Merry Christmas....you're fired.

Once upon a time, the term “getting fired” meant you did something really wrong at your job and your employer told you to get out and stay out. The term “laid off” meant you were sent home for a while but could quite possibly be called back to work in a reasonable amount of time, as was the case many times in the steel industry. For example, a blast furnace might be shut down in one of the steel mills for repairs; workers were sent home and then called back once things were up and running again. Eventually the term “laid off” made its way to other industries, however, rarely was a ”call back” to work involved…if ever.

This past week, a friend of mine was laid off (after 29 years with the same organization…nice) and another friend was offered the opportunity to re-interview for her current job, as her job was being combined with that of a similar position located a state away. The reasons for these organizational changes can be sliced and diced many ways and, I’m sure, eventually the blame will fall at the feet of the President of the United States. Certainly there are plenty of layers of individuals where the reasons for these changes can be traced. Whatever the case may be, whether it’s a weak economy or simply bad decisions when it came to staffing, one person is out looking for work and the other is panicked that she’ll be doing the same thing by the end of the month.

It’s been nearly two years since I was in a similar situation, having been laid off by a large pharmaceutical company where I had served for 21 years. In the pharmaceutical industry, staffing decisions are made based on what products are currently marketed and what products are in the “pipeline” or in other words, what is about to be brought to market. In my case, it was a situation of the company continuing to make sizeable profits, however, by promoting certain products where the cow had either been milked dry and the patents were set to expire or with products that were so bad that they couldn’t continue to be sold if we gave away a free iron with each prescription.

Regardless of the cause of some of these layoffs, there is a feeling held by the person who was just kicked to the proverbial curb that they’ve been devalued. Some companies do their best to help in terms of outplacement services as a means to get people on the right track. It also might be a way to the clear their corporate conscience and help to justify their inept decisions which led to the layoffs in the first place.

As a sales manager with that pharmaceutical company, I was also faced with the unenviable task of notifying employees in smaller scale layoffs in prior years. It wasn’t something that I looked forward to doing and certainly not something I care to even think about to this day, yet I had no choice. Although I didn’t like delivering that awful news to someone and I felt a great deal of empathy, I don’t know that I fully understood what those folks really felt like until I was faced with being laid off myself.

When my turn finally came, I’ll never forget the stone cold look of insensitive indifference on the face of my boss as the news was delivered. After 21 years (most of them very successful) I was handed an envelope with information pertaining to a conference call to be held the next day in which the severance package would be detailed. I was also handed a box with a FedEx packing slip (yes, it was pre-paid…thanks) for me to go home, box up whatever files I had and promptly ship it back to the home office. I will say that the box and FedEx packing slip were promptly deposited in the parking garage dumpster on my way out of the office following what was, at the most, a ten minute meeting.

Following that meeting, I was never again contacted by anyone other than those in the company whom I considered to be my friends. No one with any real power to offer advice or counsel ever stepped up to offer any. It’s as if I’d suddenly developed some sort of a contagious disease and a general order of quarantine has been issued.

In the days that followed, I was contacted by an outside vender assigned to collect my laptop computer and other home office equipment. The person assigned to pick up my computer was not too happy to find out that I lived in Hammond, IN, as it was either too far for her to drive or perhaps she was afraid to come here. She suggested that I meet her halfway in downtown Chicago to make the exchange. My reply was that she could either come to my house in Hammond to pick up the equipment at the front door, or she could collect it from my front lawn, which is where I would be dumping it in short order. This wasn’t the type of exit I had planned after 21 years and fortunately it didn’t play out that way, as she agreed to make the trek to NW Indiana.

My point is that there is a general lack of caring and compassion felt by those who are placed in a situation in which they feel diminished, devalued and cast aside. Being laid off is a humbling and humiliating experience and a feeling that no one can possibly comprehend until it’s happens to them. A feeling of inadequacy takes over, regardless of the level of previous experience or success that one holds in their background.

Following my layoff, I was surprised by the lack of support from people who I thought would be there to help me in a time of need. On the other hand, I was shocked by the level of support that I received from those who I never, ever expected to hear from. Some distant friends and mild acquaintances truly stepped up to lend the moral support that I needed until I was able to find my mojo once again. To those people, I’ll forever be indebted. To those who didn’t lift a finger….well, maybe your turn in the hopper will come someday.

As for my two friends who are going through a rough spot right now, I know exactly how they are feeling. In conversations held with each of them last week, I could pretty much predict their words of frustration before they even had a chance to say them. It’s a Hell of a situation to be in, particularly at a time of year when companies typically aren’t doing much hiring. I’ve found that a little caring and compassion by a few friends goes a long way, as long as it’s sincere and isn’t a one-time deal. One friend who I had called for counsel at the time of my layoff made me commit to calling him again within two weeks. When, for whatever reason I did not call him within the specified time frame, my phone was ringing and it was indeed him calling me to follow-up.

I think most everyone knows someone who has suffered a job loss as a result of a layoff. Sometimes a quick phone call is all someone needs in order to provide the lift they need to help them find the job they want and need. Go ahead….make the call.

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