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I’ve been in a small startup where the entire company was laid off after an acquisition. Every single one of us. Such a festive party atmosphere!
I’ve also been at large corporations where I had to lay off people, sometimes every 6 months. That’s such an unpleasant experience for everyone involved. It’s very different than letting someone go for the more typical reasons of poor performance, policy violations, harassment, etc.
After you’ve been through a few of these layoff experiences, you start to notice recurring patterns of behavior. You start to see familiar signs. You get that little “Uh oh…” feeling in the back of your mind.
I’m going to start by apologizing to my friends in HR and those who are managing teams in the corporate world. I know these things are supposed to be a surprise. But, the real secret is that everyone kind of knows when it’s coming. However, let’s all admit that it is dehumanizing to be walked to your cubicle by security, packing up under the stares of your colleagues, and escorted out of the building.
I think we can find a better way to do this. But, I’ll save those thoughts for another article.
By the way, if you find my article to be interesting, please feel free to share it with someone who it might help. Thank you, I appreciate it!
Here are a few of the precursors that I’ve witnessed over the years. Some of these start happening months in advance, but others are a sign that a layoff will be executed within the next 24 hours.
- The free food and drinks start to taper off and disappear, or the quality drops dramatically. I still remember the first time I experienced this at a startup. The snack supply slowly but surely dwindled, and they weren’t replaced despite our requests. Vague explanations were made, but the reality was that the startup was failing and was shut down shortly thereafter. Now, the inverse isn’t necessarily true. A failing company can’t be saved with a sudden infusion of free food.
- Regularly scheduled long-term planning activities are suddenly “postponed,” often with no explanation or some vague hand waving. This is common when a significant layoff is coming, especially one that will result in a re-org and a change in the key players. It is really hard to make long-term plans that require important decisions when the decision makers are going to be changing seats soon.
- Hiring is frozen and open reqs are either put on hold or closed. When this happens, you can hear the groans and angry exclamations echoing throughout the lovely open office space. Managers work so hard to be granted open reqs to expand their teams. They also know that they had better scramble to fill open reqs, because the longer they are open, the more likely something like this will happen. Now, managers not only lose their open reqs, but they also have a number of people to lay off and they will probably not be allowed to backfill those positions either. Thus, the angry shouts.
- It’s usually a sign that you are going to be laid off when senior management postpones a meeting with you that they usually would have accepted. Or, you stop receiving invitations to meetings for long-term planning, or where confidential and strategic information will be discussed. As much as people would prefer not to telegraph your termination, they really can’t have you in critical meetings once they know you will be leaving the company.
- Entire teams are suddenly reassigned to new management when it doesn’t seem to make sense. I know this move all too well. Sometimes senior management will move a team to a more junior manager to pass on the unpleasant task of the layoff. Thanks, boss.
- Large numbers of conference rooms are suddenly unavailable on the same day. When you try to find a room in another building, you find that one or two of the best rooms are already reserved on every floor of every building across the campus. Clumsy companies will even let it be seen that HR has reserved these rooms. Hmmm…
- New boxes of Kleenex mysteriously appear in these reserved conference rooms. I’m not kidding. I’ve witnessed this at a couple of large corporations. Either Corporate Facilities knows that we’re all going to be catching colds very soon, or someone is expecting tears. A lot of tears.
- All management is suddenly pulled into a series of meetings across a 2–3 day period. Now, this occasionally happens when something really big is going down, like an acquisition or change of key leadership. But, it is probably to plan a layoff when these managers find it difficult to answer directly when asked what is going on, or they won’t look you in the eye.
- Work-from-home days (WFH) are fairly common in tech companies. However, with an impending layoff, employees will be told that everyone needs to come into the office on a specific day and that they cannot WFH that day. Thus, the layoff day is identified.
- Your corporate VPN suddenly stops working, thanks to IT staff that pulled the trigger too soon. I wish that I was kidding about this one. I wish that it hasn’t happened more than once. But, I can remember at least two different occasions when an employee called me to ask why they couldn’t VPN into the network anymore.
BONUS: Your spidey sense is tingling. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you. Sometimes you can just feel that something in the office is “off.” You can’t put your finger on anything, and it’s not any one thing, but there is a general atmosphere that triggers that “Uh oh” feeling I mentioned earlier. If you’ve been around the block a few times, you’re probably right. A layoff is coming.
Layoffs are an inevitable fact of life in tech, but they aren’t the end of the world. Sometimes it might be just what you needed to knock you out of your comfort zone and onto a better career path. But, no one likes an unpleasant surprise, so it’s good to recognize the signs, be prepared, and brace yourself for the moment you walk into the meeting room and see the smiling face of HR seated next to your manager.
If you’d rather be prepared for your next career move vs. scrambling to figure out next steps, let’s talk. I provide one-on-one career consulting for a limited number of clients. Let’s talk to see if I can help you with your plans.
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