One of the commonplaces in the modern corporate world is the layoff. Although corporate PR wizards might refer to it as downsizing, rightsizing, brownnosing or human engineering, whatever you call it, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a layoff is still a layoff.
There are at least two separate but related trends that are fueling the current layoff boom. First, there’s the recession. As markets have imploded, and American business has contracted, companies have been shedding employees like a woolly Irish Setter dumping fur in the spring.
Secondly, many American corporations have increasingly been opening offshore branches overseas, typically in India, to handle much of their call center and back office operations. Technology has made this not only possible, but relatively easy, and as labor costs in India are only a fraction of what they are domestically, this transition makes enormous sense on paper.
One obvious effect of the Indian Syndrome is the dislocation of American employees. If you work for a major corporation, and your job doesn’t absolutely require your local physical presence, there’s a good chance that your employer is already working on a plan to send your job to Bangalore or Hyderabad.
Mind you, upper management might well deny this. They will try to disguise the inevitable through secret memos, kaisan studies, sig sigma forums and the usual plethora of antiseptic corporate jargon. But while you’re asleep at night, construction on the new India branch is underway.
How can you tell when the next round of layoffs will hit? After studying the matter for a number of years (I’ve been through a couple of “restructurings” myself), I’ve come up with the following seven early warning signs:
1. Your manager has suddenly become very nice to you. It’s not a manager’s job to be nice. A manager’s job is to intimidate you. This is known as “coaching.” It’s a proven fact that being nice inhibits a manager’s ability to coach effectively. But if you’re on your way out the door, all future coaching opportunities become irrelevant. At that point, there is little risk associaited with being nice. Conversely, there is now a potential liability in not being nice. An angry layoff victim might try to sue the company for termination without cause. If a nice manager is able to bond with the future ex-employee, this can help prevent such frivolous litigation.
2. You’re no longer invited to important meetings. Remember all those useless meetings you used to complain about? Your prayers have been answered. Suddenly, without explanation, your presence is no longer required. Even if you suggest to your manager that it might be a good idea if you attended a few of these boredom-fests, your manager will smile nervously and say, “That’s all right, don’t worry about it.”
3. You’ve been working on an important project for six weeks, and suddenly your manager reassigns it to one of your co-workers who’s certifiably brain dead. When you ask for an explanation, your manager says, “You’ve got enough on your plate as it is.” When you inform your manager that you have, in fact, nothing else on your plate, she smiles nervously, and says, “Don’t worry about it.”
4. You walk into the restroom. Two or three people are at the sink, gossiping about an impending round of layoffs. As soon as they see it’s you, they stop. You say, “You’ve heard something about a layoff?” Your colleagues all look at each other nervously, and then leave quickly, even though their hands are still wet.
5. Your security card no longer works. This is a cheap and rather obvious ploy. All major corporations have a severance program of some kind, although most of them would prefer not to use it. In ideal world, clairvoyant employees would understand that they’re no longer needed, and would quit. Alas, it never works that way. But the next best thing is to drop unmistakable hints that you’re no longer needed, in the hope that you’ll ultimately become so uncomfortable that you’ll quit before it becomes necessary to dismiss you. Naturally, if you leave under your own steam, the severance package is rendered superfluous.
6. The company stock is down. In fact, it’s been down for a long time. Your CEO, a much-touted wizard imported from a Fortune 500 company in an industry completely unrelated to your own (for example, if you’re in banking, it’s very likely that your next CEO will be a retread from a telecom firm, or an insurance company), has been employing a number of innovative strategies to boost the stock price. They have all failed in a spectacular way. Shareholders are getting restless. It’s inevitable that the CEO will resort to the most time-honored method of making the corporate balance sheet look better than it has any right to: he’ll starting cutting payroll. In other words, layoff season has arrived. At my old company, the unofficial name for layoff season was Oktoberfest.
7. The company CEO makes a public statement that there are “no plans for any staff cutbacks in the immediate future.” This is seen as an iron-clad, air-tight, fail-safe, completely true statement, regardless of what the reality is behind the statement. After all, “immediate future” could refer to tomorrow. It could mean five minutes from now. In the corporate world, any statement with an open-ended time frame should be construed to mean its opposite. Only a statement that refers to a specific time frame, such as, “There will be no layoffs next month,” should be deemed credible. Unfortunately, corporate executives never make such statements.