Personal Essay: The Layoff Story

I haven’t been posting much recently because I have had a secret that is finally out today, and I haven’t been thinking about much else lately. But today I am laid off– in Provo they say “riffed out” (from RIF: Reduction In Force) and out here in Boston I like to say “shitcanned,” but however you call it, I’m finally free to post about the impending layoff rumors which came true today. Here’s the story. (It’s not a bad one: I was about ready to leave, and I wish my employers the best of luck. Actually, as a continuing stockholder, I think that cutting costs and improving focus is the right move, and I hope that Wall Street agrees.)

You may have heard some version of this tale before. It’s not a story of business or software, but of secrets and suspicions. See, the king of a small kingdom once crossed a goddess or a nymph, they way royalty sometimes does, and she cursed him with hideous donkey’s ears. To hide them, he had a special hat made. The only people who knew about those feakish ears and the reason that tall hats were suddenly in fashion were the king and the hatmaker. So the king said to the hatmaker, if anyone finds out about these ears, your life is forfeit.

Now, a secret like that fills you up until it’s the only thing that wants to come out of your mouth. It’s like having horrible gas at a dinner party. You have to find somewhere else to get rid of it, but then everyone wonders why you’re standing off to one side of the party on your own, or why you’re hogging the bathroom so much– are you looking down on the rest of the party? Are you lonely and having a bad time? Are you taking drugs and not sharing? Are you sick and bringing infection on us all?

That’s what it’s like knowing who’s going to get laid off before they do. Managers know in advance, days or weeks in advance, that layoffs are coming: and they have to pick who goes and who stays. Within the company, officially, nothing is happening at all. Nothing to see. The same way, I hear, the Pope isn’t really all that ill until he’s completely dead. A layer-off can’t give a heads-up to anyone. It’s against the rules, it’s poor form, it’s risky: a proper layoff comes all at once, a surprise, a clean break. Knowing in advance gives people time to plan malice or sabotage, and at best makes them mopey and unproductive for their last few days or weeks.

But someone has to know the list in advance. And knowing that list means walking around with a secret too big to fit under even the tallest hat.

A secret that big fills you up so much that even if you don’t tell anyone, you start to act different. Not like a poker player with a good hand trying not to smile– more like a big gun in a thigh holster. You keep your hand near your leg, checking for its weight, ready to reach for it at any second. You walk differently, because the holster pinches the hairs on your thigh and gradually plucks it smooth. After awhile you may not notice that your walk has changed, but someone who knows how to watch people walk will know. They won’t just know you’re packing, they’ll be able to tell which leg it’s on, how long you’ve worn it, how heavy it is, how quickly you think you’ll need to pull it out and kill someone.

So if you have to fire someone next week, it’s best to just try to avoid them, so you don’t risk tipping your hand early. If they pass you in the hall and ask about the rumors in a general way, you can say, “well, yeah, there’s some cost cutting, it’s going to be rough, but the company needs to focus on its core intitiatives.” Even that is difficult. You won’t want to look them in the eye. You like them, you don’t want to lay them of. It’s not like it’s your idea. You’re just the messenger; the layoff was imposed from far above. So, if they ask for a meeting, you just put them off as long as you can. Like, maybe the day that you have to meet them to hand them their walking papers and give the mandatory exit interview.

But your best efforts to act normal are pretty unusual behavior. Take the hatmaker. He was usually a chatty guy, the townfolk’s source of fashion-related news from the court. They hear the king has started wearing a tall hat. Why tall? What makes it stay up? Will the ladies be wearing tall hats as well, or is it more of a men’s thing? And of course every time the hatmaker opened his mouth the secret tried to jump out. He couldn’t think of plausible explanations at all. He stammered. He said he was busy. He avoided all his usual gossip.

So the less you want to let on, the more obvious it becomes that you’re hiding something. If you suddenly stop returning emails, schedule all meetings for next week, don’t make eye contact, have sweaty palms, blink too much– it’s obvious something’s up. An astute observer knows what’s up pretty quickly. An astute and unscrupulous observer starts a betting pool.

When the hatmaker couldn’t stand it any more, he went down to the river, dug a hole, and whispered the secret into it. Then he covered it up and stamped it down. The mud is silent, he thought. The mud will keep my secret.

But the mud told the reeds and as everyone knows the reeds whisper in the wind, and soon the whole town knew.

When the whispering got back to the hatmaker, he could taste acid in the back of his throat along with the usual felt and feathers of a day’s work. He knew the king would have him and his special tall hat sewn into a bag together with some rocks, and thrown into the river to drown like unwanted kittens.

Or perhaps another courtier knew, and had spoken? Just like gas at a dinner party, perhaps he could pretend the stench was the dog’s fault, or the valet’s. If he ran, then everyone would know it was him, and horsemen from the king could catch him before he got to the next town, and they’d torture him for fleeing before they finally executed him. So instead of running, he waited, and went about his day as normally as he could.

On the other hand, he didn’t bother to order new hat-feathers for next week. He knew his odds: slim to none. He knew his widow would need to spend the feather money on bread for the children. And the feather merchant saw death in the hatmaker’s eyes. He was no fool either. He knew what was going on. Soon the town knew not only that the king had deformed ears, but that he was going to kill the hatmaker for spilling the secret. New hat orders dried up immediately.

And all the while, the reeds whispered and whispered. The king heard soon enough, and the soldiers came for the hatmaker, and they put him in a sack with the king’s now-useless hat, some rocks, and a few unwanted kittens, and threw the lot in the river.

Like the hatmaker, I’ve been whispering to a the online equivalent of a hole in the ground and acting like I have a secret over here. And all this while, I’ve seen the townsfolk and reeds whispering: LinkedIn invitations have been flying around, the public news sites have more information than the internal website, and everyone has been backing up their data to CD and taking it home. So I’ve known for several days now that I’m on the list of people being laid off.

Of course, I’m not being executed. I practically volunteered: it’s been a good run, I’m ready to move on. I’ve learned a lot, and now it’s time to learn something else somewhere else.

I’m being given a friendly goodbye and I hope to see my co-workers again in the future, for dinner and drinks or around a conference table at another job. I don’t know where I’m headed, but it could be practically anywhere. I could visit my brother in Bolivia. I could move to my grandmother’s farm in Ivy, VA, and raise pet goats, write freelance, sell vegetables at the farmer’s market. I could get the bird flu or drink myself to death, or go to Korea and clone myself and teach the clone to like kimchee. I could devote myself full-time to volunteer work or to stalking celebrities (OK, not that). I could move to California and grow oily dreadlocks and live out of a van.

The world is my shellfish. At least, it is for 18 months, at which point the COBRA insurance plan runs out and I get sick and die.

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