02 June 2007

Little consensus on work issues — duh!

The 35-hour work week and the Sarkozy "Work More to Earn More" slogan are hot-button issues in France. Some say that a "35-hour mentality" has taken root among workers who are basically slackers, while people working for themselves or in certain sectors and trades have no choice but to work a much longer week. Others say that the 35-hours-a-week workers still have to do 40 hours' worth of work, but in four or five fewer hours per week.

What happens to people who can't find work at all? How can they work overtime? If employers don't have to contribute to funds that will finance benefits like health care and retirement pensions on money their employees earn working overtime hours, who's the winner and who's the loser? Why would a company hire a new worker when it can just ask, or require, that current employees work overtime hours to get the job done? And thus avoid paying benefits...

When I worked for the U.S. bureaucracy in Washington, they always said: "The more you do, the more they will give you to do." So some people took that to heart and just did less. Is that what goes on in France? In California too, people complained that upper management was always asking us "to do more with less." Their slogan: "Don't work harder — work smarter." Cynics said that meant we had no choice other than to lower our quality standards.

In Silicon Valley, we didn't get paid for overtime hours. We had a job to do, and it was up to us to work the number of hours required to complete the job. Or to negotiate with our manager to have our workload adjusted. That kind of structure required a lot of trust between the manager and the so-called "individual contributor." I hasten to add that we were a privileged minority in terms of pay and working conditions, however you look at it.

Here's what happened to me in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s. I was the manager of a big workgroup that was very productive and did high-quality work. Employees in that group won awards from professional organizations, and they were the envy of their peers in other software companies. Our group was 35-strong at its highest point. We were writers, editors, print and on-line production specialists, and managers (who had all been promoted from within the department, including me). All of us took our jobs seriously and worked hard, I believed.

One year, not long after Christmas, I learned that upper management (that meant Steve Jobs, in point of fact) had planned a big layoff in our organization. Even though I was in senior management, I didn't find out about it until about a week before it was to happen. It had been rumored for a while, I have to say, but there had been nothing announced officially.

Layoffs are a fact of life in the high-tech industry. We all knew we could be put out of a job on any given day. But we also knew there were plenty of other jobs out there for talented people.

The reason I was out of the loop on these layoff plans was that my boss, who had been on vacation for a few weeks, returned to the office at about that time and promptly turned in his resignation. Then there was nobody in the hierarchy to clue me in, since my boss's boss was the president of the company and he was obviously pretty busy right then. And as it turned out, I wasn't in the loop because of my status. The managers of other groups had been told to keep quiet.

Pretty fast, I went to the company's human resources department and found a whole new group of people working there. The HR staff we had worked with for 6 years was nowhere to be found; they had decamped in advance of the coming events.

The new HR staff told me that about half the company's employees were going to be let go the following week, including a large majority of the people in my group. I asked the HR person if I was one of the ones who was being, in the parlance, terminated. She told me she wasn't allowed to share that information; it was up to my immediate supervisor to inform me of plans related to my future with the company.

These new HR specialists had been brought in expressly to plan and execute the company's "down-sizing." I pointed out to this stranger that my immediate supervisor had left the company (in disgrace, as far as I could tell) a couple of days earlier and that I no longer had a boss.

Then I just waited. Well, not really. I quietly informed some of the people in my group who I knew needed to make plans. I talked to the managers of other groups within the company to find out all I could about plans and timetables. I participated in meetings where all the managers received instructions on how the layoff would be announced and how events would unfold on the big day (we ended up calling it Black Tuesday). The upcoming RIF (reduction in force) remained a closely guarded secret within the company. Upper management was afraid that employees who were going to be fired might commit acts of theft and sabotage if they found out early that they would very shortly be out of a job.

None of us had work contracts. In California, we were called "at will" employees. That meant that we as employees were free quit our jobs whenever we decided to, because we had no contractual commitment. And it meant that the company could terminate our employment whenever it decided to do so. The termination decision had to be based either on unsatisfactory performance on the employee's part, or on business needs — if the company was losing money, for example, it was justified in firing workers whose job performance was good in order to reduce the size of the staff.

One of the protections we had was a federal government rule that said employees had to be given two months' notice in cases where a large number of a company's workers were to be fired all at once (I forget what percentage the law stipulates).

For sabotage and morale reasons, the company didn't want terminated employees to continue working with co-workers who were not being let go. So terminated employees were told not to return to the building — our keys to the building and our offices were taken away. But the laid-off employees were kept on the company payroll for two more months. They were also given an extra week's salary for every year they had been on staff. For many of us, that amounted to 13 or 14 weeks of salary in severance pay.

After a couple of days of suspense, the president of the company called me and asked me to come to a conference room for a private talk. There he informed me that I would be let go, along with nearly all of my group (six out of 30 were to be kept on). He apologized. He told me that I was free to clean out my desk and walk out the door that very afternoon if I wanted to do so. If I elected to clear out, somebody else — one of the imported HR layoff specialists, I suppose — would be given the task of informing my group of the termination decisions on the appointed day.

