Tech & Work

Coping with a layoff: Heed warning signs of failure

Layoffs are part of the landscape these days; it's more surprising not to hear about a new round than to read the announcements. Bob Weinstein talks to an IT pro and an ex-dotcommer who recently got laid off about what they learned and how they recovered.


Jack Gillenwater and Susan Daniher were luckier than most workers who have been laid off recently. They saw it coming and both quickly found new jobs. Each had very different experiences with the layoff process, but both came away with a new perspective and some good lessons.

Gillenwater was senior manager of IT at Union Carbide (UC) Company in Houston until it was bought by and became a subsidiary of Dow Chemical. After 26 years with the chemical giant, he was laid off in May 2001. Four months later, he landed a job as engagement manager of Imagitek, Ltd., a solution and document company in League City, TX.

Susan Daniher was vice president of marketing at Express.com, a retailer of DVDs, CDs, and electronic equipment in Los Angeles. Coincidentally, she was laid off at about the same time as Gillenwater and found a new job four months later as vice president of marketing at Kintera, Inc., an Internet marketing company for nonprofit organizations in San Diego. Express.com went bankrupt in May of this year and was sold but kept its name. Sadly, Express.com was only six months away from profitability before it ran out of money.

Reading the signs
Gillenwater and Daniher saw the layoffs coming. UC already had gone through a couple of rounds of layoffs, and employees started preparing for the event 18 months earlier. For the most part, UC management handled the layoff process professionally. Yet Dow wasn’t as forthcomingwith information, according to Gillenwater.

“Before the layoffs began, we were led to believe some of us would have jobs with the new company,” he said. “But that didn’t happen.”

Daniher, however, knew there was no hope of keeping her job when her company was sold.

“The majority of the staff was laid off,” she said. “A small group of techies kept their jobs solely to help the reorganized company make a technical transition.”

A month before the layoffs began, Daniher knew the end was in sight when the CFO left with a year’s salary. The controller followed soon after.

Unlike UC, Daniher said Express.com management handled the layoffs insensitively and selfishly. To make a good impression with its buyer, the firm left its employees in the dark until the last minute. The sad result was that employees were shorted 30 percent of their final paycheck, lost all of their vacation benefits, and received no severance pay, Daniher said.

Gillenwater, however, was laid off with a liberal benefits and severance package. Yet he’s still feeling the aftershocks of his layoff.

Back in the job market with lessons learned
It was hard for both managers to digest the life-altering significance of the layoffs, but it was especially hard for Gillenwater. In 1993, he reluctantly played a part in laying off 40 percent of UC’s workforce. But leaving a job he loved and people who were as close to him as family proved devastating.

“It was a humbling experience,” he said.

After more than two decades with the same company, it was hard for Gillenwater to start over. In addition, he wasn’t prepared for job hunting.

“I was so focused on my job, I never established networking relationships,” he said.

But he found out that he had more friends and contacts than he realized.

“I learned fast that you never know who will help you out,” Gillenwater added.

It was easier for Daniher because she had only been with Express.com for three years. She didn’t have to bone up on her job-hunting skills, but she still came away with some precious lessons.

“Start by investing time in researching a prospective employer. Speak to people who worked at the company to find out how they were treated. Plug into chat rooms and you’ll get more information than you need,” Daniher advised. “But don’t take everything you hear as gospel. An employee who was fired (laid off) for poor performance obviously is not going to have anything good to say about a former employer.

“Shower the CEO with plenty of questions about the company, its goals, strategies, long-term plans. Most important, find out how much money the company has in the bank.”

Don’t be squeamish about asking about money, Daniher said.

“Remember, your livelihood is at stake. The company ought to have at least nine months of cash in the bank to meet all of its expenses.”

What advice can you offer to recently laid-off IT workers?
Have you been through the trauma of being laid off? How did you deal with the change? How did you find a new job? If you’re a hiring manager, what advice can you offer for people looking for work? Send us your tips on finding a new job.
 

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