Sunday, November 26, 2006

Layoff: Four Months and Counting

BIG NEWS, THOUGH NOT the sort one usually wants to hear without a winning lottery ticket sitting in a safe deposit box. I've been delayed in posting it because my cable access crapped out the day before I got the news (to be exact, the Thursday before Turkey Day). Now it can be told.

At the end of March 2007, I will be laid off. Two of the four designers in my group will be gone by that point, either by finding a new job or by leaving on the deadline they received (1/31/07). My team leader will also be let go on 3/30. All of us will receive severance pay, and we will be eligible to apply for unemployment. Additionally, I (and, I suspect, the team leader also) will receive a retention bonus of about one full paycheck in size if I stay through the end of my assigned term.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The day before the bomb dropped, a group of editors and production folks got a note to appear at a meeting the next day, with no agenda or purpose listed. My design cohorts had just met with some of the newsletter editors — most of whom weren't invited to the meeting the next day — on a new method of periodical production. I have discussed this boondoggle of a project before, and in recent posts under my "work" tag you can read about the extended gestation period and the long-awaited launch finally pegged to mid-November. The meeting two Wednesdays ago was our first joint editing–production powwow on this new process, and it inspired little confidence.

Based on the list of attendees, I thought at first this meeting the next day would relate to the project launch. None of the newsletter editors with whom we had met the previous day were present in that meeting room in the upstairs offices of our sister company. Folks who were in attendance, however, included my department's managers, our HR official, the division president, and a suit I didn't recognize (later revealed to be a rep from our North American headquarters). Ominous.

Our department VP led off. To stay competitive with other publishing companies, we needed to put the pedal to the metal on the project we were finally launching. It needed to be launched quickly, but cheaply, to make up for lost time. As a result, nearly 20 of the 30+ people in the room would be laid off, and their job duties moved offshore. Our department director continued, in an uncharacteristically nervous voice, saying that layoffs would roll through 2007, to get the new production cycle rolling right, and that we would meet with our managers and HR that day to discuss our new job functions if we were retained, or our post-job procedure and benefits if we were released. The president and out-of-towner gave the usual corporate boilerplate about this not being a personal reflection upon us individually, how they needed to compete, and the like, but at that point, most folks were looking at the list of names that had been handed out, trying to judge, via some temporal layoff Kremlinology, what their place in the exit-interview lineup might mean for their future with the firm.

With that, the meeting ended. Coffee and pastry stood outside for the attendees. Few touched it.

I WALKED BACK TO to my office alone. I took the time to regard the view that our sister company had. From six floors above our own floor in the building, they commanded a 360ยบ view of Midtown, Downtown, the Village, and the waterfront from Hoboken to Staten Island. I had a similar slice of this last view in the company's previous Midtown digs, from a cube in the corner of the building, and I have missed this view since our move to Chelsea. I didn't yet know whether I was among the layoffs, but it seemed likely I and my three teammates were on the block. My job is easily portable to cheaper, overseas laborers So my attitude was more of anticipation of that verdict being confirmed, rather than genuine doubt over what my fate might be.

From this standpoint, I wanted to be alone with my musings for a spell. I felt much as I do when I view a thoughtful, provocative film. I like to be alone with my thoughts for a while, to digest my own reaction to the work. Despite having no target for my next job, I felt focused, set in a direction . . . and I wasn't really sure what direction that might be, or what might appear in the crosshairs of that focus. I think it was more the realization of just how unfocused and aimless my day-to-day work existence had become.

I've gotten to the point where — this new production method aside — I wasn't going to learn much from the job. Unless I specifically take classes in a new a skill or piece of software, no on-the-job training of worth is to be had. And honestly, none of us really wants to know this new method they're training us in, despite claims from its greatest advocate that it's going to be a worthy entry on our resumes. So one can safely say that I can't get any better at my current job. I had been flirting with the thought of what the next position might be, but aside from wondering how I would address my deficient Photoshop skills, I hadn't made any moves. The time to make said moves was at hand.

