Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Layoff of a Friend

I was on the elevator with a friend from work today - not one most of my other friends know, but one from outside my normal developer circles - and he looked sad.  So I asked how he was doing and he started tearing up on the elevator.  Turns out he was laid off today after 14 years as part of a bit of offshoring.  He and his partner were just getting around to adopting, and being laid off may have an impact due to not getting the adoption help the corporation provides, not having a job, and not having health insurance (he carried the insurance in the relationship).  It was his intention to resign at some point - he's been negotiating to open a candy shop in St. Paul - but when the decision to leave the company turned out not to be on his terms, and he can't count on the two weeks per year of severance (it didn't come up in the lay off meeting), and it interferes with the adoption, it scared him, regardless of his eventual plans.  Plain up.  That sucks.  Particularly as he just worked with me porting data into a dashboard for another affiliate that got a big thank you from several VPs.  I suspect when they come back in a few months and ask "can we add more data?" I'm going to have to say, "The data and apps behind my app went overseas. You'll have to move this one there as well as I can't work at 5:00 a.m. for free and you don't have a time bucket. I did it before because I was asked by a friend.  But I don't have friends in your group."

Corporations don't seem to understand the personal connection that makes a lot of work happen behind the scenes.  Now that I've managed for a while, I suspect the official line would be, "You should have tracked the time officially so we could account for it and understand whether or not we were making the right work decisions and/or the right layoff decisions."  But there's never enough time for all the little things that need to be done, never enough money, and putting them under the microscope subjects them to the certainty principle...that is, any project that is examined by the corporation is certain to cost way more than it needs to.  They probably wouldn't think that's funny, but when you consider adding a PMO, Data Expert, Testing (oh...the testing), and Manager to your project, as well as time accounting, et al, you can't help but add a pile of expense.  Streamlining small projects makes the world go round as long as it's not expected of the employee.  There was a kudos in our internal communications to a developer who had worked off the clock to create an app for the corporation.  No one should be expected to work off the clock, and you shouldn't engender the belief in other employees that they're less for not working all hours of the day to achieve corporate ends.  You do it because you see a need that isn't being covered by traditional work, and because you have a connection to the individuals whose lives are made easier by the work.  Sometimes that's you that sees the benefit.  Sometimes it's others.  But if you're doing it for glory, you should be figuring out how to staff that start up.

I'm rambling a bit, but seeing someone sad on the elevator makes me think of all the things related to layoffs I've read recently, and all the sadness and uncertainty layoffs foster in employees.  It reminds me of an article Ming sent me that I was going to use for the internal department blog that I was told not to publish.  In defense of my management, I suspected that publishing the article might make people nervous that layoffs were coming (for my department) when they weren't, so I asked.  But I'm still disappointed I didn't get to put it out there, and being part of a speaking up initiative that censors itself seems ironic.............

An interesting article by Mark Sheffert called Breaching Psychological Contracts was recently forwarded to me by a coworker.  It's a facscinating read, particularly as it's something of a foil to the "golden handcuffs" idea (you can find that by searching an earlier post on Iterate!) and, in addressing "invisible psychological contract that grows between an employer and its employees", covers some of the same issues that engage us and help us to create change (our VP recommended John P. Kotter's The Heart of Change to her managers prior to some of our initiative discovery and reorganization to account for changing development priorities).  Some of the human qualities that cause us to embrace change and be engaged with our work day-to-day, are the same qualities - emotions - that make change in our roles and employment, and our perception of the unwritten agreements involved, so painful.

As a Generation Xer, although I don't believe that category ever fully encapsulates anyone, I see individuals my age reacting to the changes in employment in our traditional manner, adding as many skills as possible so there's always a fall-back, and looking for opportunities to start our own businesses.  The number of groups and conferences devoted to just how to do that has greatly expanded in the last several years with Start Up weekends, TIE, Meet Up groups based on tech/venture capital intersections, events hosted at Best Buy in the tech start up space, and working code demos with more of a sales flavor than a code review flavor.  To me, there's no doubt that the economy and changes in the workforce created incredible unease for my peers.

Sheffert points out that the weakening of the unwritten contract, or the perception that it's weakened as may be evidenced by all the local venture events, can have a negative impact even if there aren't lay offs.  "Why are so many people leaving their jobs, even with unemployment so high? A recent study by Florida-headquartered consulting firm AchieveGlobal revealed that the top three reasons are a lack of growth opportunities, dissatisfaction with compensation, and a perceived lack of recognition for their contributions. These are all preventable diseases..."

Dissatisfaction with compensation is a difficult issue to address, as all companies are constrained by the bottom line.  But growth opportunities and recognition are facets that demand constant focus and which can be addressed even during a recession, albeit perhaps without a significant monetary focus. [After this, I put a positive spin on it, as we have a department initiative aimed at enabling individuals to speak up, speak out, and understand the importance of their roles].


So, bad contracts.  Sad coworkers.  Sad friends.  I'm hoping it all works out for him.

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