The Layoff

Week of January 9, 2012: The hallways and lunch tables were abuzz with rumors of an impending downsizing. We were only a week into the new year; how could this be possible so soon?

We were all survivors in the amazing, shrinking company, having weathered no fewer than 24 separate layoffs before (as calculated later by another member of our cohort). Our company had already trimmed divisions and divested businesses that lacked sufficient scale to compete, or that were not central to the mission of our remaining pillars of storage and networking. We were in the networking division, the growth engine of our company. We had an excellent five-year plan in place; we had customers who were eager for our products; we had a development team that worked well together, having long ago worked through the transitional phases of forming / storming / norming — we were performing! We had no debt; we had hundreds of millions of dollars in cash. The deadwood had been identified, snapped from the tree, and burned long ago. Those of us remaining were the best of the rest, and all of us were essential to our ongoing success. Or so we thought.

Reflecting on that week, I understand better why the rumors always swirled around me while I remained calm and centered.  I had never before been asked to leave during my 33 year career with Bell Labs and its successors, save for once in 1993 when a set of personal crises coincided with the demise of our internal venture. At that time my good friend and colleague hired me into his core Bell Labs team, which grew into the very organization in which I still worked in 2012. I was promoted within that organization in 2002 to the top rung of the technical ladder. (Later we added an even higher Principal / Fellow position, but there were but a handful of those.) I was in the top 2% of an already highly selected technical population. As one member of my cohort liked to tell me, I was a “made man.” How I wish I had not listened whenever he praised me in that way. (Sorry, S.— I really do love you, man.)

But why did others seem to know about a layoff before I did? Perhaps it’s only a rumor. Maybe it only affects the storage division, which was hit so hard by the recent flooding of the hard drive factories concentrated in Thailand. Only later through my career transition training did I learn about human networking and emotional intelligence. My colleagues had a better network than I did, so they picked up on the layoff signals long before I did.

The affected employees would learn their fate on Thursday, January 12, as the rumor went. So I was not caught totally off guard when on that day my manager entered my office and closed the door. I imagined that he would explain the situation, and tell me where the management team had found a safe place for me where I could continue to apply my skills to projects within the company. This had happened a few times before; why would it not be the same now?

Yet this time the message was different. I felt calm — much more calm than when I was displaced in 1993. I listened as best I could. What I heard was that affected employees would receive notice next Tuesday, and that I should not be surprised if I am among that group. I asked a few questions, but it was all hypothetical, since after all, I did not know for a fact that I would be laid off. I tried to make the meeting as easy as possible for my young manager.

I called home to deliver the unusual “news” (in quotes because I did not yet know it to be a fact), and asked her not to worry. Then I turned back to my desk, reviewed my always-too-long To Do List, and selected the tasks that were most urgent. I plowed into the first item with unusual focus, since there might be an absolute deadline (my separation) at the end of the month. In hindsight, there was no reason to do any more work for the company, but I really didn’t get it yet.

After talking with colleagues late on Thursday and after sleeping on the news, I requested another meeting with my manager on Friday morning to ask more directly what I should expect on Tuesday. That was when it sunk in: I would be laid off for the first time in my career. Wow.

So on Tuesday, January 17, 2012, about 200 of us worldwide packed our personal effects; handed in our badges, equipment, and keys; and left the building for the last time. Thus begins the story of my career transition.

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