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Inhumane resources

Five months ago, I was laid off from my marketing job at Nortel Networks in Research Triangle Park. Downsized. Rightsized. Optimized. Given a pink slip. (I like the British term "made redundant," but it hasn't really caught on here).

I'm not looking for sympathy. I got paid a lot of money when I was there, and got a great severance package when I left. I know that a lot of people--most people--lose their jobs without a similar cushion. Still, no matter how good the circumstances, losing your job sucks, and finding another one sucks even harder.

I have a long history with Nortel going back at least four company logos (from Northern Telecom to Nortel to Nortel/Bay Networks to Nortel Networks). I worked there in the summers between college terms when my father was a Nortel employee. A decade later, I came back for three years as a contractor until my client group was eliminated.

In 2000, when Nortel was Wall Street's darling and the company stock hit $89 a share, management celebrated with a hiring orgy, swelling the payroll by around 30 percent in one year. I returned once more as a full-fledged employee with a big salary, stock options and a signing bonus. Pretty sweet, I thought. It lasted seven months.

As anyone who has glanced at a newspaper in recent months knows, layoffs are not unique to Nortel. Perhaps it's happened to you or a neighbor, a relative or someone who used to drive a BMW to the coffee shop where you hang out. A recent search of The News & Observer's Web site for the word "layoff" returned hundreds of hits describing layoffs at other local corporate giants like Lucent, Ericsson and Cisco--as well as many smaller firms.

Experts seem divided about the future. Some say the economy is slowing and heading toward recession. Others say the worst is over and we're on the rebound. One thing people agree on, though: It's not as bad in the Triangle as elsewhere. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Triangle's unemployment rate is 2.6 percent, compared to 5.2 percent statewide. Still, I find myself wondering how unemployment can be so low when I know of at least 250 people out of work?

On Jan. 23, the first of what was to become many Layoff Days, I arrived at the office to find our group's director waiting for me. This was not a good sign.

Under the strange rules of etiquette of the modern corporate termination, my director was not permitted to say that he was taking me somewhere to lay me off. Following the same etiquette, I was not permitted to ask the one and only question I wanted to ask: "Are you taking me somewhere to lay me off?" Instead, we had to maintain the charade that it was perfectly normal for him to come and find me and wordlessly lead me to an undisclosed location for an undisclosed purpose.

In a small conference room I met a tense, glum young woman from human resources whom I'll refer to as Assistant Grim Reaper III. My director sat down, said the words he'd kept himself from saying until that moment, added a few nice things about me and my abilities and not taking it personally, and then left me alone with the Reaper.

I hardly recall a word she said. A lot of it was numbers delivered in a practiced monologue: days they would keep me on the payroll (60); weeks of pay in my severance package (five). When I made a joke about stealing office supplies, the Reaper gave me a pained look that said, "I don't understand. Please don't make me deviate from my script. And please don't hit me with a chair."

The whole conversation took maybe 10 minutes. When the Reaper asked if I had any questions, I had no idea what to say. What I really wanted to ask was, "Do you do this all day? What's that like?"

Ironically, Nortel does a good job in the weeks before a layoff of convincing you that you really don't want to work there after all. From what I've heard and read, it's no different at other big companies. People get scared, managers get secretive, those with other options jump ship and work doesn't get done because the future's uncertain. Having spent weeks in this pre-layoff climate, the strongest emotion I had when I left the conference room was relief.

I knew I couldn't take it personally. Nortel's problems were no secret. There are many different theories about what went wrong, but one fact remains clear. The telecommunications bubble burst and the people who make the switches, software and other basic equipment are the ones who've suffered. Internet growth has slowed, phone companies have stopped buying new equipment, revenue has failed to meet the unrealistic predictions of analysts and, as a result, Nortel's stock--and the stock of many other high-tech companies--has tanked. In response, Nortel has cut back on many of its less sexy product lines--the part of the business where I worked.

Still, even knowing the business factors, being laid off made me feel diminished, even a little unclean. It's a feeling shared by many others, along with anger and fear.

I recently contacted a group of laid-off employees (mostly from Nortel) through an e-mail list set up to pass on high-tech job leads in the United States and Canada. Many people wrote to me and spoke frankly about their experiences. Since most of them are still "between assignments," I agreed not to use their names.

One person told me that after being laid off, "I went home the first day and cried. I guess I was just embarrassed about the whole thing." She started working at Nortel in September 2000 and was laid off the following February. Soon after she started the job, she bought a house and found a roommate to help with the mortgage. But recently, "he put an offer on a house and he's moving out next month. So financially, things are getting pretty scary."

