Coming to terms with being told you're not wanted
Clearly I was not a top performer, or I would have been seen as too valuable to sack. As always, there were any number of reasons that particular people were shown the door during the 2001 recession, including personal grudges and salaries that were making too large a dent in newly scaled-down budgets, but it would have been counterproductive to complain about conspiracies against me or the fact that I’d been deemed too expensive.
So the stain on my reputation, even though this had been a mass layoff, was real, and the longer I remained unemployed the bigger that stain grew.
Having been selected to get the axe and been unable to find a new job in three, six, nine months was not a winning combination. There have been positions advertised where the requirements have explicitly (and, from a legal standpoint, foolishly) stated that candidates “must be currently employed”. But even with no such text in the ad, ongoing employment can be an unspoken requirement.
In the best case a hopeful applicant might simply have to work much harder than usual to convince the hiring manager that he or she is worthy despite being found expendable at a previous job. Once the candidate’s unemployment period passes, say, the six-month mark there is often the additional (and frankly silly) perception that his or her technical knowledge is now woefully out of date.
Being unemployed for an extended period, I found myself subject to the same worries and fears — more pronounced as each month went by — that plague anyone in this position, though no one I’d known up to that point.
Would I ever find another tech job? If not, what else was I qualified to do that would bring in anything remotely close to what I’d been making? Would I have to lower my expectations and aim for a tech position in a less prestigious industry, doing less interesting work and making much less money? For that matter, given the state of the economy, was the hiring environment in other industries equally brutal?
After years studying computer science in school and decades working in the field, was my career over just like that? It was surreal that I was even asking myself these questions. Then there were the usual long-term worries about money and medical insurance: What if my wife lost her job, which would leave us uninsured (a sad fact of life in the US) and with no money whatsoever coming in?
That particular story had a happy ending when, as mentioned, I got my old job back, albeit as a consultant at a ridiculously low rate. (The status of consultants had changed also; now being a full-timer seemed preferable because it was slightly harder to let them go.) Though, miraculously, my annual compensation eventually climbed back to where it had been previously, the lesson was clear: even with a “permanent” position I could be laid off suddenly and with the flimsiest of excuses, or no excuse at all.
More importantly, I could no longer count on having a new and possibly better gig within two months, let alone two weeks.
Between offshoring, relentless pressure to keep costs down, a glut of software engineers, and aggressive new management practices like the annual culling of the “bottom 10 per cent” now common among financial firms, job security, even in once-exceptional technology departments, was no more. And significantly, excluding a small group with extremely specialised skills such as algorithmic trading, ultra-low-latency messaging, or pricing of complex derivatives, there was no noticeable change in this state of affairs in the relatively calm years between the dot-com-bust and the current one. This suggested that the new precariousness could be with us for a long, long time.
I remember when I found certain kinds of blatant kissing-up offensive — at one firm, for example, there was the unfortunate tendency even for people who hated playing golf to pretend they loved it because that was the only way to get on upper management’s good side.
Now I wasn’t so sure I’d sneer at these people. And if I were ever laid off again I’d most likely have to adopt the approach I’d learned from colleagues of mine who’ve also spent extended periods “on the beach” in the last decade: I wasn’t unemployed, I was “in transition” — or better yet, “doing freelance consulting”. My list of clients? I’m sorry, but that’s confidential information. ®