surreal e-mails of goodbye

If you’ve worked for a technology company for any length of time, chances are you’ve experienced layoff day. If you are lucky on layoff day and are not one of the many victims, you instead experience a surreal barrage of e-mails from people, some you may know very well, others you may have never heard of, wishing you well and fondly remembering your working time together. Often, this is the only way you learn that someone was laid off.

I’ve been through layoff day several times, yet never once have I gotten an e-mail saying “well, screw you guys; this job sucked anyway”. Instead, the e-mails always talk about how wonderful the job was, while at the same time vowing that the next job will be at least as great. I don’t know if layoffees have to keep the positive attitude to avoid killing everyone around them, or, more likely, don’t want to mess up their chances of getting a good reference.

Honestly though, I don’t get why people send out these e-mails at all. I was victim to layoff day once, at a company where I had worked for nearly six years, and the last thing I wanted to do after that was log on to e-mail and send out a fond farewell. I did want to crawl under the covers and cry a lot. But sending out good wishes? Not so much.

You generally know that the day is coming. Rumors, oddly worded announcements, strange reorganizations. Employees know. Today’s event was a little different in that I first heard of it on CNN. And then in the weeks preceding, read the world’s opinions of it on message boards around the Internet. Executives tried to save face by sending out a global e-mail shortly after the news broke, implying they were planning to tell us all along, acknowledging that yes, soon before Christmas, some people would be “separated” from their positions.

I wasn’t too worried about my job, because I work for a division of the company that has been spun off into its business unit, and word on the street was that as we were actually making money, we were the only division in the company with open requisitions, rather than layoff requirements. But still. You can never be sure until the day is over. And when you’ve once been victim of layoff day, you can’t help but be a little nervous.

When I was laid off, it hit me like a truck. So much of my self-worth was tied up in that job that it devastated me. I was a remote employee, working in a different state from the office, so I had to wait as everyone else was called into the manager’s office, one by one, and told the news. I heard from nearly everyone, by e-mail, instant message, or phone call once it had happened to them. And then my call came. My manager said she had to read me a prepared statement. She called me that night from home to tell me what she really thought. She had no say in the matter. Higher ups made all the decisions based on the org charts. It was still devastating. Plus, we had just bought a new house and a new truck and suddenly I had no income.

Looking back at the online journal I kept back then, it all comes rushing back to me.

January 7, 2002: “Company apparently gearing up for big layoffs. Including our department. I won’t get laid off, right?”

January 9, 2002: “I didn’t go to sleep until 5:30am because it was a really stressful day at work, what with no one knowing if we’ll have jobs in a week.”

January 15, 2002: “Laid off. Sad. Mad. Sick. Broke (obviously). Sigh.”

January 16, 2002: “I fear being alone. Because of the sobbing. I’m getting exhausted from all the sobbing.”

January 17, 2002: “I’ve gone through all kinds of emotions with this job thing. I’m mad that I gave so much of myself to them only to end up here. I’m in a panic about money. I’m nervous about such a drastic change after working by myself from home for four and a half years. I’m scared. Did I mention mad? Because I’m mad. I’m sad, so very sad. And I’m unemployed (although possibly that’s not exactly a feeling, although it seems like one). I’ve been working since I was 14. This is the first time since then that I’ve been without a job. And despite my youthful appearance, that was a long time ago. I don’t know what people wear to interviews. Do I need new clothes? Should I ask E. to go clothes shopping with me? Will we end up at claire’s buying tiaras because we’re princesses instead of buying proper business attire?”

January 21, 2002: “So, I’ve spent the weekend trying to continue forward momentum. If I slow down and think, I feel this tugging at me. It’s the pull of backward momentum, luring me to curl up into a ball and cry. So, in an effort to outpace that pull, I’m moving ahead in the forward direction. If I stop, I feel like things are passing me by.”

And on January 23, I got the call from the company that hired me away from my deep, dark funk. Which meant that while I was overjoyed, I also had to adjust to lifestyle changes after working from home for so long.

January 28, 2002: “So, since I’ve worked at home for the last almost five years, I’m thinking I need to do a little shopping before I start working in an actual office on Monday. Considering that a sample of the clothing I’ve bought over the last year is:

grinch slippers
red leather pants
William Fucking Shatner t-shirt from WWDN
Britney Spears-style suede pants
black t-shirt with Death (from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman) on it

I know I’ve been out of the office for a while, but I’m thinking these items are not generally worn office attire.”

(As it turns out, I mostly was wrong. I do, after all, work in the software industry.)

So, I had a new job within a couple of weeks. I had severance. But it was still terrible. It happened nearly three years ago and I still can remember how awful it felt.

In some ways though, it feels like a lifetime ago. So much has happened since then. I’m scarcely the same person. And actually, a lot of that change was motivated by the layoff. I needed an identity beyond my job. I had to stop giving so much to my employers. They treated me as a business resource; I should treat them the same. All the extra hours and hard work and caring didn’t stop them from letting me go when it made business sense to do so. It’s not that I stopped being a good employee. In fact, that’s what I became. I stopped being a superemployee, glued to my job. I stopped spending weeks of working until 4am, grabbing a couple of hours of sleeping and starting work again. I no longer spent all my weekends and spare hours researching better ways to do my job. I started looking for a life outside work.

There’s a part of me that worries that if I’m not this superemployee, that I’ll be victim of layoff day once again. But the other part of me replies that I was a victim of it anyway. I may as well have a life in the meantime.

In any case, I was not a victim today. The rumors were true, and my division was not affected. However, people in my office who work for another division were: the person who interviewed me for the job, who was reorged into the other division of our office right before I started; a QA engineer who I shared an office with for a while. I read the slashdot boards, and they say who cares; the company sucks, so the people who work for the company suck too. But I know otherwise. I’ve been there I don’t wish it on anyone. We lost nine people in my office, and 750 companywide if you believe the news stories. Internally, I hear it’s a lot more if you count all the contract employees they let go.

It’s a jarring reminder of a big turning point in my life. I guess layoff day affected me after all.

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