Article 43

 

Life After Layoffs: Discarded and Demoralized

IT workers who have been victimized by layoffs say their dismissals have left long-lasting emotional and professional scars.

By Thomas Hoffman
Computer World
Sep 4, 2006

As IT director at a small oil services company in Oklahoma City from 2001 to 2003, Steven Nash was a jack-of-all-trades. He first joined the company as its only IT employee, doing everything from managing Web servers to troubleshooting PCs for 25 to 30 people.

As the firm grew, it entered into a couple of joint-venture projects with larger companies and added staff to handle the extra work, including a few more IT employees. But when the two projects fell through, the oil services company found itself with more workers than it needed.

Nash went to work on a Monday in August 2003 and was given a strong annual performance review by his supervisor, who also recommended him for a raise. Two hours later, Nash met with the same supervisor, the president of the company and the head of human resources, who collectively informed him that he and seven other employees, including other members of the IT staff, were being let go.

The layoff “came as quite a shock,” says Nash, who subsequently did contract work before landing a job as a field training coordinator at an energy company about 18 months ago. It also came at a tough time. Nash’s wife wasn’t working, and with three children, they had trouble making ends meet. Plus, widespread layoffs at WorldCom and other employers in Oklahoma City and Tulsa had left a glut of highly skilled IT professionals in the local market.

During the 18 months that Nash worked as a contractor, he earned $10,000 less than he had with the oil services company, and the financial strain took its toll. “My wife and I almost went through a divorce,” says Nash. “I began to doubt my ability to find another full-time job.”

Fortunately, Nash’s church congregation provided his family with food for six to eight months. That left Nash with enough money to pay the rent. Meanwhile, his in-laws pitched in for clothing and other expenses.

Nash has since bounced back, and he’s grateful for the support that he and his family received from relatives and friends. But the layoff has left a mark on his life, both from a personal and a professional standpoint.

“I can’t say I’m completely over it,” Nash says. During his probationary period at his new company last year, he kept looking over his shoulder, waiting for the ax to fall. After Nash made it through those first 90 days, his new boss told him he needed to relax.

Continuing Struggle

Tens of thousands of IT professionals have felt the sting of layoffs and outsourcing over the past six years. Joblessness among IT professionals became acute after the dot-com bust in mid-2000, and the economic fallout of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 made it a double whammy.

Although the economy has since strengthened, and demand for skilled IT professionals is on the rise, many people who were laid off during this period have struggled to put their personal and professional lives back together.

“In American society, our professions are such a big part of how we identify ourselves,” says Batia Wiesenfeld, an associate professor of management at New York University’s Stern School of Management. “Think about it: The prevailing question at parties is, ‘What do you do for a living?’ People feel like they’re part of a community in their workplaces. So when someone is laid off, they feel like they’ve lost their community, even their family.”

That sense of community can be particularly tight among developers, who sometimes work closely together for months or even years at a time. After Clint Woods joined Beneficial Finance in 1995 as a team development leader in Tampa, Fla., he and a group of developers worked together on a Visa/MasterCard project. They became close over the next few years and continue to stay in touch with one another.

When Household Finance Corp. acquired Beneficial in 1998, Woods was one of the employees laid off. “From an EMOTIONAL STANDPOINT, it was very difficult” separating from other members of the project team, says Woods, who is currently an application systems manager for the Southwest Florida Water Management District in Tampa.

Being fired from a job that you’ve poured your heart and soul into can be particularly gut-wrenching.

When Sharon Way first started as director of applications in the Secaucus, N.J., office of Amsterdam-based Gucci Group NV in 2000, she says, “it was the best 18 months I’ve had” in 30 years as an IT professional. But after a senior management upheaval in 2002, Way was one of several managers let go.

Even though she was able to come to grips with the layoff and “roll with the punches,” it hasn’t left her untouched. “I lost part of my soul there,” says Way, who after a two-month layoff joined Vitamin Shoppe Industries Inc. in North Bergen, N.J., as manager of application development.

The layoff certainly changed her professional outlook. “I don’t try as hard as I used to,” says Way. “I used to work 60-to-70-hour weeks and then do work on top of that. Now, I’ll do my 50 and not make myself sick.”

Layoffs are demoralizing under any circumstances, but handled badly, they can be even worse. In 1997, Glenis Nelson was told by his managers at Dun & Bradstreet Software that he had to train his replacement—an H-1B visa holder—if he wanted to receive his severance package.

Nelson, a five-time layoff victim during his 35-year IT career, says that was only one of many blows to his psyche. Like other laid-off IT workers, he couldn’t always be fussy about interim employment. “You’ve got to KEEP WORKING UNTIL YOU CAN FIND ANOTHER JOB,” he says. “It’s tough to leave an $80,000-a-year job to flip hamburgers.”

Each layoff wreaked havoc on his emotional mind-set. “I happen to be a diabetic, and I’ve been in tears not knowing if I’d be able to pay for my medication,” says Nelson, now a senior application developer at Information Technology Inc. in Birmingham, Ala.

New Attitudes

Several IT professionals interviewed for this story said the layoff experience has soured them on a vocation they once loved. “What it comes down to is that we’re all temps; there are no permanent employees,” says Glenn Deles, a systems engineer at Talx Corp., a human resources and business process outsourcing provider in St. Louis.

Deles was laid off in April 2004 by Teralogix, a St. Louis-based IT services provider, after it was acquired by WebMD Inc. For the first two months after the deal was announced, Deles was told repeatedly that his job was safe. Then one day he was called into the company’s HR office and let go.

Deles, who has been laid off four times in his 24 years as an IT professional, has tried to remain pragmatic about it. “There’s no other choice,” he says. “Being laid off is an impersonal thing. When you’re told you no longer have a job, you don’t know if it’s because they don’t like you or if it’s a matter of finances.”

Still, many people can’t help but take it personally. Nelson, for example, admits that since his first layoff - in 1991, when his employer, C&S/Sovran Corp., was acquired by NCNB Corp. to form NationsBank—he has put up a wall. “I don’t get involved with people like I used to,” he says. “I probably never recovered from that layoff. It was like family.”

Workers who are victimized by layoffs often go through the same type of grieving cycle experienced by those who have lost loved ones, says NYU’s Wiesenfeld. Those cycles, noted by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying, include shock, denial, anger, DEPRESSION and acceptance.

Way says that ultimately, what matters isn’t what happens to you but whether you’re able to get over it. “The most important thing that happens when you lose a job—particularly one that you like—is the ability to heal, which I did at my own pace,” she says.

Nash says senior executives need to focus less on earnings targets and more on an organization’s most important asset: its people. “One of the fallacies of laying people off is that ‘it’s not personal, it’s just business,’” he says. “That’s a lie. It’s always personal.”

Do you have a layoff story to share? Want to see what other readers have to say? Are you a manager wondering how to conduct staff reductions in the least hurtful way? Head to our Career Forum blog.

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Posted by Elvis on 09/16/06 •
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