Monday, June 25, 2012

Monday Morning Stories With Mookie - Episode 22

The Time Mookie Got Laid Off From His Job

The list of all my previous employers and occupations is quite a hodgepodge of information. Unfortunately my resume contains the name "Worldcom" in my list of past employers.

Remember WorldCom? The telecommunications empire that at one time was the 2nd biggest telecommunications company in the world, only to be felled by the nation’s largest accounting fraud scandal and subsequent bankruptcy filing at that time? Yeah that one. I was lucky enough to be working for the telephone communications company MCI when WorldCom showed up and bought it out. WorldCom was a big success story at the time because they started as this little company in some shit-hole town in Mississippi, and then got bigger by acquiring other companies. MCI was their biggest prize. A good analogy here is that MCI was the shiny double-wide trailer in their dilapidated Mississippi trailer park.

Things seemed OK for awhile but then the market started tanking. It was all downhill from there. Our stock that had been sky-high at one point - plummeted like a rock in the water. It was impressive how hard it fell. Our fearless CEO Bernie Ebbers (who at one time was a gym teacher I believe), did everything he could to keep the company riding high. This included "cooking" the books, lying to investors and Wall Street, and screwing over every single rank and file employee. When word came down that our company figure-heads were liars, and all of our earnings and profits were grossly overstated - the company fell apart. 

The layoffs started coming in waves, and they were the worst kept secret in the company. Everyone knew they were coming, and wondered if they would be the next to go. It seemed like every other Friday the word went around that a certain group got axed. Sometimes you saw someone across the room packing up their stuff and walking out. Sometimes you heard about security having to escort someone out. The result of all this was stressful to everyone, and did not do much to create a cheery work environment. Morale was at such a negative level, it was unreal. My wife and I both worked at WorldCom at the time, so we were always exchanging stories about what we saw or heard. People often wondered who was worse off: The people who got laid-off, or the people still employed? 

Friday December 6th, 2002: I was walking into work with my wife when we noticed the gate arms on the exits of the parking ramp and lots were “up.” This was always a sure sign people were being let go that day because you need your security cards to get in and out of the parking areas. When people were let go, the company obviously confiscated any/all security cards that person had to get in and out of the buildings/lots. Additionally, the rumors had been going on for weeks about pending layoffs that particular day. As we were walking by the parking ramp, a lady I knew through various work projects came driving out through the open gate – in tears. “I got let go. They are letting tons of people go.” And she drove away still bawling. "Megan(*)" and I looked at each other and went: “Shit.”

Megan said to call her if I heard anything, and we went to our separate departments. I began my ride on the elevator to the 4th floor and was afraid of what I would see when those doors opened. The elevator opened and my fears proved to be true. There were at least a dozen people milling around their cubicles and packing up their stuff. SOB-GD-MF.

I slid up the aisle to my cube and peeked further up the aisle to see if my manager was there. She wasn't. I sat down and logged into my PC. As I was able to get into the building, into my department, and into my computer, I thought that was a good sign and that I might be "OK."

As I was looking across the room, I saw my manager "Sue"* walking back to her desk following "Bill,"* one of my "team members." Both of them were wearing somber looks, and I was like "aw shit." I buried my nose into my computer and tried to begin my usual morning routine: Email, CNN, and ESPN over my morning bagel. It was like I was hiding, and hoped I could avoid the bad news around me. I heard some noises from a few cubicles down from me, so I stood up and saw that Bill was packing up his things. He looked up at me and gave a cheeks-full exhale. I didn't know what to say. "Sorry man." was the best I could do. He nodded his head, and I nodded mine. I sat down and heard him discretely slip out of the office a few minutes later. I never saw him again.

About five minutes later as I was staring at my computer screen - contemplating the utter shame of all that was going on around me, fate finally came knocking on my door.

I heard a "knock knock" on the frame of my cube, and turned around to see my manager Sue standing there with a very sad face, but trying to force a smile. "Can I talk to you for a few minutes?"


I took a deep breath, and got up to follow her to a conference room cllleeeeaarrr across our floor. As we walked, I could feel people looking at me - much like I had done to others that had taken this walk before me. It was a long walk. Part of me was bummed. Part of me was scared about what the hell I was going to do. That part of me then dealt with that fear by knowing I could go home and get drunk that afternoon. 

