The first thing I notice about the organizational chart on the desk is that it doesn’t have my name on it.
It seems like a glaring omission, at least from my point of view. The director of Human Resources is looking closely at me looking closely at the document. She has a sympathetic expression, but her guard is also up. My boss keeps talking inexorably. It is practiced, intentionally steady. It’s a way she has never really talked with me before.
They haven’t actually said the words yet, so I free up some space in my brain to consider the situation. This is probably how I’d do it too, I think. Stay on message, explain the decision making process before dropping the hammer. Describe it all in terms of the business motivations that have necessitated this “organizational change.” It’s not personal, and I understand that.
I take quick stock of myself. I find that I have this bizarre desire to be practical, cooperative and maybe just a little bit stoic. If this is going to happen to me, I decide, I’m going to leave them saying to each other, “Wow, he took that really well. What a pro.”
Then we get to the moment of truth, the three of us, together each wishing in our own way and for our own reasons that this wasn’t the way of things. In an odd way, everyone in the room is trapped in a painful moment not of their own making. She looks at me while trying to remain professional and sympathetic at the same time.
“Your position has been eliminated.”
I’m going to fast-forward to the end and reveal up front that I am, in fact, still employed with my long-time employer, although in an entirely new role. The promises I would receive on that late November morning — assurances that this had nothing to do with my performance, that they were interested in finding a place for me, that I’d have time to look for a new role, that they wanted to work with me — all of that turned out to be true. There were a few days that seemed a little touch-and-go, but overall they delivered.
Of course, in that moment, when my fingers went a little numb, and it felt like an electric shock hit me in my gut, everyone seemed to freeze in that pregnant second after it had actually been spoken, waiting to see what would happen next. I don’t think I’ve been so closely examined and watched as I was right then. Would I get angry? Would I be shocked? Would I plead? Would I just lose my mind?
Nothing happened, and then suddenly we were all moving again, and there was conversation about various details and possible ways this could all move forward. That’s where the promises came in, and where I smiled placidly as I felt myself jackknife through all kinds of feelings.
If you’ve never had a business tell you, for whatever reason, that your services are no longer required, then it’s hard to explain quite what that moment is like. Of all the first reactions I could have had, the most prominent one was this odd kind of embarrassment, which was almost worse because this wasn’t about my performance or the way I did my job. Suddenly I just felt like some evaluation had been done and everyone had come to the conclusion that I was the most useless to carry forward, the most expendable. I knew that over the coming days and weeks people were going to feel sorry for me, and that was in itself a horrible thing. I don’t want to be felt sorry for. That’s not who I’d spent five years of my life trying to become.
People wrap their identity into all kinds of things. We do it all the time as gamers, and we do it as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, geeks and nerds, and on and on. Suddenly I was coming face to face with how much of my identity I’d wrapped into my work, and how I wanted others to perceive me had become how I had decided to perceive myself. In a moment, that was being taken away.
As I wandered out of the office and back to my own, or at least the office that would remain my own through the first of the year, I thought of having to tell the people who reported to me, and then the people that reported to them. I thought of having to tell my wife, my friends. And, all these people who I knew would help me, stand at my side. I didn’t want any of them to know. If I could have thought of a way to hide it all away at that moment, just fade from this into whatever the next thing was without making a big deal, then I would have. But the truth was that I needed the help. I was going to need people at my side.
The next month was awful. All the things I’d been working on no longer made sense for me to work on, and for the same reasons, it made no sense for me to start something new. My job was to find a job, and that’s something you can only do so much everyday. I applied internally for some roles, one or two that genuinely interested me, and the rest of the time I sort of sat at my desk and waited for something to happen. I came in late and left early, and no one noticed, or cared. I started to just work from home. "Work" should probably be in quotation marks in that last sentence.
Word came a few weeks later that I’d been offered the internal job I’d wanted most, and I expected it to be a monumental relief, but instead it’s been a sort of slow climb back up to speed. I had so thoroughly processed what had happened that, when it was over, I was more numb than overjoyed. People would say how I must be so relieved, and I would agree enthusiastically because that’s what they wanted to hear. But I didn’t feel it.
It’s only been this last week or so that I feel locked back in and productive. Only now do I really feel like I belong again, and even that is still tempered with this reserve of wariness I hadn’t had before.
Looking back, I see myself going through stages of reaction, from panic to resentment to disappointment to resignation. It’s not quite like grief, or at least not classically so, but it was every bit as painful. If I’m honest, I’m not totally over it yet. I don’t know that anything that big and impactful can be totally over until I talk about it.
And now I have.