Monday, November 14, 2011

The Layoff Project: "I was proud that I didn't cry in front of them"

RG is an analytical chemist and shares their layoff story. To protect privacy, the story has been [redacted] to remove details:

So, first job out of college, working at a large industrial plant in their QA lab as a temp worker.  I had the usual lab tech responsibilities and ended up running the lab for a month while my boss was out.  Money problems came up, and as newest in, I was first out.  The one that hit hard as it was my first time being laid off from something that I considered 'my career'.  I went out with friends, cried to my family and got back into gear a few days later.  A former colleague emailed me about an opportunity in the nearby bigger town of my college alma mater and I went for it.  Got the job.

The second job, I held for almost ten years, starting [date redacted].  I was an [instrument] spectroscopist in a small consulting firm.  The president (also technician), [a few] technicians, [and a couple others.] The environment there was hostile at times, as the president did not work well with women and had obvious favorites among [the employees].  He also later hired [a relative] to work for the company [recently], buying a new instrument specifically for [the relative] to work on.  The president did not approve of my need to take off time for [a medical reason] [recently] and was even more annoyed when the surgery had to be repeated later.  With the economy as it was starting to fall, our sample input was slowing down.

The favorite technician was informed that [they] did not have to come in to work (but was still paid) while I had to be there.  I had to be constantly doing 'something', as my boss did not want me to be at my desk doing nothing, nor at my computer doing nothing (no internet access anyhow), nor was I given technical files or instruction to help me understand my work or better myself at my tasks (it was stated that I could not be trusted with equipment as I deemed responsible for being 'always the one breaking the instrument,' a charge that I was cleared of after I left.)  I was assigned various work tasks around the lab that were not expected of my male colleagues, including vacuuming the offices and cleaning the bathrooms, in an effort to give me 'something to do'.

I still performed my lab work, running samples, including the Monday of the week that I was laid off [recently].  The next day, I came in and cleaned the offices and bathrooms, as I was unable to do that on the Monday while actually doing chemistry.  Once that was done, I was called into the president's office and told that due to the lack of samples, I was being laid off.  I would still be paid for the [a short period] but I didn't have to come in and [an employee] immediately took me to my desk to watch me put my stuff in a box.  He made sure that nothing that could be remotely connected to the company was taken and claimed the password for my computer.  It had started monsooning outside and as I left, he cautioned me to drive carefully as they didn't want me to get hurt.  I was able to say some quick goodbyes to my coworkers that were there.  I was proud that I didn't cry in front of them, although it made driving home difficult.

Funny thing, my husband got into law school two days afterwards.  And he will be graduating this coming spring, with an interest in employment law, thanks to all of the stuff he saw me put up with in that lab.  I was able to network with my research professor here at my alma mater and get into a part-time job hauling liquid nitrogen containers around for the NMR service lab and running the occasional samples for the mass spec service lab in about a month.  After about a year on unemployment, I was able to obtain a full-time job in the mass spec service lab and that's where I've been since.  (The liquid nitrogen part-time job was funny, as at the previous job, I was deemed unfit to even help with the weekly nitrogen fills due to being female.  At the university, I was deemed an adult and able to haul multiple tanks at multiple times and places.)

And now the questions:

First week, take a break.  It's a grieving process and even if you've been planning to jump ship, it's still a loss and large change of your normal schedule.

Let your friends and family know.  They can help you grieve, but try to take the 'advice' they give with a thankful heart.  Even if you've heard the same advice ten times now or they are poo-pooing your choice of career.  Plus, let your social network know, whether it's a quick change to LinkedIn or a commiseration thread on Facebook.  This can give your network time to take a look for things that could be good for you.

As my company was small (waay small), no outplacement or advice or help was given to me.  I had never applied for unemployment before and didn't even know that I needed to wait until my company stopped paying me the [extra period] before I could apply.  This was just one of the disadvantages I found in working for such a small company, as a variety of labor laws do not apply to companies with less than fifty employees.

I'm not good with financial advice.  I tried to have at least three months of emergency money in savings but then my husband started law school about three months later with all of the expenses that such entails.  We were fortunate in that we had paid off our undergrad costs and car already, along with not have credit card debt, but it was still a huge shock.  Try not to make big expenditures for a couple of months but also, don't go on a complete shut-down of everything that you enjoy.  Going from feast to starvation in enjoyments is just going to make any binge that much bigger.