There is plenty of gallows humor in the ranks of former employees. A laid-off friend and I discussed going to the company cafeteria and eating our lunch, John Belushi-style, from other people's plates. "What are they going to do?" we asked each other. "Fire us?"

One sales engineer described an ironically appropriate resting place he'd found for one of the many Nortel-stamped items he'd accumulated. "Six months ago, I took an online quiz and was awarded with a T-shirt emblazoned on the back with the phrase, 'Nortel Networks - I Got the Message!'" he wrote. "I left that shirt on the back of my chair before walking out the door on my day of reckoning. I sure did get the message."

Others would have liked more of a say in who got voted off the island. In the words of one former Norteler, "At first, honestly, [losing the job] really pissed me off because I could think of 10 other people that deserved to get laid off but didn't. I had a pile of work to do. They didn't."

When I've gathered with groups of laid-off employees in the halls of the company-provided outplacement service in Raleigh, conversations often begin, "I heard so-and-so just got laid off. Can you believe he got laid off and so-and-so is still there?"

Nortel's actions in and around the recent layoffs reveal a lot about how modern corporations view their employees. When times are good and the stock is riding high, they hire. When a downturn occurs and the stock falls, they lay off.

The change can come suddenly. In the fall of 2000, for instance, Nortel went ahead with a previously scheduled career fair a few days after announcing a hiring freeze. As I left the building that afternoon, I walked past hundreds of people in interview suits, resumes in hand, marching forth to apply for jobs that may not even have existed anymore. Such corporate capriciousness makes it hard for an employee to plan a career, and the notion of job security goes right out the window--never mind company loyalty.

Consider the short tenure of another former Norteler. She showed up in January for the half-day new employee orientation program and then went to find her new boss after lunch. He laid her off. (What kind of severance package do you get after four hours as an employee? "Let's see, you had some apple juice and a bagel at orientation. We'll just call it even.")

Amazingly, the experience didn't sour her on corporate America and she found a new job soon afterwards. The same cannot be said for her manager, however, who was told to lay off his entire group of nine employees. When he was done, he called his boss and asked to be put on the list for the next round of cuts.

This revolving door approach to staffing is becoming routine. Another former telecommunications worker I contacted had recently been laid off for the second time in two years by the same company. Knowing this, the Reaper who was handling her layoff quipped, "Maybe the third time's the charm."

An engineer I corresponded with has come and gone from the same telecommunications company five times in the course of his 20-year career. He takes a philosophical view: "As a dear co-worker and mentor of mine once said, 'If you're going to be an engineer, you're going to wind up being a high-priced migrant worker.'"

One thing has surprised me about my e-mail conversations with former Nortelers and others who've survived high-tech layoffs. For every comment I've heard from someone who is angry about being laid off or fearful about finding another job, there's been another from someone for whom it's ultimately been a good thing. People have written to say they've started their own businesses, found new jobs in cities where they've always wanted to live or gone ahead with plans to get married, despite the financial uncertainty.

"Strangely enough," one person wrote, "My mood through all of this has been pretty upbeat. My friends and family have been very emotionally supportive throughout this process. I get the feeling that a lot of people out there are going to bat for me."

For some people--myself included--the high salaries offered by companies like Nortel are a honey trap that's hard to escape. But once circumstances make the decision for them, many people feel free to pursue more enjoyable and fulfilling careers. And they learn to live with less.

For those of us who got hit by the revolving door, the tension of working in a layoff environment is over. The people still employed by Nortel have been putting up with that for more than six months (imagine how happy and productive they must be), and the recent announcement of another 10,000 job cuts isn't going to improve the situation. With the company stock now hovering around $8 per share, it's hard to believe that anyone is sticking around solely for the sake of his or her options.

As for me, I've enjoyed having the chance to do some writing that doesn't involve acronyms. I'm halfway through a screenplay--something I've been putting off for several years. I've also been doing some marketing consulting for a software company in Cary that seems to know how to treat its employees.

After five months of sleeping in, shaving once a week, going to the movies in the daytime and being stared at by my cat, I'm ready to find something productive to do again full time. I'm hoping to find a situation in keeping with my own values, where the goals of the organization are clear and where decisions are made with the employees in mind--not just the shareholders. And I'm hoping to do it before my August mortgage payment is due.

Of all the comments I received in response to my e-mail, the quintessential remark came from a three-year Nortel veteran who had survived four previous layoffs: "Am I still angry at Nortel? No, because I realized I didn't really like working there in the first place ... I really miss the paychecks, though." EndBlock

  • A laid-off Nortel employee reflects on how the high-tech industry treats its workers.

More by David B. Thomas

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