I was calm when I got back to my offices and returned to my desk. I passed some of the more gossipy members of the department, who had also been included in the meeting, clustered and presumably gabbing about their fates. I passed them by. I suspected they had nothing positive to say. I had no use for that mindset — and keep in mind I am a pessimist. I needed to act. I flipped the notes on my pad from the meeting over and began writing a list of points to raise during my impending layoff discussion: headings for info on COBRA, unemployment, references, whether I could somehow buy the computer I use at a depreciated discount, my 401(k), severance pay and the flexible spending account in which I participated, and a note for myself of all the vendors, outside editors, and in-house folks from whom I might be able to cite for testimonials to my skill. My handwriting, as it was on the notes I took during the meeting, was unshaken by nerves or emotion. I felt a little like Michael Corleone outside the hospital in The Godfather after Sollozzo's men drive by for another attempt on the Don's life, comparing the shaking hands of Enzo the baker's son with his own, steady as the steel of his Zippo.

and I sat down with the HR official and my manager, they confirmed my guess that I would be laid off. In detailing the end-of-job follow-up and benefits I described earlier, they actually anticipated most of my talking points, which I mentioned to them with some satisfaction. (Later that day, when I asked the HR person if any of the other folks asked any of the same questions or prepared the way I did, she said none had. Surprising.) I won't be able to buy my computer, and neither the managers nor the HR department can issue any sort of reference other than confirming that I worked there (for liability purposes). The rest of my points they covered in their opening pitch. I have to say that as meetings go in which one is told they're being sent packing, it was one of the more convivial. I wasn't taking it personally, I understood from a business standpoint why this was being done, and I was aware that in many layoffs, folks don't even get to return to their desks — they find their belongings in a box in the hall. I even cracked a joke based on George's nap drawer in Seinfeld. There was no way to avoid this, so why not be, at minimum, professional, if not congenial? (I found out that at least one person was so upset that she just went home after the meeting. How does that help?)

Keep in mind that this attitude is surely influenced by my personal status. I am 37, with neither dependents nor debt, 14 years of editing and design experience, a stash of emergency money, a functional car, retirement funds that could be accessed in a dire pinch, and two parents who can help in a worse one. I could always move to cheaper digs, or closer to the next job site, if a long stretch of joblessness tapped any of my savings. That will only happen after I run through severance, the retention bonus, and unemployment. I am not saying this job hunt will be a romp in the clover with satin-swathed nymphs (unless that turns out to be my next job, which wouldn't suck), and I historically have a tendency to mope when I encounter frustration . . . but nowhere near as much as I might have even 5 years ago. My adolescence took more than 10 years longer to end than it should have but it is over. I am in a far better place than in 1999, when I last searched for a job. If not ecstatic, I am surely not defeated. Not yet at least.

Back to that day. Our design group met in private to discuss our next steps. My team lead apologized profusely and needlessly — after all, she was going out on the bricks with the rest of us. She hadn't seen cuts this widespread coming, although she could discern the pattern I described in this post. She would have imagined only one or two people getting the boot (the implication being the two junior designers). Her best piece of advice was to start looking for a new job now, before the design schools released, in the spring, a new crop of cheap labor with whom we'd compete. After we shot the shit and enjoyed a few morbid yuks at the whole fucked-up nature of the situation, we returned to our desks. If anything, the office was even more quiet, now that everyone from the meeting knew their fates.

I followed my team lead back to her desk and told her that although I might not miss working for the company, I would definitely miss working for her. This is true. I trust her completely, and she has always been as open as possible with me and the team. She and I share the same disdain for the folks higher on the ladder in our department who seem more concerned with ordering lunch on the company dime and the details of their kids' school-play costumes than assessing whether this stupid job-killing project will work or not. She was genuinely touched by my admission and said she felt the same way. I don't look forward to our last day together. As I mentioned here, she has been something of a control rod for my temper amid multiple stressors. I am quite possessive of people whom I trust, and being forced apart from them gets me very emotional.

What also upsets me is Dilbert–style bitterness. I have railed against the surrender pose of the Dilbert fan before. After 2 solid hours of layoff discussion, I suddenly realized I was famished. When I went to the kitchen to grab my thrifty leftover lunch, four of the people on the list were bitching about the layoffs. I understood they were upset. One of those gathered had just moved from the city and bought a house in New Jersey not more than a year ago. But he was actually being retained until late 2007, had been demoted by my boss when he was in our group, and was still retained after being relieved of the duties that put him under my team lead's eye. Another person there was one of these young military types who has a cute answer for everything. She sounded very satisfied with the sarcastic opinions she had for those gathered. Previously she had been a tangential part of the big project being launched, which probably had her thinking, up until today, she was secure in her throne as Queen Shit. Well, she was half right.