I started looking again within a week.  Even more so after starting unemployment.  The ways of looking for a new job had changed in the ten years between my first job and my second one.  I was rather lost but made a point of checking with my network of friends and members of my chemistry organization.  Also, since I knew that there were labs in town, along with the university, I tried to keep any eye out for anything from them.  The unemployment reminders and paperwork were the hardest reminder, as I felt that being laid off showed some fault in myself.  (I also later found out that my former boss was resentful over paying my unemployment money and that he wanted me to get a job, any job, as soon as possible so they would be able to quit paying me.)  If you have access to your health insurance for a while, see if they will work with you to reevaluate your policy or premiums.  Also see if you can get in on any free therapy that may be available in your area.

I don't think I really had a typical day during that time.  I tried to run errands outside of the home often, just to keep from getting stir crazy.  I also tried to keep in touch with friends and family often.

Networking, friends and talking to local scientists were helpful in my finding a new job.  Having a university in town was helpful in that I was able to check with various labs and see whether they had any openings.  A bad side to this is that such openings are often saved for student workers.  But if you can find a niche, you never know where it could lead on the campus.  You can also be able to join mailing lists for on-campus job openings and job fairs as well.

CJ here again. Thanks to RG for their layoff story and best wishes to all of us.

The Layoff Project is an attempt to collect the oral histories of chemists who have been affected by the changes in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. The explanatory post is here; stories can be left in the comments or e-mailed to chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com. Confidentiality and anonymity is guaranteed. 


  1. Wow, that was a tough one to read.

    One thing I've noticed so far - none of the chemists telling the lay off stories mentions ACS employment services. Did they not try to use them or did they just find it not useful?

  2. ACS employment services are worthless. Some of the job ads can bear fruit, but their career counseling and resume review is an abomination. The fact that they brag about them all the time as some great perk shows how disconnected the heads of the organization are from the things actually happening on the ground.

    Random note CJ: you redacted the length of RG's severance earlier in the story but it shows up in the latter part of the entry ("needed to wait until my company to stop paying me....")

  3. @RG: Why the HELL did you endure such workplace abuse for almost a decade?! Was there really such a dearth of employment opportunities for analytical chemists in your hometown?

  4. QA chemists are treated very badly, its the same story everywhere. This story is still pretty sad though. I cant see anyone putting up with that kind of abuse for 10years.

  5. RG here. Thank you for all of the comments! (And I am much happier at my current job! :) )
    To answer the questions:

    UI: I did not actually know about ACS' employment services. I had let my membership in ACS lapse after college.

    Anon@5:53pm: I actually am not sure. In a way, as it was only my second 'real job' and in my career, I thought that was how industry was like. That everyone had it like this as the newest technician. At the beginning, I thought it would get better once I was no longer 'new'. It just..didn't. And the people who had my job before me only lasted a couple of years at most, so my employer probably expected me to give up sooner or later, for instance, when I got married. But I didn't. I enjoyed most of the actual analytical work and there were some client projects that, while hard, I was proud to have been their specific analyst for the life of the project.

    The cleaning stuff was started a few months or so before I was laid off. It was not in my job description but then again, the boss was telling me to do it, so I did it. And I didn't want to seem 'too good' for even more grunt work.

    It was abusive emotionally and still affects me in my current job as I do not have accurate responses to things like how assertive I can be or how to not judge discussions about my work with my current boss. I still feel like an impostor, someone who just graduated from college without a clue even though I've been out for over a decade. It also makes me doubt my own abilities as a chemist and not being just someone who can be easily replaced by a new person and an SOP or instruction manual. Pretty much, if you're told for years that you can't do stuff right and that you should be thankful that you even have a job in your career at all, you end up believing it. I am thankful for my husband who encourages me to stand up and refuse to be treated like that. It just took a while to stand up. :)

  6. I'm glad your story has a happy ending RG. For you new job, it sounds like a mentor would be helpful. Is there someone there you can ask for advice on your career?

  7. I have some folks that I have lunch regularly with who are acting as my social/campus mentors but I don't have a career mentor, I guess you could say. I'm not really sure about how to go about getting one, other than popping into the chemistry career group and asking.

  8. Privately approach someone who has skills and a job you admire and ask if they are willing to be a mentor for you.