We got to the conference room, and she explained to me that I was being "let go." While doing so, she handed me my "severance packet" that contained the details about my severance package, pending vacation, sick time, unemployment, and health benefits. She apologized several times, and told me it was not because of anything I did. She didn't come right out and say it, but I knew that I was one of the bottom 3 or 4 in the department with the least tenure. It made good business sense to keep the others that had been there 10+ years. I remember staring at the table as she talked. I was listening to her, but in an out-of-body sort of way. I remember looking at the lines in the grain of the wood the table was made of, and thinking to myself: "Wow. Its over."

I held no ill will towards my manager, because like me, she was a victim of the whole system of shit our company had produced. She was doing what she was told, and doing the job of a manager. I felt bad for her, and told her so. She had already let 3 go ahead of me that morning. I'm not sure how many after I left that day, but I know she let another 5 or so go in the months ahead based on gossip and info I heard along the way. She asked me if I had any questions, to which I didn't. My mind was spinning so I couldn't have formed a rational question if I wanted to. I just knew I had two-months severance, a wife, and a 3-month old son. That was all I knew for sure at that point.

Sue told me I could take my time, and do what I needed to do before I left. She said I could email people I needed to, and make any phone calls necessary. This was nice because it had been standard procedure in recent layoffs for security to basically escort you out right then and there, and you came back a week later to get your stuff that the company boxed up for you. Sue also had told me that since my spouse worked for the company, her manager was made aware of my pending departure. Usual protocol allowed the spouse to take the rest of the day off if need be.

Then she took my work pager, and my security ID badge. That was it.

We walked back to the department, and again I found people staring at me. Their looks ranged from curious, to sadness, to sympathy, and perhaps to guilt. I sat down at my desk, took a breath and called my wife. She answered in a whispered tone: "Hey what's up?"

"I'm done." I said. She said "OK" as though she expected it. We discussed it briefly, and I told her that her boss might be talking to her and letting her leave for the day. When we were done, I turned to my computer and sent out a nice email to people I worked with. I thanked them for the knowledge they had bestowed upon me, and how it was a pleasure to work with them. Blah blah blah. I sent a few other emails to friends briefly explaining my situation, and then I deleted my entire email file and program on the computer. Done.

I began boxing up my personal belongings, and throwing away tons of work-related stuff that no one would ever need. Then I picked up my box of things, looked around the room and made my way towards the elevator. As if my "walk-of-shame" wasn't bad enough, it was further delayed by the fact it took forever for the elevator to show up. I stood there like a tool holding my box of pictures and belongings while seemingly everyone watched me.

The elevator finally opened, and there was one other person on there. I walked in and set my shit on the floor (it was heavy), and pushed the button for the lobby. The guy was going to the 1st floor, and I recognized him as one of the "conference calling" douche bags from the 9th or 10th floor. I looked at him once the elevator started moving, and he smiles at me and says "Are you moving?"

"You could say that." I replied back.

His smile faded, and he goes "Did you get laid off?"

"Yeah." I said.

His face went pale, and he immediately looked down. I could see the wheels in his head spinning, and knew he was thinking to himself that he just come off like a total dumb ass. His eyes were like "oh shit oh shit oh shit." He quietly and hurriedly exited on the 1st floor, and I had to laugh. It was all I could do though.

Finally the elevator reached the lobby, and I exited the building for what would be my last time as an employee. It was very surreal. 30 minutes earlier, I had a job - now I didn't. I had never NOT had a job in my life since I started working at Hardee's when I was 16 or 17. My wife met me at the parkade, and she did a wonderful job of being the supportive spouse. She always does though. I was trying to be strong, but behind my dark sunglasses I had tears. A big part of my life was now gone, and I had no idea what to do.

In the days and weeks that followed, I went through a roller coaster of emotions. A big part of my "identity" was gone. Who was I? What am I going to do? To complicate things, I had just become a father in the recent months prior. I was still trying to "adjust" for that, and then had this big wrench thrown into the motor. I was kind of screwed up.

Fortunately I was able to spend the next three months playing "stay-at-home-Dad" for our then three-month old son. I look back at it now and think fondly of that time we got to share. Unfortunately at the time, it was hard to appreciate given what I was mentally going through. But we made due. Good news came to me about two months after I was let go, where I was interviewed and hired by my current employer. While the pay wasn't as good, it was a good job and it has been more than rewarding.

The life lesson I took away from WorldCom is that while a job is very important in your life, it shouldn't be the most important thing. Your job shouldn't be who you "are." Sometimes it is hard to see that, and you have to step back and look at yourself once in awhile. If you don't, you could be setting yourself up for a trap. My advice is:  Don't let that happen.

Plus, you might end up on the elevator on your way out of the building with some douche that asks if you are "moving." Ain't nobody got time for that.

* - Name changed to protect the guilty/innocent.

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