I’m coming up on the anniversary of my layoff: it will be five years in April. Anniversaries are odd times. My brain keeps a good neurotic’s calendar and I’ve been having flashbacks to events in the corporate life. What’s funny, at least to me, is I’m remembering the absurd and whacked-out looney moments, the ones where I would gape in disbelief: “You’re kidding. This is a joke, right?” And it never ever was.
I ran a research library at an electronics company, neither of which exist anymore. I truly hope the malfunctions, the idiocies, the lame-brain short-sighted self-serving decision making I watched and tried to avert is not typical of large American businesses, because if it is we are in a far worse situation than we know. Of course there’s Dilbert, so maybe we do know. Here are some stories, all from my personal experience, and all true.
- In the late 1980s, when the Japanese electronics industry was a threat, a corporate recruiter explained he was trying to hire away senior Japanese engineering managers. He’d calculated the age these men would be and had subtracted their work years. He wanted men with a good command of English. He asked me for a list of all Japanese engineering students who had attended U.S. schools in the 1940s.
- I spent a half an hour explaining the fantastic benefits of internet searching and information retrieval to my current vice-president in an attempt to get funding. At the end of the presentation he sat in silence for a moment and then asked, “You mean, I can change my homepage?”
- We spent weeks of effort structuring the corporate intranet for maximum flexibility and easy of use. For the first time employees could enter search terms and be directed to the correct department. We received a stern reprimand from upper management: we must structure the pages to start at the president’s level and progress downward through the hierarchy. Searching was unnecessary. In some cases this required scrolling and clicking through ten levels of departmental structure to reach the correct page, assuming the user knew in advance exactly where the information was in the first place. Of course, if they knew that they didn’t need the web anyway. We pointed this out to upper management, who said triumphantly, “Yes, we said you didn’t need it.”
- During a brief period of corporate prosperity, all the employees worldwide were given iPods as a thank you gift by upper management. Corporate Finance had a problem with the concept of ‘gift’, and could not stomach the tax consequences, so they coded the purchase as ‘training equipment’ with a year’s depreciation. Two months later a large number of employees were laid off and they were told to return their iPods since they were corporate property.
- I was in the audience for a presentation on a spiffy software package under evaluation. The young presenter said she was asking for feedback. So, when the feedback was evaluated, the corporation might purchase the software? Oh no, she said, we’ve already bought it. But if we ask for feedback, people will think their opinions matter.
- I was giving an orientation to a young marketing intern, detailing the various types of information she could access. During the presentation I used the term ‘for-profit corporation’. She blinked and asked, “What’s for-profit?”
- A week before one of the many layoffs, before the names were announced, the Chairman of the Board was quoted in a newspaper saying all the good employees had already gone and only the losers were left.
- A month after a different layoff, a different Chairman of the Board gave a rave review of his gym membership in a local paper. He explained his membership fees were $30,000 per year, but it was truly worth it, and he had also purchased memberships for his wife and his two daughters. He encouraged everyone to get a membership.
- I purchased an office chair for a staff member and was reprimanded for ordering a chair with arms. I was told only managers could have chairs with arms.
- In the early days of the internet we had links on our library webpages to useful external webpages. One of our vice presidents discovered we were “three clicks away” from a page advocating labor unions. He demanded we take down the union page and could not understand why we couldn’t. He was also the one who, on being told the engineers could download technical papers to their desktops, demanded “Are they downloading porno? I’ve heard you can download porno.”
- Administrative assistants had a useful corporate database for scheduling conference rooms. It was open to all and easy to use. Although layoff dates were supposed to be secret, the actual layoffs took place in a conference room and it was easy to check the database and see when all the rooms were booked. No one in upper management ever booked their own rooms, so they had no idea their ‘secret’ plans were right there. Our director never came over to my building if he could help it, but we noticed he had a room booked right down the hall at 9 am on a certain day. When he arrived, he said solemnly, “Please come with me. I know you don’t know what this is about.” He was taken aback when I said, “Don’t be naive.”
- The corporate vice president in charge of research and development sent me an information query: how could he tell how much vacation he had accrued? I told him it was on his pay stub, then realized he had never bothered to look at a pay stub. Since corporate vp’s were never charged for any vacation hours they took, despite corporate policy which they enforced on everyone else, I knew he was leaving the company and didn’t want to leave a dime on the table.
- Forty-five minutes before I walked out the door for the last time, my director called me in a panic: he needed a copy of an article from a publication and he couldn’t find it listed on the electronic system he’d assured me would be all the engineers would need. I told him, as I had told him times without number, the system had a limited list of titles and this one wasn’t included so he’d have to contact the publication directly. I suppressed (and I regret this more than anything) the desire to say, “Gee, too bad you don’t have a librarian to do that for you,” and hung up the phone. In my own defense he had the power even at the last minute to cancel my severance package and hang me up in bullshit for the next six months. But I wish I’d had the guts.
Five years. I’ve met many people who still moan about how they miss their jobs. I never ever have. There were things I enjoyed, mostly the actual job, and things I hated, the dealing with upper management parts. I brought thirty years of experience, knowledge and skill to the job and in the end I was laid off by a man who did not have the computer skills to read his own email. That is the truth.
How could I miss that?