What a layoff at work taught me about jobs

Published April 4, 2016   Posted in How to Think

I had finally done it. After working a few years on the east coast to establish my career straight out of college, I got an amazing opportunity to move out west – to Arizona, where I truly wanted to live. And so I moved, and life was damn great.

This was back in 2007, and I settled into my brand new home in the suburbs. I worked for a fairly large science and information technology company at the time. It was fine work, but certainly nothing to write home about. I went into work, wrote computer code, then left for the day. Normal job. Paycheck. PTO. Cool, good enough.

But still, I enjoyed the experience. That job allowed me to work in the place that I wanted to live. I settled into my new home and started to do the things that anyone would have done, like fill the rooms with stuff to make it feel like a “home”. A couch here. A rocking chair there. Basic shit.

I made friends with my co-workers in the office. I went out to happy hours with them and joined the office softball team. Grabbing lunch and drinking beer with my teammates was a common practice. Things were going well. People seemed to be happy.

Then about a year later, on a Friday, I got called into my boss’s office. Shit suddenly got real.

After working for this company for four years, I was given my official layoff notice with a month’s severance package. I was told that my division manager attempted to find work for me, but there wasn’t enough to go around. No more work. No more money. I was completely blindsided.

“Shocked” might be a better word.

It’s not as if the office already went through a couple rounds of layoffs. In fact, no rumors circulated at all about the possibility of layoffs. One day, bam – you got a month, see ya.

My performance reviews were always positive. I got along incredibly well with my co-workers. I hardly took a day off from work in four years. I went from a state of shock to utter confusion.

I’ve done such a good job for this organization. Why would they lay me off?

What that layoff taught me about my job

After my layoff, I very nearly wound up like this guy!

I very nearly wound up like this guy!

What makes this layoff more interesting (read: fucked up) is that I walked down the hall from my boss’s office and secured coverage on another project that same day. I went from being laid off because “work dried up” to finding work in a matter of about an hour.

Wait, I thought all work was gone. How was I able to find coverage on another project in a matter of a few minutes, but my boss failed at finding me work in the lead-up to my “layoff”?

This experience taught me a couple important lessons about jobs.

First, it’s okay to love your job, but at the end of the day, we need to prioritize ourselves first. Organizations will always do what is in their best interest, not necessarily the best interest of their staff. Remember, it’s YOUR heart and soul, not your organization’s.

It doesn’t matter if you just relocated to a new area and bought a house with a fresh mortgage to establish yourself. It doesn’t matter if you poured your heart and soul into your work for four years. It doesn’t matter if you never take a vacation, opting instead to show up at the office and work like a good little staff member.

We are all dispensable. Our jobs can disappear nearly instantly.

And second, we need to be proactive about our careers. I had initially relied on my boss to keep me gainfully employed. After all, that was his job, right? But at the end of the day, he apparently failed to find me work. I, however, hunted around the office and found work that same day.

The truth is your boss isn’t there to keep you employed. Your boss’s goal is to maximize productivity, minimize conflict and build a stable and dependable environment on which profits are realized.

After all, if your boss commands a sinking ship, his or her career is in jeopardy. If a couple layoffs help improve the bottom line, so be it. After all, shit happens. They’ll find other work.

At one point in my career, I was the boss too. I hired and fired. Even those with whom I had a positive relationship, business is business. If someone needed to be let go, they were let go. My #1 job was to keep my department running as efficiently and effectively as possible. My staff was the tool to accomplish that job.

In the end, this “layoff that wasn’t” turned into a huge reality check for me. I always strive to do the very best work that I possibly can. But in contrast to how I operated earlier in my career, I don’t define myself by my job. I no longer count on work always being there and I understand that I’m just a tool in the overall operation of the business.

I prioritize my needs first and foremost. For example:

  • I take more vacations than I used to – I realized that experiences are far more enjoyable than things, and spending more time in the office was not contributing to my overall level of happiness. Oh, and speaking of time…
  • I understand that time is a more valuable asset than money – These days, I always choose time over money. Time is a finite commodity; we can always earn more money, but days are limited to 24 hours. Never let time get away from you.
  • I never compromise on short-term savings – Today, I can lose my job at a moment’s notice and live just fine for a good number of years because my wife and I have spent the last couple of years relentlessly saving – damn near 70% of our total salaries every month. I am very rapidly approaching the FU, Money club.

