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My stomach turned as I stared at Marissa, the third developer our company let go that very unpleasant day. Our firm was laying off 13 developers out of a total of 30 – almost half the team.
The first two had taken the news in stride, but there were more difficult questions to come.
My queasiness was driven by the fact that I didn’t have a really good answer for these tough questions. How an employee like Marissa, who did nothing obvious to land her in this unfortunate position, was now being shown the door was a fair question.
She was well liked, a pretty good coder and had received positive remarks from her clients. The journey to making the final list was not easy and not perfect.
The “personnel reduction action” edict had come down from corporate about a week in advance. It was no secret the company was struggling. The rumor mill was swirling and my team was asking uncomfortable questions that week.
It was obvious I was spending more time in closed-door meeting with my boss than usual. We rarely had a closed door in the office, which meant some serious conversation was taking place. On its own, not a huge red flag, but half the team was on the bench and the company had released dismal results the prior quarter.
It was easy to jump to conclusions – which in this case were dead on.
I was extremely uncomfortable with the questioning because I wanted to respond honestly, yet upper management had made it clear in the edict that total secrecy was required and leaks would be fully investigated.
So I danced around the questions while trying to drop hints like “read the news – many technology companies are experiencing layoffs so anything is possible.” When pressed further on what I knew, my response was something like “they don’t’ tell me everything.”
This was technically true, but I knew enough to have trouble sleeping every night that week.
My manager Steve, the director of the office, had asked if I would help him with selecting who to add to the termination list. I didn’t have a choice – and it made me sick.
Not that I hadn’t terminated employees before. But it is different to fire someone for due cause, after prior warning and after attempts to help them improve. If that employee didn’t shape up, then it was not as difficult to ship them out.
But to build a list of developers to let go, who were mostly very good performers and know that you were sending them out into a terrible market, was disconcerting in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
There were the tangible reasons for this, such as how much it cost in time and money to hire and train each of these developers. And there were the intangible reasons, mainly that relationships had been built over time and we wouldn’t be letting anyone go if we hadn’t been forced to.
Sure, in retrospect, we second guessed some of our hiring decisions. We had aggressively staffed up to meet the deceivingly insatiable market.And then, one by one our projects dried up, as did our sales pipeline. Our local market had dried up faster than anyone anticipated.
So now we had to aggressively let go those same people. We came up with unbiased weighting criteria to evaluate each developer and rank them from most valuable to least valuable.
As a consulting firm, the main driver for this was how likely we would be able to keep that person billable. We also took into consideration factors such as seniority, salary, past reviews and if they were willing to travel because other offices were doing better and had positions to fill on projects.
We had to be dispassionate about our approach and leave personal feelings outside the closed office door.
As the two of us determined the fate of each developer, my mind wandered to how much I enjoyed managing people. I liked helping people grow in their careers and playing the role of fair mediator when difficult project related decisions had to be made.
But when I moved into management from being a developer, it just never occurred to me that I’d have to let go some of those same people I nurtured in their careers.
Those team members who did nothing wrong except to be in the wrong place in downward spiraling economic conditions.
As we sat in Steve’s office the day of the layoff, we followed the very well documented HR procedure to terminate an employee. Headquarters asked if we wanted security and we declined. I have seen hired goons brought in at other places and how it made a worse situation even worse, leaving a horrible taste in everyone’s mouth.
We brought them in one at a time and everyone knew if I came to get them that their number was up. The ones who took it the best had already been looking for a new job and were much better prepared to deal with the psychological impact of suddenly being without a job.
Those who took it badly, like Marissa, were not blind that a layoff was imminent, but for whatever reason thought it wouldn’t be them.
Steve tried to answer her question. “Marissa, you must understand this was a very difficult process and there is nothing you did to cause this. It was simply a numbers game.”
“But it isn’t fair.”
It seemed cliché. Yet she was correct, there wasn’t anything fair about it. And I responded with another cliché from professional sports when a player is let go.
“It’s just business, not personal.”
Tears were rolling down her face as she left to clear out her cubicle. I wanted to blurt out that her name was the last on the list, that she had almost made the cutoff.
However, I realized that would provide little solace and probably would tick her off even more. Because the hard truth was there wasn’t any discernable difference between her and the next developer who kept their job.
It taught me that being a manager comes with unpleasant responsibilities. Hopefully it taught Marissa to never assume your job is safe and that you always need to prepare for the day when your number is called, whether it is fair or not.
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Eric Spiegel is CEO and co-founder of XTS, which provides software for planning, managing and auditing Citrix and other virtualization platforms.