is handling his projects?
HR: His... projects?
Me: Yes, he was in charge of that big phone deal we had with USR. Who is running that now?
HR: Wow... um... [long pause]... what project is that, exactly?
Me: The big one that made the news a few months ago? We hired like 50 more techs, ordered 4 T1 lines, and got some consultants in Tucson and Ogden?
Long story short, they dropped the project. Nobody checked to see who was in charge, and when Al left, they didn't exactly want to call him back. It wouldn't be the first time I lost a project to a layoff, but that was certainly the biggest. USR must have been PISSED. Same with all the managers who had been scrambling to find more techs, and now had to lay off the ones who they just hired.
My "favorite" (if you can call it that) was when they laid off an instructor in the middle of his class. I think his name was Ben. Ben was the consummate Mac guru on the floor, and in charge of training the new techs on troubleshooting AOL software Macintosh computers. When they used to hire the techs in waves, the wave after mine were treated to a spectacle when halfway into their second week at AOL, they lived through a brutal layoff in the summer of 1996. This was my first layoff, and I had never experienced one before. Everyone was told to remain in their pods. Armed guards wandered about. I forgot how I was told I could stay, I think they just brought us lucky ones into a room and told us. But the classroom saw some people come in, and ask to speak to Ben for a moment. Ben left with the people. Five minutes went by, then 10. Then 15. Then an hour before someone came in, looking harried and caught off guard. "I'm sorry, but um... Ben is no longer with the company. Um... stay in the classroom, browse the web or whatever... we'll, ah... find somebody? Do something? Just sit tight, guys." Later they found me, and I held bay for Mac training for a few hours (being somehow the lead Mac tech at that point) until they found another teacher from a different campus.
I wouldn't say the layoffs were brutal; I have heard worse. On boards I frequent, I hear of armed guards, rampant theft, and wailing and howling as people are dragged out without dignity. It was never that bad at AOL. Here's what a layoff day felt like:
After perhaps of weeks of rumors and paranoia, the actual day would start off rather noisily. There were a few more guards than usual, but I never saw an outbreak or anyone hauled off (although I was told that happened once in a while - one of the former UNIX sysadmins refused to leave until he was addressed by some higher manager, and they just dragged him out to a cop car). When I worked at Herndon, I saw a few people in accounting with their faces red and tear-stained, but that was not the norm. You were given 2 boxes to haul your stuff out, but they'd give you more if you had more stuff. Your manager would be with you (unless he was also laid off), offering you resume advice, and sometimes just be there in awkward silence. You handed him or her your badge as well as your pager, SecurID, and laptop if you had them.
Funny, if you had equipment at home, most people were never asked to return them. In fact, I know a lot of ex-employees with some rather expensive switches, KVMs, APC power switches, and even whole computers that never were asked for. I know of at least a few people who were on the wardialing team that have old wardialers sitting in their basement back when we tested our own connections for control, or were in transit from one web cache to another. Ahem. Shortly before I left, I started returning a huge amount of equipment I had taken home with me to work on, because I was a little paranoid I'd get charged for it. Yeah, I knew in my heart I knew that inventory was so screwed up they probably didn't know I even had the stuff, but another part of me wanted to purge AOL out of my life, and didn't want shit hanging around. Those that got laid off didn't even have that chance. If they were honest about it, they were usually told, "Yeah, we'll call you for those once things settle down." No one I know ever got called back.
When I look back on it, I could have robbed the data center blind. And I am sure some people did.
Anyway, the day was shot when layoffs happened. Rumors flitted about. "Paul is gone... has anyone heard from Akiyo?" You were to remain silent until the announcement was made at the end of the day, confirming the layoffs, usually in a meeting of some sort. Nobody had a script or a format of how to announce it. "Um... so... this is who is left. Jim, Scott, and Mike are calling in via teleconference. Um... it's a difficult time when we have to say goodbye to those we have worked with. You will now be restructured. The following people now report to George..." and so on.
Fourteen times I went through that. Shit, no wonder I have high blood pressure. I have mentioned two times I got laid off, but managed to hang on. How did I do that? Even I am not so sure. I just seemed to keep impressing people.
The first time was in 1997 when I worked as a QA Lead for product testing. They lied to us and ended up outsourcing our whole department to Tucson. But due to a contract issue with temps, they had to give us 90 days more employment. We were free to take any courses we wanted, and apply for job internally, although mysteriously our resumes "got lost" over and over. I took the maximum number of courses they offered, and became a virtual wizard in Microsoft Office products, and even started to learn VBA. I self-taught myself HTML, Win95, and taught what I learned to others in impromptu courses in abandoned rooms. Most played Quake and Warcraft, or browsed the web, but apparently showed such initiative, that a week before our last day, I was hired to be a telecom programmer. This job turned out to suck, but it was enough to teach me the telecom industry and call centers, which led me to a NOC job which was awesome...
The second time occurred some 7 years later. Again, the whole department got sacked. I ended up impressing some people along the way, and with a little buzzwords and inspirational poster mumbo-jumbo catch phrases, I got a UNIX job. But by then, I was already thinking of a way out of AOL. The layoffs were just too much, and in May of 2005 (after going through 4 bosses in 5 months), I was gone.
Layoffs fucking suck. I can't stress this enough. They are poor responses to bad management. Generally, if you plan your people right, you can just wait for attrition to lose people and not hire new ones. AOL was hiring days before, during, and after the layoffs. Train people to go elsewhere in the company. AOL training, which was mandatory, was dodged because some managers didn't want to lose people for a week, so "training" (in telecom) was a book with a Post-It saying. "read this, return it to me at the end of the week." That's how I learned Windows NT, my friend, and also why I sucked at it for a long time. But the fact is laying off people saved money, made CEOs fat and rich, and the stock went up. AOL didn't start going down the tubes until the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, and I went through more layoffs BEFORE that than after. That's how crazy it was.
It's a mess to work for a company like that. We "restructured" so many times by the end, it was impossible to get work done. The last 8 months I worked for the company, 12 projects came and went under me. I never finished, worked on, or started on the same project... EVER. I started two, finished one, and the rest I just inherited until the next guy got it. I had 5 bosses, transfered between two departments, and was in 4 different"sub groups." By the time I learned a project or got to know a coworker... [tweeeet] SCRAMBLE!!! I couldn't learn anything, nothing got done, and I got the hell out of there because they started to move work to Bangalore.
Anyway, I want to give a shout out to a new wave of ex-AOL employees. My heart goes out to you. You will see it's better out here. I found a happy place, and you will too. Give me a call. I give great references.