Thursday, December 04, 2008

Layoff Thoughts

The most recent uproar at WotC and the continuing mess in the New York Publishers has made me think of layoffs past. I have gone through more than enough of them, either as spared bystander or active participant, so I am permitted to meditate on the subject. Here's what I've been thinking:

Numbers: The current totals for the most recent WotC layoffs range between 20 and 25, all unofficial. Even those numbers are suspect in the modern era, as they may or may not include eliminating positions they were going to hire for, as well as shedding temps who up until that moment were treated just like regular employees until their contracts evap. So even a number, or a percentage, doesn't tell the full story.

Names: WotC also isn't passing out any names, which makes sense, though I disagree that it is to spare the feelings of the newly-unemployed. I mean, if you really worried about their feelings, you wouldn't have fired them in the first place. But it does make sense to leave those affected the choice to come forward as they see fit to note that they are starting a new era of their life. I mentioned Julia only because her husband posted accordingly. Dave Noonan, a brilliant designer, also stopped in at ENWorld to thank everyone for all the fish.

But it does create a ghoulish version of "Where's Waldo" as emails cross to make sure that friends still in the building ARE still in the building, as well as posts on the net as lists are compiled (the partial one for WotC that is currently rocketing around the net has its origins in a competing company head who knows many of those affected).

It is just as bad for those people still working for the company. Lacking a firm statement and body count, employees will now be committing the business faux pas of going to look for Bob in accounting, only to find that Bob was laid off four days ago - way to open up those old wounds, friend!

Martyrs: On thing that also happens in layoffs are the martyrs - those that step in front of the line to be hacked. This may be through a desire to do other things, or to protect people who are still there, or even a feeling that, even if they are safe this layoff, they hear heavy footsteps. No idea if there are any martyrs in this group, but it is always a potential.

Here's a martyr story from the olden days of TSR, about 1983 or so. At one point we had five designers, and the decision was made that we had to have four. The designers at the time were Me, Tracy Hickman, Zeb Cook, Doug Niles, and Bruce Nesmith. Each of us believed that we were to be asked to Pack Our Knives and Go. Bruce, who had originally came in to work on one of our computer game experiments, went to the brass and said "Hey, I have marketable skills (I can program), let me take the hit". He stepped in front of the unemployment bullet and since then has indeed done well for himself at Bethesda on projects like Oblivion and Fallout 3.

Good marks for Bruce.

Apologists:And this is the only part that cheeses me off about public discussions of layoffs - there always is some clown on the BBS who takes the position of "Well, it's not Big Company's fault - they have to make a profit and stay in business, so their needs are more important than their employees."

These guys always sound like a battered spouse making apologies for an abusive partner. I swear, if I am ever brought up in a court of law, I want these people on the jury - "Well, it's not really His fault - he had to make a profit, so naturally he knocked over ten banks. His needs are more important than the surrounding community".

The Living Will Envy The Dead: A lot of attention is usually extolled on those who departed. but a harder situation is posed to those left behind. Usually the work load does not change for the employees, and suddenly a group of 20 is doing the jobs of 25. The platitude of the 90s was "Work smarter, not harder", which often resulted in the smarter survivors updating their resumes and moving on soon after (there is usually a secondary bump six months after a major layoff of people who were left behind but have found other exits).

And a final word on managers. While getting laid off should not be considered a sign of personal failure for those affected, the managers that have to do the layoffs, in my experience, take having to let people go AS a personal failure. They have access to a higher level of choices than their subordinates, and feel that if only they had done something better, they would not have to layoff talented people.

I have been laid off by people who felt worse about it than I did. I have seen managers resign rather than lay off people they feel they should protect (another version of the martyr). When WotC had the first their first layoffs (before I joined, when they grew too fast in their initial success), they held a memorial service at the Mana Pool in the center of the building complex, and the President of the company was there as they sailed paper boats with candles into the pool in memory of those they had to let go.

Layoffs - short form, they are not fun, but then they are not supposed to be. If they were easy it would happen much more often than they do.

More later,