I knew I couldn't just walk out, and I never even considered it. I had worked for 6 years with many of the people who were going to be fired. Some of them had worked with me at a different company before that, so our collaboration went back nearly 10 years. How in the world could I just walk out the door, saying nothing to anybody? I decided to stay, which meant I had to lay myself off.

On the appointed day, I followed the company's instructions and called a meeting of all the employees in my group at 9:45 a.m. Immediately, everybody knew what was happening. I was given a script to read that said the company was being disbanded, and that a new company would be formed keeping only a portion of the current staff. All employees were instructed to return to their desks and wait for their immediate manager to approach them and communicate news of their employment status.

Next I met with the first-line managers in my group, who I supervised, to give them the list of those employees who were being kept on and those who were being given their walking papers. Those who were to be kept on were told to go home for the day and report back to work the next morning at the usual hour. The others were told they had until 5:00 p.m. to clean out their desks and pack their personal possessions into cardboard boxes that their manager would inspect before they could leave the building. Private security guards were stationed at all the exits.

We managers who were being fired spent the day packing up our own things and doing cursory inspections of our fellow employees' cardboard boxes. We all trusted each other, so it was really a formality. At the end of the day, as I was leaving the building with my personal items, one of the HR "hired guns" — the one who had told me she was not allowed to inform me of my status in the layoff — stopped me and asked me if anyone had inspected the contents of my boxes.

I looked at her with eyes that said "You have got to be kidding." She backed off and I was at least spared the indignity of having a stranger rifle through my belongings as I exited the building for the last time. One of the ironies of the whole situation was that I had been hired six years earlier on January 27, and now I was being booted out on a January 27. Six years was a pretty respectable run in the Valley in those days.

Another irony: that layoff turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. In fact, I was on the verge of handing in my resignation when it all happened. So I ended up without a job but with a nice severance package to tide me over for a few months while I decided what to do next.


  1. Very interesting. Really! Thanks for sharing this.
    As for the 'happy end', my mother used to drive me crazy by saying that everything would end up turning out OK. But she was right. Even when one feels that things are about as awful as they can be, they have a way of turning out for the best

  2. Claude, I was so tired of driving 50 miles (80 km) to work every morning and 80 km to get back home at night that I had decided to resign and look for work closer to home. Actually, I had chosen Jan. 19 as the day I would hand in my resignation. On Jan. 20, my boss resigned and disappeared. A well-connected colleague warned me not to resign, and he was right. I owe him for that little tip-off.

  3. Nice story, nice example of what was a fundamental change in business practices (morals) from what some of us oldsters expected when when first took off for college. It seemed like almost overnight the prized resume showing years of employee loyalty turned into a reflection of someone without initiative or ambition.

    The changing business climate was one reason I finally went independent. At the time, I had little confidence that putting in a working lifetime at one or more companies would give me any added security.

    I had an older friend who had worked many years for a very large, very well know international construction company and was terminated just before he would qualify for a significant portion of a retirement package. No future relating to anything the recruiters had touted at the beginning of his career.

    And some people wonder why someone would be skeptical about the wisdom of draining away most government controls.

    France may need changes, but maybe it should do so carefully with eyes wide open. Big businesses have a funny way of surviving no matter what the crazy liberals come up with to torment them. That is unless they were simply mismanaged by idiots and crooks at the top. Something like En..n comes to mind.

    I say to all my Sarkozy happy friends that I truly hope they are right, I truly hope they can say I told you so.

    But I remain the perennial skeptic.

  4. Ken,

    What a clear recounting of such an important event in your life. As someone who has worked for a lifetime in the opposite kind of environment (tenured university professor), your story gave me mixed feelings. I guess I chose security over risk/reward and I would do it again. But I can see how the freedom and mobility that your "skill set" gave you would be at least a little thrilling.

    I can't help but wonder what those hired-gun HR people thought of themselves. It's not something I could do. By the way, my experience with French friends suggests that they all seem to work pretty hard and retire pretty early, by my standards. But that's just based on my little sample.

    Thanks again for your insight and generosity on your blog. Gloria and I will be in Montignac next week at this time and I'll get my computer plugged in right away.

    Dennis Martin

  5. This was a most captivating blog. The nature of the two countries, France and America, are so different. France was one of the most advanced civilizations in the Western world when America was just getting settled--by anyone and everyone of every background and means imaginable. The country had to be developed. Anyone who wanted to work hard could become a success. "Westward Ho" was the ralying cry. That coupled with the strong work or protestant ethic from the earliest days gave Americans a different outlook on work than the French.

  6. What Ken is too modest to mention is that the people he supervised gave him a standing ovation before they left.

  7. Très intéressant, ce récit ! Merci d'avoir partagé cette expérience avec nous ! Bises. Marie

  8. Strangely enough, I haven’t the slightest recollection of reading this fascinating post that reads like a mystery novel or a detective story. Was I too shy at the time to write comments in English or was I even aware of Ken’s blog? I guess nobody will ever know unless I commented on some earlier post.


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