Layoffs were coming. The big announcement from the CEO was circulated by email. It was a masterpiece of vagueness. It didn’t say how many people would be affected. It didn’t say when the affected people would know. It did say there would be a severance program, although it included no details.
In short, the important things people wanted to know weren’t communicated. I’m sure management congratulated itself on communicating, but the rumors had already been circulating and people were already far beyond “layoffs are coming.” What people also knew was that the people being laid off might be the fortunate ones. Those who remained would likely be reorganized, with more work and fewer people to get it done.
Having been through this before at another company, I had a better idea of what would happen and what people really cared about that colleagues who hadn’t been through it, especially younger colleagues. A small group came to me and asked if I would consider blogging about my past experience on the company’s intranet. I said I’d think about it.
My first thought was a selfish one: would I be drawing a target on my back? My answer was, maybe. I’d certainly be drawing attention, but that could also work another way: “He helped people understand the layoff, so they got rid of him.” That wouldn’t bode well for trust in the company’s management. I talked to a few people, including my boss. The poet in me won out, and I decided to do it.
I drafted three posts: what happened to me when I had been laid off; what kinds of questions did I get from colleagues, friends, and family; and what happened once when a close friend and colleague was laid off and I wasn’t.
This was a big deal inside the company. It had never been done before, and HR was nervous. The lawyers wanted to approve every word, and I refused on the grounds that it had nothing to do with what was happening and going to happen, but instead talked about what happened to one person (me) at another company.
The first post was published. The first day, more than 10 percent of the employee population read it. It had set a record for the company’s internal blog. The next two drew even bigger numbers. In the communications void before the actual storm, I told people what they could expect, what they should know, and how they should treat fellow employees who would be laid off.
I had people I’d never met come to my office to thank me. I had countless phone calls and email. A switchboard operator called to determine where to direct a news media inquiry, and she thanked me for my posts. I heard that many people printed them and brought them home to their families. (The company invariable forgets about the family, who will be as much affected by a layoff as the employee.) And the company received kudos for allowing the posts to be published.
The posts weren’t easy to write. My own experiences were still painful; you don’t forget these kinds of situations. But you do what a poet does – and take an event or experience and turn it into something universal, something that help people see the experience in a different if personal light.
I still consider those three posts to be among some of the very best work I ever did.
From Poetry at Work: “A close friend at work learned he was losing his job. We met in the corporate cafeteria the next day. He walked over to me, lunch tray in his hands, and stood there. ‘Are you sure you want to be seen with me?’ he asked. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. His entire department had stopped speaking to him. He had to stay in the office for the next 45 days while being shunned. I was stunned. So, I did the only thing I knew to do. I stood and hugged him. He cried. What a scene that made, right there in the cafeteria.”