This past semester I took a class in "Phenomenology" - the study of how we can come to knowledge by understanding an experience as perceived in the human consciousness. It's a fancy way to say that the way to learn about something, is to ask someone who has experienced it, and then to really listen to them.
I elected to do my final project on the experience of being laid-off from a white collar job. One of the first things a phenomenologist must do before interviewing subjects is to "bracket" his or her own experiences. This means to suspend any prior knowledge of the phenomenon in order to listen fully and attentively to the experience of the interviewee. One method of doing this is to write out your own experience with the phenomenon being studied in as much detail as possible so that you can physically "set it aside" before listening to your interviewees.
Because I have had experience being laid-off from a white collar job, I took some time to record my story. It was an interesting process. Even though I was laid-off almost 17 years ago, I found myself feeling many of the same emotions again as I recalled the details. It was a very cathartic process. Since people read this blog looking for career advice, I thought you might want to know a little about some of my career experiences, so I've pasted my own personal experience from my final project below.
In a future posting I will share some of the themes that emerged as I listened to people tell me of their own experiences being laid-off from a white collar job, and I will also share some thoughts on why a white collar layoff is different from a blue collar layoff.
I began my career in Corporate America as a Human Resources Assistant in the flour milling division of a Fortune 500 food company. Six months after I started in this position, executive leaders announced that our division had been sold to a competitor. The HR Manager I reported to found another job and left the company. In her absence, I was tasked with preparing and delivering severance packages and coordinating outplacement benefits for over 300 employees whose names were on the layoff list. The Vice President of HR was busy networking and interviewing with other companies in order to secure his own future. I worked long hours on this project for the next two months. As a naïve entry level worker, I assumed that if I rose to the occasion and worked hard on this assignment the organization would eventually reward me. Whenever I asked the Vice President about what was next for me when I finished this assignment, he would assure me that this project was a great “resume builder” for me and would serve me well in my future career in human resources.
In mid-July I completed the tasks related to the severance packages and outplacement coordination efforts. After I crossed off the last item on my to-do list I literally had nothing to do. I walked into the Vice President’s office at about 1:30 pm. He was just hanging up the phone. He looked irritated as he asked, “What’s up?” I said, “I’m done. I’ve delivered the last of the paperwork to Jay in the Payroll Department and he’s ready to handle any last phone calls that come in. [The outplacement company] has enrolled everyone and they don’t need my help anymore.” I paused before nervously asking, “So I was wondering what I work on next?”
He stared at me dully. Then the next few seconds seemed to go in slow motion as he swiveled his chair around to the credenza behind him. I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as he opened the top drawer. I intuitively saw a familiar blue packet before he pulled it out. He swiveled back around and time speeded up again when he snorted, “Well you’re not stupid so you had to know this was coming” as he tossed my severance package on his desk in front of me.
I heard a roaring sound in my ears, and I opened my mouth to try to take in air. He must have thought I was about to speak because he quickly cut me off with, “Oh, please. What else did you think was going to happen?” I heard the derision in his voice and dozens of thoughts invaded my brain simultaneously: “I thought you said this would help my career.” “You’ve been busy looking for a job while I was working.” “I’m a good worker.” “After everything I’ve done?” “You cannot do this to me.” “But I did everything you asked.” ”What am I going to do?” “What will I tell people?” The thought that reverberated loudest and most frequently was: “You are such an ass and I cannot believe I didn’t see this coming.”
I finally stammered “But I thought there would be something for me in another department when I was done here.” He looked at me with disdain as he patronizingly explained that this is what happens in business and I needed to make the best of it and move on. I saw his lips move but didn’t hear most of the words until he concluded with, “Look, I’m out of a job too and you don’t see me making a big deal out of this.” I remember being determined not to cry in front of him. Somehow I stumbled back to my desk and sat down. I opened the severance package and began looking through the familiar contents – release agreement, COBRA notification, payroll forms, and outplacement information.
Payroll forms. Outplacement information. And then it hit me. Everyone else had known. Jay in Payroll had known I was going to lose my job even as he worked with me to prepare all the other packages. The people at the outplacement company knew they would eventually be seeing me as a client instead of as a company coordinator. All of their friendly customer service suddenly seemed like a sham. It had been a hoax designed to trick me into doing the grunt work. Waves of shame and embarrassment swept over me as I realized how pathetic I had looked to be working so hard on an assignment to process the laid off employees when I was actually “on the list” myself. I felt duped and betrayed.
I eventually recovered from that dreadful experience and moved on to have a great career in Human Resources. I grew in the profession, took on leadership roles, and received accolades for my work. And I went through the experienced of being laid-off a second time when the firm I worked for was acquired by another company. This time I was the Vice President of HR and I had more knowledge of and control over the situation since I was at the planning and decision table. I chose to be laid off rather than accept a position that would require me to move my family to a new state. My severance package was generous and it included stock options. It allowed me to start my own consulting practice. Ironically, I have unwittingly developed a niche where I work with companies to implement workforce reductions. In the past five years I have delivered layoff notices to hundreds of employees, contracted with outplacement vendors, educated employees on state unemployment insurance provisions, and provided job search counseling.
I am good at my work. And you can be sure that I have never let a client company of mine behave the way the food company behaved to me so many years ago. However, I also know that no matter how good I am at my work, it is of little comfort to the employee who has just lost his or her job. This led me to wonder, “What do we really know about what happens to employees when they are laid off?”