Layoffs at Netflix, Bolt remind me how painful it is to lose work. I've been on both sides of pink slips.
- As I manager, I've laid people off face to face and, during the pandemic, by phone.
- People get angry, become resigned, or break down unexpectedly over things like handing over their cell phones.
- Despite all my experience, I took my own layoff badly. It felt personal.
As the economy dips and layoffs emerge, I take comfort as a former manager in knowing I won’t have to tell anyone they are losing their job.
That's one of the few upsides to having been laid off myself earlier this year.
I was executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald after returning to my home state of Nebraska in January 2020 to lead its flagship newsroom following a 40-year career in daily news around the country.
I learned long ago that change is the only constant in life, and three weeks after I started, Warren Buffett sold his hometown paper and others he owned to Lee Enterprises. Two and a half months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
In the strange months that followed, we navigated through the newsroom’s first union contract, furloughs and the protests that followed George Floyd's murder, including the shooting death in Omaha’s downtown entertainment district of a Black man by a white bar owner.
Against that turbulent and traumatic backdrop, in September 2020, we laid off staff in response to the pandemic's impact and a decision to streamline the newspaper's production, something common in our industry – cold comfort to those affected.
We did those layoffs by phone, which seemed like a necessary evil during a contagion when most of the staff wasn’t coming into the office. For many, the protocol was harsh: Your last day is today. Arrange a time with human resources to come get your stuff.
I delivered the initial news and handed it off to an HR staffer to go over the swirl of details about severance, COBRA, laptops and cellphones.
These weren’t my first layoffs but were my first by phone. In 2012, with Gannett, which owns USA TODAY, I spent a day driving around the Cincinnati metro area with an HR manager delivering bad news to bureau and community newspaper staffers – some of whom I’d not met even though they fell under me on the org chart.
Most people seemed resigned to the situation. A couple of people were angry. A couple cried. One young woman, about the age of my son, seemed cavalier – “Well, it’s my first layoff,” she said lightly. Then she broke down when the HR staffer said she had to return her cellphone. That moment stuck with me. While losing a phone seems minor compared with pay and insurance, it offered a small window into how thoroughly job loss upends lives.
It led me to think more than I had about how managers justify our role in this process.
We tell ourselves it’s a corporate decision; that we have no power to stop the cuts. Daily news is a disrupted industry, with more than half of U.S. journalists losing their jobs since the Great Recession.
I recognized that when I pursued senior roles, I signed up for this part of the job. If I’m going to enjoy being a leader, which I did, and the higher pay, I’ve got to suck it up and do this.
As we went into the Omaha layoffs of 2020, I tried to be empathetic, remembering the young woman devastated by the loss of her phone. I took to saying, “You’ve done nothing wrong.” I’m sure that made me feel better than the person who heard it, though.
The parable of Pilate washing his hands played in my mind at times. I’m following HR protocol. It’s got to be done. The piece of truth that I was able to rinse away pretty quickly was that, within certain parameters, I had a role in choosing some of the people I would lay off.
As difficult as this process might be for managers, we go home without our lives disrupted and continue planning for a steady future. Having been laid off myself now – and it’s fair enough if someone sees that as just deserts – I don’t think managers can fathom the impact.
After the layoffs in 2020, local managers discussed how to preserve as much dignity as possible for workers affected in the future.
Conducting layoffs in person, and allowing the employees to express themselves and say goodbye to colleagues are steps widely regarded as best practices. We conducted two layoffs that way in late 2021 as a new wave of reductions began.
So I was surprised on Feb. 16 when I got a call shortly before 8 a.m.
“Randy, this is a call no one likes to make …” the regional editor said. I knew the rest of the script. I admit to not taking it well. My thoughts were so different from my justifications when I was delivering the news. Despite all I knew about our industry's struggles, it still felt personal and like a failure.
But, even if a layoff isn’t about how the manager might feel, my supervisor was right. No one likes to deliver that news.
I grasp now that it subtly erodes our humanity as we forge on to the next management task.
I dearly hope I never go through it again. From either side of the table. Or phone.
Randy Essex is an editor with USA TODAY Money living in Omaha, Nebraska. He has led news staffs in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; @randyessex on Twitter.
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