Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The cruel rituals of layoffs

In Science magazine, a sad essay about the perfunctory ways that layoffs are announced by Regina L. Ruben: 
...My introduction to this new type of tissue culture came after 19 years in a job I loved at a small pharmaceutical company (although in this first case no one actually offered me any tissues). Having been at the company for such a long time, I felt I had some job security. But I found out how wrong I was when the company was sold. Part of me understood that losing my job this way was “just business,” but I still felt a deep professional and personal loss. Nevertheless, I determinedly set out to find a new job, where I hoped I would have an equally long and satisfying tenure.  
I landed a job that I was excited about, a director position at a large pharmaceutical company. I genuinely enjoyed it and was looking forward to my future at the company. But, late one afternoon, about 2 years after I had started, the medical director and human resources (HR) representative escorted me to the HR office. The walk, in silence, felt funereal. When we arrived, the HR rep pushed a box of tissues across the desk in my direction. I knew this was going to be bad. She explained that my position was being eliminated in a reorganization....
There is a funny aspect to grief, emotion and the American workplace. The HR people don't really want you to use the tissues - they don't want you to start crying there, nor do they want you to scream aloud. Rather, the tissues (just like the whole [redacted] ritual) are saying "We are pretending to care about your feelings, even as we are cutting you off from your living and our community of fellow workers."

(NB I don't know what the right way to do layoffs is - I've heard lots of different stories and they have all seemed rather humiliating, some more than others.) 

16 comments:

  1. Young scientists just need to come to grips with the idea that you have no job security wherever you go. 5 years at ANY company, big pharma or startup, is probably a good average lifespan. It doesn't even look bad on your resume anymore, you just say "layoff/reorganization" and everybody gets it. The author got 19 years at a single company. I challenge you to find scientists on LinkedIn who have similar length tenures with a single company. You'll find tons more that have a bunch of 3-5 year stints at different places that add up to 19 years. This isn't a new development either, it happened even back in the "Golden Years", people are just more aware of it now. If you absolutely must have job security, industry isn't for you. Yes, it is that black and white.

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    1. I'd take it one step further and look at how many people have a bunch of 3-5 year stints based on voluntary separation. I've left jobs after 4-5 years and taken a pay cut just to do something more interesting or live in a more enjoyable city. An old mentor once told me that the hardest job to leave is your first, but once you leave or get laid off, the ability to deal with the next departure becomes infinitely easier. I have found this to be true, but maybe it's not for others. Funny enough, I'm back in academia now on the tenure track, and I'm amused by senior faculty who love to use tenure as a bargaining chip. "Do this or that, or you won't get a good tenure vote", they say. I just laugh and say to myself: "Well, if I stay here for 5-6 years, it'll be the longest-lasting job I've ever had. The worst case scenario is that I join the other 99% of the population who don't actually have lifelong job security"

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  2. Because people rely on their employment for their self-worth (connected to, but independent of, their ability to have the powers that money brings), losing your job is always going to suck. I think what makes losing your job especially unpleasant is the expectation by employers that people will give as much as they have for their jobs (teamwork and the expectations of loyalty), but when employers lay people off, it's made clear that those expectations are not reciprocal - their interests are in looking out for number 1 and not stepping in number 2. When people are laid off, this can't help but add to the trauma. This is consistent with the depersonalization that happens to make it easier for people to get rid of you and to make it easier on the cannon fodder employed for that purpose.

    People work hard in part because it's important to them (because working not so hard can be soul-destroying) but when people get fired, often for the failures of others, it is made clear that what you do doesn't matter to them they way it does to you. You have to work as best you can to preserve your self, but now have the added realization that it will be like unrequited love, and that you can't give it up without hurting your self.

    If employment were more honest from the beginning - "You're here to help us do something, and we will keep you employed as long as it's in our (perceived) best interests, and lay you off whenever it isn't, and you should keep this in mind." - it might be easier to swallow, but that would probably make it hard to pull loyalty or teamwork strings to get people to work harder for them.

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  3. True, the HR people don't care about you, but they don't really care about the company, either.

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    1. Expand that to CEOs and other executives somey of whom are really only in it for themselves and don't care if their company is harmed in pursuit of personal goals.

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    2. Expand that to CEOs and other executives somey of whom are really only in it for themselves and don't care if their company is harmed in pursuit of personal goals.

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    3. That's true as well. And shareholders are only too happy to suck a company dry. It's just numbers on a spreadsheet.

      I vacillate on whether or not family-owned businesses are a good thing or not. At least they have an interest in keeping the company running though multiple generations. If only scions weren't such entitled pricks.

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  4. That is *SO* not what I expected when I read "tissue culture" that I reread the whole post twice, wondering when the flasks and media would come out.

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  5. If you get an exit interview, HR people really don't like it when you're honest.

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  6. "HR people really don't like it when you're honest"

    Neither they nor company execs nor shareholders care about exit interviews. These are done to to make firees' feel less bad.

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    1. I didn't think they cared that much. Maybe it's meant to reduce the likelihood of ex-employee violence - it's harder to hold them still to wrap straitjackets around them than to have them talk and pretend to listen.

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    2. BT in one?

      http://dilbert.com/strip/2014-09-04

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  7. https://hbr.org/2017/04/if-you-think-downsizing-might-save-your-company-think-again

    It turns out that layoffs may not be such a good idea...

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    1. That assumes they care about saving the company. Layoffs are (at least in some cases) made to appease shareholders and keep the board and management employed until they can get paid and not to actually save the company.

      I thought it was known? (low certainty) that layoffs tend to encourage the people who can get jobs elsewhere (who don't suck) to leave for more secure pastures, thus costing the company precisely the people it wants to keep, at least if they're trying to stay around.

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  8. I've seen many rituals over the years. Almost all of them involve some variation of the "dead man walking" theme. A march to HR with security and and HR rep - because, it's really common for someone being fired, at one of the lowest times in their life, to get all devious and crazy and only able to be controlled by a contracted security firm. I'm not sure, but I always thought that ritual was intentional, to scare the remaining employees and keep them diligent, motivated by the proof they are easy to replace. CAS has learned to do this fairly well lately.

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  9. I don't know what the right way to do layoffs is - I've heard lots of different stories and they have all seemed rather humiliating, some more than others. They could put little sense of humor to work by saying "do not get up from the bed."

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