Anatomy of a Corporate Layoff

Maui Time | April 7, 2010

Anatomy of a Corporate Layoff

One year ago, I was fired.

Not laid off—fired. In a layoff, you go home until the factory calls you back to work. I got fired.

Everyone knew there would be a bloodbath. Management tried to keep it secret. But we knew.

Human resources experts say mass firings should take place on a Friday. Worker bees are used to going home for the weekend. Duh.

Mine took place on a Thursday. Which was my fault. A couple of weeks earlier, when management still believed that their Big Layoff was a big secret, I had told my boss I wanted that Friday off. They rescheduled the firings for me. To my erstwhile coworkers: sorry about harshing your Friday.

When it came, I knew there was a good chance I'd be on the death list. It wasn't rocket science: my boss didn't like me. "Painful as it may be, a layoff is a good time to terminate marginal employees," wrote Guy Kawasaki in "The Art of the Layoff." Painful for the employee. Fun for the boss. "Marginal" is corporatese for "disliked by one's boss."

I worked three days a week for a company called United Media, which syndicates comic strips like "Dilbert" and "Peanuts" to newspapers. It is owned by E.W. Scripps, a media conglomerate based in Cincinnati. My title was editor of acquisitions and development. I was a talent scout: I recruited cartoonists and writers, worked with them to craft their features into saleable features, then edited them after they launched. It was fun. It was also hard. On several occasions, I was pressed to do things I thought were unethical, things that screwed cartoonists and writers. As a cartoonist and writer myself, I refused.

My reviews were mostly positive. But I was given two bits of negative feedback: I didn't seem to care about filling out forms. (There were a lot of forms.) And I sided with the "talent" rather than the company.

I began to suspect the axe was going to fall months before it did, when Lisa—Lisa was my boss—dithered about, then refused to approve, my travel to the 2009 San Diego Comicon. Sure, times were tight, especially in the media business. But I'd gone in 2007 and 2008. And other execs were getting their travel approved. Lisa went to Germany for a book fair. Hm.

Lisa harassed me relentlessly. She gave me impossible tasks with no chance of success: "Develop a turnkey solution for newspaper websites." Citing the flimsiest of excuses, she canceled projects she had previously green-lighted. I was an executive; she assigned me to menial tasks previously left to junior editors. She insulted me during staff meetings. "Why don't you do your job, Ted? For once?"

In retrospect I realize she had just given up trying to goad me into quitting.

Sitting fake-casually on the big red sofas by the "Peanuts" ephemera in the lobby that Thursday morning were two huge goons. Each wore those nametags you get when you visit an office. Subtle.

I closed my office door and called a friend to discuss my sense of impending doom. "I've been through it six times," he told me. "Here's how it'll happen. Lisa will ask you: 'Can you step in for a minute?' You'll go in. Someone from HR will be there."

I hung up. I worked on a memo about how the company should adapt to the changing syndication market by offering marketing and management services to freelance, non-syndicated cartoonists and other content providers. I cc-ed my fellow execs, most of whom already knew what I was about to learn. Send. A half-hour passed. No replies. The phone rang. It was Lisa. "Ted? Can you step in for a minute?" she asked. I walked down the hall, turned left and walked into her office. Carol from HR was sitting under the stuffed Dilbert.

"As you know, the blah blah problems in the business blah blah position is being eliminated blah blah blah not acquiring new properties blah there's a meeting at 11 for everyone who's being reduced blah blah blah blah blah—"


You've heard the euphemisms: Downsizing. Rightsizing. Me, I was part of a "reduction in force."

I had been fired from other jobs. I got fired when I was younger and even snottier than I am now. I came late, left early, took long lunches. "Get the hell out of here!" my boss at the local supermarket yelled at my bratty 17-year-old self. "You're worthless! A slacker!" I didn't argue. He was right.

But I had never been "laid off."

They say getting laid off is better than being "fired for cause." You qualify for unemployment benefits. It looks better to future prospective employers (ha! as though those still existed). Getting laid off isn't personal.

For me, that was the problem.

True, if there's anything worse than having to have a job, it's losing one. Once you're on the way out the door, the details of how it goes down don't really matter. You don't know how you're going to pay your bills. Will you lose your home? Will you end up living in your car? Those are the big questions.

Somehow, though, how they do it—how they fire you—matters.

I prefer the personal approach.

If there's a moment that calls for honesty, it's firing someone. If Lisa had called me into her office and told me: "Ted, it's like this: I don't like you. I can't work with someone I don't like. I used to trust you and your judgment, I used to appreciate what you did, but I've changed my mind. It's over. You're fired. Go home," I still would still have had that hole-in-your-stomach feeling for the next few months. But I would have respected her.

It would have been personal. Honest.

Instead, I got Carol from HR.

It wasn't Carol-from-HR's fault. She did what she was told to do, no doubt by someone in Cincinnati who had never so much as laid eyes on me or the other seven people sitting around the table in the conference room, staring at the thick pile of documents in the E.W. Scripps folder she had handed us. Elsewhere, at other Scripps-owned companies around the country, similar meetings were being held. I wondered: were they simultaneous? You know, to allow for different time zones?

Scripps is a cheap company. The previous year, a perfect employee evaluation earned a Scripps worker a four-percent raise. Next came a pay freeze, and with it a lie: a pledge not to lay anyone off. The severance offer was consistent with their previous tightwaddery: four weeks pay.


"The sooner you get the severance agreement signed and sent to me," Carol repeated, "the sooner you'll get paid." I flipped through the lengthy document. There was no way I could sign it. Among the provisions: I could never work for another media company the rest of my life.

If I'd signed it, writing this column would be a breach of contract.

For a lousy four weeks of severance.

There was a deadline by which to sign. As it approached, Carol emailed me. We talked on the phone, and again when I came into the office to pick up my personal items. I told her about the media company provision. Would they delete it? "It's a reduction of force," she replied. "We can't change it."

I had discussed it with several lawyers. One said it was so breathtakingly overreaching that no judge would enforce it in a court of law. "But a 'reduction of force' isn't a legal term," I said. "It doesn't mean anything. You can delete that section if you want to."

She refused.

"Don't worry," she said, "we wouldn't enforce that part." Sure.

She seemed surprised that I didn't trust them.

Six months later, Scripps bought the Travel Channel for $181 million.

(Ted Rall is working on a radical political manifesto for publication this fall. His website is


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