Recently, I was talking to a developer friend of mine who has been out of work for a few months. It seems to be a common topic of conversation lately, so we began swapping notes about our experiences in unemployment. I am not the only one who has been inconvenienced by questionable corporate policies when it comes to company downsizing. I’ve related these tales of woe to others who have been affected by layoffs, and have found that a lot of people have unjustly been put through the ringer. Is this a new money-saving trend produced by large-scale turnover? Is it an acceptable sign of the times? Let’s hope not.

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Here’s the scenario: I was working through a consulting company in Minneapolis, for whom I had successfully completed other contracts. I always had great reviews, and even used some of these companies as references. Last year, I took a six-month contract-to-hire position at a performance improvement company, where I was one of three systems analysts. It was our job to design and coordinate software development efforts.

Before I go into my sob story, let me tell you—this company has a great, hard-working development team composed mostly of contractors from the same consulting firm I worked with. Contractors at the company are largely treated as actual employees and participate in one of their own products: an incentives platform through which you receive toys, certificates, and other benefits for performing above and beyond the call of duty. I racked up quite a few of these while there, and even interviewed for a management position within that same company.

Less than one week before my contract was to end, I received a phone call at home late one night, and was told not to bother coming in the next day. (It was a nightmare scene right out of a movie; the call was being made from a cell phone with a low battery, and I could hear people singing “Happy Birthday” in the background, but that’s another story). I had been let go.

It’s a battlefield out there!

Get some great tips on building your resume, interviewing, and finding open positions by reading “Winning the job war.”

I had no warning, other than the fact that the man I reported to had been fired the previous week. His replacement called me. He had no information to give me, and said that he wanted me to hear it from him, not my consulting company.

Immediately, I left a message for my agent, who called me the next day. According to my consulting firm, I had been released for “performance issues.” Having been accustomed to my working over 70 hours per week for the last six months, and having received only positive feedback from the company until now, my agent was surprised and told me he’d try to get to the bottom of what was really going on.

Not having gotten any answers by the end of the week, my agent called and told me that they could no longer work with me, because it was their company policy to sever ties once someone had been fired from a gig. They would also reject any claim I made for unemployment benefits. I was freaked—there were no jobs to be had in Minneapolis, and I had just lost access to all of my most recent referrals.

Take control of your career

Read “Burned out (or laid off)? Consider a career coach” for some helpful insight into the world of career coaches.

The next week, one of my former coworkers called me and said that the other two systems analysts had also been fired and that the developers were now responsible for designing systems. With this new information, I was able to argue to receive unemployment benefits through the consulting company under the premise that I had been laid off, regardless of what the company had said in their official report. I was lucky; many other people were not, including the one SA who had been a full time employee.

Former coworkers never die…they just fade away

Although layoffs may be happening at your company, keeping a positive attitude is imperative to ensuring you won’t be on the next list. Read “Are you as committed to the job as you should be?” for advice on staying positive.

Plotting against us
I had a great relationship with my agent for quite a while, so I was able to take him to lunch and talk offline about what had happened. Apparently, the consulting firm’s contract with the hiring company included a clause wherein the costs that corporate unemployment insurance tacks on for each employee who is laid off are passed on to the client. In his unofficial opinion, the entire situation had been manipulated in order to avoid a rate increase for the hiring company.

In Minnesota, you cannot be denied unemployment benefits when you are fired for incompetence, but the law is very specific about performance issues. The report was completed in such a way that it avoided these stipulations. Not wanting to jeopardize their relationship, my consulting company had agreed to look the other way. By the end of our lunch, and despite my agent’s efforts to boost my morale, I realized how little protection we employees have against these kinds of corporate policies.

Thinking about becoming a consultant?

Read “Is contract work a good career move?” for an insider’s look at the pros and cons of this type of employment.

This could happen to you
In this age when companies are trying to squeeze every penny, distrust between developers and their employers is running rampant. Is this paranoia justified, or did I just experience an isolated incident? When money-saving tactics like these are involved in day-to-day business, it suggests that the environment for developers has reverted back a few years, to a time when we were viewed as commodities not unlike the very computers we worked with—expendable, and easy to come by.

We’d all like to think that these types of activities will come back to bite a company in the end, but the truth is that hundreds of potential employees would be happy to work for any company, despite its corporate reputation. As long as there are legal loopholes in employment law, companies will take advantage of them.

Am I alone?

If you have had a similar experience, or have a comment on this situation, please post it in the discussion area below, or send us an e-mail. Your peers in the development industry appreciate your support!