It’s been almost 15 years since I wrote my entry at layoff, and it stands up all right today. Of course, we don’t use the term laid off in "Information technology" because it suggests that the recipients might be re-hired.  And that’s usually not on the corporate agenda.

Since I wrote my layoff writeup, I’ve seen a lot more of it, under various names. When it’s done en mass, the term was downsizing which gave way to dehiring and then off-boarding and finally workforce reduction. We call it termination on an individual basis, to give it the proper air of finality, without suggesting any specific cause or getting into language that might be legally actionable. Internally, human resources may use off-boarding to describe the administrative process, which entails revoking access rights, calculating final pay, and so on.

As a manager, you can usually sense the termination event coming. First there comes the hiring freeze where you can’t hire to backfill voluntary departures. Often the freeze is described as temporary. Usually it’s not. It tends to presage a revenue miss, and thus the need to reduce OpEx. In an IT firm this almost always means that people are going to lose their jobs, because salary and related costs are the vast majority of expenses. Losing employees who you haven’t hired yet is the most cost-effective and least painful way to cut staff. But normally that won’t be enough.

After a period of ominous silence from upper management, the quota for the reduction comes out. Sometimes it’s dollar cost, sometime it is pure headcount number. Sometimes you get both! At times the pain is spread equally, such as a 5% reduction in all departments. Often there are exemptions for strategic products, cost-effective locations, or critical services. Such exemptions leave the areas not so identified to 'contribute', that is, make up the difference on top of their own quota. Other times specific business areas, locations, or functions are singled out for reduction. Unless you're deeply plugged into the grapevine, you usually don't know what’s happening outside you own area before the balloon goes up.

The selection of employees who will be leaving is an exercise in triage. What initiatives, services, and products will suffer or fail if specific people leave? Who are the most essential personnel to keep basic operations running? What initiatives are expected to deliver next year's growth, and so must not be gutted?

Planning takes place in secret, furtive closed-door huddles. God forbid that the individual contributors get wind of things in advance! People tend to fear the worst, and to panic. Worse yet, productivity falls off dramatically as people gossip. So the event is kept close to the vest until the day comes.

These kinds of events are explicitly not about job performance. This is sometimes a bit of a fiction, but it can’t be seen as termination for cause. In most cases, there hasn’t been a paper trail that would justify selecting a specific employee: No poor performance reviews, performance improvement plans, and so on. Thus the employer is at pains to avoid suggesting that anything the individual employee did or did not do had any bearing on their selection.

Then the employees are summoned individually to a meeting room to receive the news and their severance packages. Most jurisdictions specify minimum compensation based on employee years of service, age, and position. Large employers will typically exceed the minimum, out of compassion and/or in order to avoid lawsuits.

In a large company the human resources staff will do most of the heavy lifting for the line managers, who are present in the meeting but often are only able to give a scripted presentation. This avoids off the cuff remarks that might result in legal action.

As the terminated employees pack their belongings, the survivors are herded into boardrooms to hear the official story, often along with a pep talk about how the corner has been turned and the future is bright.

Until the next time.

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