Not Working

The Pulse of the American Depression

Hugh Vandivier

Downsized But Not Out

Losing a job involuntarily shocks and stings, even if it’s the best thing that ever happened to you.

I was downsized. There, I said it. I never thought I’d embody such a corporate-speak buzzword, but I clearly wasn’t laid off. That means the company may hire you back when it’s economically viable. I wasn’t sacked, a cool British word that carries an uncool connotation: incompetent. I hadn’t quit, unlike Kevin Spacey in American Beauty (though I wish that, like him, I’d had a plate of asparagus to hurl against a wall). No, this was a job loss.

I feel like I’m making an admission in a support group, “Survivors of Corporate Downsizing,” meeting Wednesdays at 8:30 in the basement of Second Presbyterian. Free coffee and doughnuts. “Hi, I’m Hugh. I’m a displaced worker. It’s been five months since I worked in an office.” Until recently, I worked at a computer-book publisher that shall remain nameless. However, I’m fairly sure the confidentiality agreement—signed under the auspices of a parent company two acquisitions and restructurings removed—isn’t worth the toner it was copied with before it was shoved in front of me as I sat down in HR and was informed of my curtailed future with the company.

One day I went to work, and my particular position just vanished. “Hugh, I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” said the publisher, “but the market has forced cutbacks…” Oh, so the market did it, I mused in a snide internal monologue. Good, I was afraid it was some bean-counter at Corporate or some HR person who has no clue what I do. All of a sudden someone pulled the trap door, but I didn’t fall just yet. Like Wile E. Coyote, I stood suspended in midair for a moment, as I slowly realized that my livelihood, my contribution to this company, was suddenly finished.

As the publisher handed me the official letter of termination, my paltry two-month severance agreement and the details on COBRA, he added, “If there’s anything I can do to help, Hugh, please call me.” It was clear he was upset about being the hatchet man in this bleak procedure. After that, I was led to a room with a total outsider, a transition person named Debbie from an outplacement firm who knew nothing about my job or the circumstances behind my losing it.

Suddenly, I had no one to complain to, just time to decompress.

When I was escorted upstairs to collect my things from my office, I felt a tenseness from my (now former) co-workers that I couldn’t quite figure out. Maybe it was my composure at handling this. Then I realized: They’re afraid of me. They’re afraid of what I might do. They had calculated so thoroughly every reaction I might have experienced except one: calm. That’s what really made them nervous: I was both agreeable and compliant. The more I seethed inside, the more resolved I was not to give them the satisfaction. But the plainclothes policeman was shadowing me just in case.

I sat in my office dazed, unable to collect my things. When you work in publishing, you tend to collect a lot of books you’ve worked on, plus I come from a long line of packrats. I just stared at the tchotchkes and personal items I had accumulated and finally asked, “Can I come back later?”

I handed over my security card pleasantly and was escorted out of the building with all the humiliation the company could place on me. Somehow, though, I felt an odd sense of freedom. As I started my car, my CD player kicked in with the unexpectedly appropriate U2 song “Some Days Are Better Than Others.”

I soon found myself standing in line at Starbucks in Broad Ripple, having resisted the urge to go get drunk, to go swim (as was my usual noontime ritual), to go to the restaurant where my (now former) co-workers were having lunch or to yell to the heavens. I stood at the counter unable to tell the barista my drink order: What is that thing called? That frozen thing with the fruit juice and tea?

I looked at my watch. All morning meetings had been canceled in lieu of a big 1:30 company powwow in the cafeteria. They were finding out right now. (When I called a co-worker the next day, she said two people cried when they announced that I had been let go. They cried. Talk about the Wonderful Life syndrome.) As I sipped my tazo-whatzit, I felt a strange contentment, even though I knew the feelings to follow: the rejection, the loss of identity. I repeated the line from Fight Club: “You are not your job. Your job is not you.”

Debbie said that job loss was as emotionally traumatic as the death of a loved one, a terminal illness or divorce. During a seminar at the outplacement firm two days later, she gave all 35 of us a big binder filled with information and tips on career planning, resumes, networking and interviewing. In the succeeding weeks, I dutifully went through the binder, thoroughly completing each exercise. I figured out what my major strengths were—initiative, broad knowledge and enthusiasm for treading unfamiliar territory—and what atmosphere I should look for from my next employer— an informal, progressive workplace that fosters teamwork and creativity (and provides some sort of career path).

On the job hunt, I cast my net wide. I applied for anything involving the nebulous subject of “communications”: writing, editing, advertising, PR, marketing, you name it. I retrofitted my resume with “power verbs” and accomplishments to suit any and every attractive job in this broad category. I floundered. I worked my network. I know two headhunters, but neither hunts heads in my field. The common response to query letters was “Despite your many attributes, I regret that we cannot pursue your candidacy.” I flailed.

One of my headhunter friends advised that I resubmit my resume on the big job Web sites every few weeks because employers don’t look at stale postings. Each time I did this, I encountered the “Monster Board effect.” The folks who were quick to respond were dubious at best. One Indy firm kept sending me stock e-mails encouraging me to use its local job site. When I tried it out, none of the categories matched my interests. When I tried one that was close enough, it read, “There are currently no opportunities that exactly match your search criteria.” When I switched “divisions,” the same thing happened. It was like that Monty Python skit where the cheese-shop proprietor is fresh out of each kind of cheese the customer requests.

