The Layoff Fakeout

When I was first hired at NetApp, my first job out of college, they made a lot of noise about how they didn’t do layoffs and they were such a great place to work.

Then they had layoffs. It was a big deal. The CEO stood in front of the company and talked about how much he hated having to do layoffs and presented the business reasons for why they had to lay people off. It was hard, but we understood.

Then a couple of years later, they had another round of layoffs. Again, the CEO (a different one this time) presented his reasoning and talked about the business and the finances. He assured us that the company was fine, we just needed to reorganize in some key areas.

By the time I left, layoffs were a nigh-yearly occurrence and the CEO (yet another one) might mention them as part of whatever the next all-hands meeting was.

When I’d been working for the company for about six years, I was in a pretty good place. The tech industry is odd in that someone who’s been at a company for three or four years is considered a well-seasoned veteran, and I had been working for my team long enough to have graduated from newbie to respected developer. I had a good reputation in the team, and I had a manager I really liked. I was using my influence within the company to drive some changes that I was pretty excited about.

Then, it happened. Layoffs. That particular company would never announce its layoffs ahead of time. Instead, you just arrive at work one day and the conference rooms are all reserved and the windows are covered. The goal was that all notifications were handled in one day, after which it was done. Altogether it was a fairly humane way of handling layoffs; not fun, but at least it’s over quick and there’s less uncertainty or dread.

The day layoffs are announced is never a productive day. Some of it is spent waiting for the other shoe to fall, and the rest of the time usually involves employees huddled up offering mutual moral support or trying to figure out if any of their teammates have been let go.

So one day, I walked into the office and realized that it was layoff day.

As it approached lunchtime, my coworkers and I were talking about (of course) the layoffs when my manager’s boss walked up. He looked at me and asked if he could talk with me in the conference room.

Ulp. In my head, the resounding thought was, “I’m being laid off!” My mind immediately started racing: “I can’t believe I’m being laid off. Could this be because of my performance? What will I say to my coworkers when I get back to my desk? What all do I need to finish up before I go? Will they escort me out of the building today and make me turn in my badge? Where will I go? Should I start working my network to see if other companies need someone of my skills?”

These thoughts were so loud I barely heard what he actually said. Eventually, my brain caught up with his words and I realized: I wasn’t being laid off!

My manager was being laid off.

They were moving my team’s function to India, so the remaining American members of my team were being dispersed. I was sent to join my friend and mentor Britt at a project I have previously referred to as Project Bob. Although obviously this was a bit of an upheaval, it was probably one of the better outcomes of my team being offshored and my manager being let go.

I thanked him for letting me know and told him I was fine with that plan. I also told him that maybe in the future for similar conversations, he might want to lead with, “you’re not being laid off.”

When I got back to my cubicle, none of my coworkers were talking. Everyone was studiously staring at their screens, pretending to work, not looking at me. I said “well, I still have my job. My manager doesn’t, though.”

(My manager, who was an excellent manager and also a very good guy, was fine. For a while he would occasionally check up with me to see if I wanted to work for him again. Sometimes I check up with him to see if he’s working somewhere I want to work. He gave me a very good reference for my current job.)

I don’t think I realized quite how awkward and uncomfortable and difficult being laid off is until I thought it was happening to me. This experience served me well years later when I actually was laid off, but that is definitely a story for next time.

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