17Feb

The Best Firing I’ve Ever Experienced

Posted by Elf Sternberg as Uncategorized

Paul Petrone writes What it’s like to watch the worst firing ever, and in it he describes a process by which a boss, in the process of announcing forthcoming layoffs, does something pretty horrible. You ought to read it.

I can’t do one better, but I can describe the most dramatic firing I’ve ever seen. It was at CompuServe.

In 1998, after I’d been there about five years, CompuServe was purchased by AOL, then immediately sold to WorldCom in a complex stock transaction that allowed AOL to keep the users, but WorldCom to keep the wires and infrastructure. The group I was with was part of the wires and infrastructure group, but we were a redundancy. WorldCom wanted CompuServe’s Omaha offices but could care less about the Seattle space, which to them was an internal competitor with their own internet services.

The trouble was they actually couldn’t, according to Washington law, just lay us all off. A mass firing in Washington involves some rather arcane proceedings, much like a bankruptcy, and any layoff involving more than 20% of a large workforce requires the company to pay out substantially large severance. The idea is that you’re about to dump a large group of highly skilled people into the workforce; it may take a while for all of them to find work and they may have to move to do it.

So what did WorldCom do? It made us miserable. At least it tried. It took away all our work and enforced work hours. Basically, it took twenty bright developers and all the support staff of a dot-com and locked us in an office and said, “You have nothing to do for nine hours.” They did this for three months, hoping that we would see the light of our desperate straits and quit. If enough of us quit we’d drop below the minimum worker threshold and they could fire the rest without triggering the penalties.

Except we were software developers. And our in-house agreements with our in-house management allowed us to contribute to open-source projects. We made significant contributions to Perl, Apache, Python, and Linux in that time. (We also, I confess, played an awful lot of Quake: Painkeep.) Still it wasn’t meaningful work in the same way that having a real job would have allowed.

So there came a day when we were all called to the big conference center on the top floor. I’d never been there before, and it looked like the sort of place one spent too much money on: wood paneling, deep carpet, huge polished wooden table, expensive chairs. There were many more than 20 people there; all the management, support staff, sales and phone folks were there. There was a fellow there who we’d never seen before in an expensive dark grey suit. He explained, bluntly but not unkindly, that he was the guy with the hatchet. He handed out envelopes on them and told us not to open them. They had dots on them: green, blue, and white. There were a lot more green dots than anything else. “Now,” he said, “I’m afraid the green dots are being let go today.”

A roar went up from the crowd. The hatchet man stepped back, his hands in front of his face, looking quite terrified. Then he realized we were cheering. “I have to say,” he said, “This is first time I’ve done this when people cheered!”

“You have no idea how bored we’ve been!” someone shouted. “They took away all our work!”

“I’m a little sick of playing Quake!” That got a chuckle.

Our division’s senior manager, bless his heart, had managed a real hat trick of severance. Since our group was the unwanted stepchild and “in transition” involving multiple dot-com wannabes, he had managed to score concession from every single company involved in the transaction. Five months severance from one; ongoing health insurance for that same period from another; twenty hours each of professional headhunter services, including really slick resume preparation from a third; educational vouchers at the county community college and five sessions of third-party career coaching from another.

I’ve left some jobs for better jobs; I’ve been laid off four times now, three times for economic reasons rather than performance (“The Dot Com Bust” and “The Great Recession” were both brutal to web developers, even ones with obscure industrial skillsets like mine), and once because the company was “consolidating” its offices to Palo Alto and I didn’t feel like moving. The Bust and the Recession layoffs were the worst; I felt cold, clammy, and dazed upon leaving those discussions. But the CompuServe shutdown had to be the best firing I’ve ever experienced.

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