The Monster Board effect also resulted in my first “interview.” The woman who contacted me said her company, which she didn’t name, was looking for talented people interested in “sports or nutrition marketing.” When I called to reschedule the interview because of a sore throat, she made a point of mentioning that “it’s really not like an interview, per se.” Deep down, I knew this was fishy, but still I took the bait. I needed the interview experience, I rationalized. So I threw on the wedding/funeral/interview suit, printed out five resumes and popped a couple of those Listerine strips.

I walked into a seating area with seven other people and music and cocktail-party conversation blaring from behind a partition. Another bad sign. One by one we were led back and introduced to people as I tried to hobnob in an atmosphere permeated with all the charm of a cult initiation. We sat down to hear the slick, just-out-of-college speaker outline how we, too, could alienate all our friends and family by hawking water purifiers and vitamins, and those associates already in on the business strategy nodded in agreement and laughed on cue like an infomercial audience. You guessed it; this was a shady Ponzi scheme, though “not exactly like Amway,” he pointed out. I left the first chance I could. “This is the last thing I need,” one dejected middle-aged man muttered to the rest of us in the elevator.

During the outplacement seminar, Debbie had recommended physical activity for coping with the job loss. Thankfully, I had started swimming before the ax fell. It had been my lunch-hour alternative to talking shop with (now former) co-workers over chicken pesto farfalle. Not that this bunch could talk about anything else but work—and who was screwing whom and who was too hungover to meet with authors and clients at a conference—but I digress. Besides, my nondisclosure agreement probably forbids me from surrendering juicy bits even though most of those people don’t or soon won’t work there anymore. Oh, swimming. This was much healthier, in more ways than one. It defused the bomb of frustration ticking inside me. Exercise redirected my obsession for self-betterment that I couldn’t accomplish professionally. It was a source of creative transference. It was a good escape. Now, unemployed, it was the only fixed point in my day.

In the intervening weeks and months, Starbucks was my HQ, the pool was my sanctuary, my friends and family were my comfort. Still, I found it hard to vehemently assure and reassure them that I was entirely fine, both financially and emotionally, when sometimes I felt entirely not fine. Still, I made jokes like pulling out my old business cards and referring to them as “scratch paper.”

I never cast myself in the role of victim, and I never asked myself the big question of “Why me?” I knew why. The methodology the company utilized to cut employees made me an easy choice. Most of the employees in that seminar had lots of experience with the company, were clearly extraneous as the company shifted in the shrinking market or were overqualified for their position. I was the only editor at my level with a graduate degree, so I clearly fell into the last category. As I heard stories and met others who were cast adrift in the same boat, I began to get cocky. I began to feel that all the talented, creative people had been discarded, and all the bores and yes-men still clung to jobs in the big corporations.

I interviewed with Eli Lilly, twice. Both times, they ended up hiring internally, which I can completely respect. When an interviewer asked me why I would want to make the switch to a pharmaceutical company from publishing, I talked about shrinking markets and dwindling market share for awhile. Sensing the broad approach wasn’t working with my interviewer, I redirected, “Well, just how many people did Lilly downsize last year?” “None,” he responded. Point made.

I didn’t collect unemployment, even though I deserved to, even though my former company was paying part of it. Don’t ask me why, I just didn’t. I had trouble paying my bills, as the freelance market jammed up with fellow former editors. Could I have handled all this better? Of course, but pride does funny things.

After my year anniversary, I became even more determined. I went to the placement office three times a week, with the other two days and weekends devoted to the freelance projects I had taken on to sustain myself. Every visit, I fired off five cover letters and resumes, and most importantly, I followed up and nagged and badgered. Finally, through a college contact, I picked up some contract work in an actual office.

So now here I am, working 9 to 5, and immediately it’s, as they say in the job-seeking world, “a nice fit.” I ask what time I should come in, and my boss says, “Oh, by nine will be all right.” So I’m in at 8:30 and I’m out well after 5:30, not because I’m polishing the apple, but because I genuinely like being there. I like being back in an office, yes, and I like being back working, definitely.

In the end, I pity my old company and feel sorry for the great people still working there. They’re left wondering whether further cuts will come at the end of the next quarter. I keep running into refugees from my old company, and the attitude is the same: relief. After all, the company quit us.

After three years, the parent company finally took the old name off the building, but it has yet to affix its new name and logo. I don’t take that as a good sign, so to speak. Maybe they’ll shut down the Indy operation; maybe they’ll move the whole caboodle to New Jersey. Maybe the cycle will turn, and those in the ivory tower will start hiring people back. Too bad, as they will have lost all the people who once showed enough loyalty not to quit the company when times got tough.

My old company did me a great favor. Though I’ve wrecked my credit, I’ve gained even more confidence through this experience, I’ve learned more about what I want out of my next job, and I’ve gotten back in shape. Thanks, Whatever-Your-Name-Is-Now, Inc.

One Comment

  1. Goodness, Hugh, what a heartbreaking and beautifully rendered essay. Ugh. Glad you’ve rejoined the ranks of the employed.

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