Poetry at Work, Chapter 16: The Poetry of Unemployment

It happens to most of us, at one time or another in our careers. You’re called into the boss’s office and discover there’s an HR person waiting as well. Yep, you’re being laid off.

Sometimes you’re expecting it; sometimes you’re not. In my case, I knew it was coming. A work colleague had found out and couldn’t keep it to herself. She tried to look appropriately sad and concerned, but it didn’t work. She was actually rather gleeful (yes, there was a history here). I looked at her and said, “You won’t understand this, but a considerable amount of good will come out of this for me.” Her almost angry response: “You’re just in denial.”

Perhaps I was. I felt my ears grow warm, a sure indication that I fully understood what was happening. And I really upset the process when I walked from her office to my boss’s office and told him I knew I was shortly to be laid off. He blew up – because it upset the usual process for these “elimination” programs.

Part of the “elimination package” program included receiving a list of those being laid off by age and gender (apparently, this was a government requirement). My attorney looked at the list and, “Ninety-four people are on the list. Males represent 93 of 94, and they all between the ages of 45 to 50. This is a classic case of discrimination, and any judge or jury would rule in your favor. The problem is that this will tie up your life for the next three to four years, and the company knows that.” Some 44 days later, less than an hour before the deadline, I accepted the package.

The HR person in charge of the program nearly fainted with relief.

Poetry at Work mainLayoffs can be attributed to any number of factors – marketplace changes, failed products, investor expectations, management mistakes, or failed corporate strategies, to mention only a few. They’re always hard. Management (and HR) tries to insulate itself from the emotion and human turmoil, but if you among to the laid off, the emotion and turmoil are your constant companions.

But because of that human emotion and turmoil, layoffs contain their own poetry. Most companies, no matter how many times they do them, never learn how to do them well. It’s likely impossible to do a layoff well, no matter what the consultants will tell you. Management has to follow a set program like a highly formalized (and usually badly written) poem. The people affected, and their fellow employees who are not, react in free verse and sometimes even performance poetry.

What I had learned from the many friends and colleagues affected by layoffs was you have to take control. You’re expected to continue to act “professionally,” but that doesn’t mean you don’t ask the hard questions. In group meetings with the outside employment consultants, I asked hard questions that flustered the consultant. That encouraged others to do the same. The purpose wasn’t disruption, but to get answers to questions that the company didn’t want to answer, at least in a group. (One colleague said to the consultant, “I look around at who’s here, and with one exception we’re all white males about the same age. Is this deliberate?” The consultant punted the question.)

At the next group meeting, the consultant was accompanied by two HR “police.” That didn’t deter the hard questions, and only led to the HR police becoming flustered as well. What happened told everyone involved that the company was stumbling its way through this, and that didn’t portend will for the future.

I took control of my situation. I didn’t let the company dictate how I was supposed to act or behave. I didn’t make it easy for the company, but then, that was not my objective. Instead, I decided that I had to look out for my own best interests. If they coincided with the company’s, that was fine. If they didn’t, that was fine, too. What were they going to do – fire me?

In other words, I wrote my own poem.

From Poetry at Work: “Organizations think of layoffs as ‘business’ decisions; the people affected find them intensely personal and painful. Layoffs most often are management failures. Even years later, after my own layoff, this remains personal and painful. But unemployment is part of work and, therefore, offers its own poetry.”


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Glynn Young

Glynn Young is an award-winning speechwriter and public relations executive and is a Fellow of the Public Relations Society of America and a member of the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame. He blogs at Faith, Fiction, Friends. Glynn is the author of three published novels in the Dancing Priest series – Dancing Priest (2012), A Light Shining (2013), Dancing King(2017), and Dancing Prophet (2018). He is the author of the non-fiction book Poetry at Work. He is also a contributing editor at Tweetspeak Poetry.