Why would you waste this energy dwelling on the company that has just fired you? Why not direct it all to the next job, and reserve all of your enthusiasm and powers for that quest? Did these people honestly think the company cared any longer what they thought? Shit, this is nothing less than a gold-edged excuse to surf on Monster and CareerBuilder all day at work. What are they gonna do? Fire 'em?

The only part of this whole experience I dread is telling my parents. They don't know yet. I say with no hubris that I am the second most important aspect of their lives, short of each other. I am their only child. I don't want them to worry about me at all. They have their health issues to concern them, to say nothing about their private thoughts about mortality. My parents should be enjoying the booty of the comfortably retired, preferably from a sitting position in front of a gigunda television. I also don't want to be asked about this at every turn. I know full well I need to find a new job quickly, without being reminded of it repeatedly. I know there will be times when my energy flags, when I need to take a breather before the next sally. The last thing I will want to hear at that moment, no matter what spirit of support or concern accompanies it, is the phrase, "Did you look for a job today?"

With this in mind, I have told them nothing. The Saturday following that Thursday was my mother's birthday, and of course the following Thursday was Thanksgiving. I wished to mar neither. Keeping it silent past Christmas is pushing it, though, and we're not as big a Christmas family as we are a Thanksgiving one. So what will happen is, I will be "told" about this in a "meeting" tomorrow, possibly call them from work to prep them, and then go over there for damage control tomorrow night. I'll let them vent their vitriol at my employer, describe my current financial situation, tell them my steps for securing a new job, and then proceed from there.

I let the weekend pass before informing any of my friends about the layoff. I had a Devils game scheduled for the next night, my first in well over 20 years, and I decided to enjoy the night out without dragging this into it. The Devils' victory certainly didn't hurt. I had one last splurge that weekend, hitting Whole Foods and attempting to visit my favorite Indian restaurant for a buffet gorge (sadly, they were closed for renovations). I said nothing to my parents, biting my tongue when they began discussing layoffs at Sunday dinner. Next, I let my friends Amy and Ratatosk know of my fate. They are facing a similar one — worse in some ways, as their boss is selling the company, and a much higher percentage of their coworkers could find themselves jobless due to their job functions moving to other cities. (The group being laid off in my company is a single-digit percentage of total NYC staff.)

I then informed the rest of the gang via the Evite I sent for my upcoming Christmas party. I wouldn't think of canceling it for the second year in a row, but I knew I would have to tighten the belt in some way just in case the job hunt lasts past next March. So I decided to declare a gift moratorium for this year, in light of the upcoming austerity. Jen and I observed one of these last year, when she was absorbing new education bills. I'd rather have the gift of my friends, happy, well fed, and in the spirit of the holidays, than anything they could envelop in paper or dispatch from the depths of the Amazon vaults.

During the short week just past, I felt a little more annoyed by petty wastes of effort or needless wastes of money at work. The new printer with whom we are working needs us to send PDFs produced in a two-step fashion long made obsolete by InDesign's full PDF integration, because the printer has antiquated equipment that can't handle separations. I've had to sit on a couple of jobs otherwise ready for press. The delays to schedule annoyed me. I may be there for only 4 more months, but I still have professional standards to uphold. Add to this the sight of the managers I cited earlier once again having catered meetings and pissing away money that could keep us on staff for another month, and I felt the confidence I'd had at the end of the previous Thursday wavering.

This was turned around by two of my coworkers, from outside my department, whom I encountered in the lunchroom while washing up after lunch. They had heard the news, delicately asked if I was affected, and sympathized with my plight. One of them offered some ideas based on where she had last worked. She described working for an in-house production unit at one of the larger NYC law firms, and although she couldn't recommend that specific jobsite (she said it was hellish), she posed it as an example of the sorts of places I might find suitable. (She later provided me with a comprehensive list of questions a job seeker should ask an interviewer; very helpful.) It was a very energizing conversation and turned my flagging mood around.

So that's how things stand. I took a week and change through Thanksgiving to get my footing. Next is to write up my resume and research the online job sites (as well as any pitfalls of using them). From there, it's a matter of making sure I have a suit ready to go when the calls come in. At least I don't have to be as secretive about finding this next job as one often does.

Next up: Some words on the next steps in various realms of my life. For now, I need to ice down my fingers. If I were paid by the word for these logorrheic posts, this layoff would be no problem.

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