I also now understand the role that I play in an organization. The point of any business is to make money, and people are the sources of that money. An organization may truly care about their workforce and consider them to be family, but when the bottom line becomes a problem, the family will always thin out. That “big” happy family isn’t quite so big anymore.

Take care of yourself first. Be proactive. Then, look for a job that helps you become financially independent – quickly. Then, spend the rest of your time doing what you truly love, and you’ll never again work a day for the rest of your life.

We track our net worth using Personal Capital


38 responses to “What a layoff at work taught me about jobs”

  1. Great tips Steve. When you work for someone else your employment is never guaranteed, plan and simple. Important to build a strong network to leverage when you need too. Dealing with a layoff is never easy having, but having cash on hand will reduce stress while looking for the next gig.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Brian. Completely agree, it’s never guaranteed. Even when all your co-workers are “like family”, business is business. And sometimes, it comes to that!

  2. Seriously, great post. This is such an important truth to realize about employment, and I’m glad you were able to take this away from that somewhat negative experience. I think a lot of us enter the workforce after college kind of naive, believing anyone at our jobs has our best interest in mind. That there is such a thing as a secure job if it’s at a big company. That it’ll never happen to us. Great takeaways, too. Work can’t define us, even if we can strive to enjoy it.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Kalie. I definitely had that feeling coming out of college. Yes, if you do good work, your chances of being *the first* to be laid off goes down, but ultimately, all of us are replaceable.

  3. Ernie says:

    You’re a true inspiration, Steve!

  4. Steve says:

    I went through a similar situation, and came to similar conclusions. I always assumed before that time that things like layoffs happened to “other” people, that I was too valuable, or that as long as I treated the company right it would be reciprocated. It ended up being a very positive experience only because I had placed myself in a position of strength beforehand. Great article!

    • Steve says:

      I think it is definitely true that there are some things that we can do to minimize our chances of being laid off, and those are important to talk about as well. Work ethic is a big part of that.

  5. My first boss in Corporate America made sure I understood these words: “Don’t love your company, it won’t love you back”. She had a long, successful career (and I hoped to, too), but she wanted to make sure i understood that you came in without a job and will leave the same way. Keep your parachute packed!

  6. Martha says:

    Thank you for this post!!

  7. Mr. SSC says:

    That reminded me of my step-brother’s situation which taught me the same sorts of lessons. He was working for a tech company that was doing great, well enough they moved their home base from Denver to Seattle. Him and 6 other key employees had even been living there for a few months, and he even found an apartment so he could move his wife up there too. She quit her job, they got their stuff loaded onto the truck, and 2 days later got told that their company was bankrupt and there was no more work. They had to come up with about $10k to get their stuff re-delivered to their house, they fortunately were able to re-sign the same lease for another year as their house hadn’t rented yet, and they got out of the lease they had just signed in Seattle fairly easily as well.

    That hammered home the same points you brought up, which is – at the end of the day, it’s all business. That was his first time dealing with a bankrupt company/layoffs but since then they have a great cushion of savings, and always a “Plan B”. We do the same, and even though I love my job and company, Plan B is always in the back of my mind and budget. 🙂

    • Steve says:

      Wow. That must have been a huge wake up call to what companies might do if the going truly does get rough. That was a pretty egregious example, but unfortunately, those things do happen. I was only a year into my Arizona work gig before they did something similar to me. Fortunately, I was able to find work.

  8. Great perspective Steve. I have never gotten laid off, but glad that I have a nice baby FU fund setup to help me through that process if I was to. I think keeping a large professional network during your working years is key as well!

    • Steve says:

      FU Money is F’ing great, I tell you. You are already ahead of the game where a layoff might hurt your ego, but it won’t put you on the street, either. That’s the way to do it! 🙂

  9. Great article. My boss sent me an email about 10 months ago telling me “work would be slow” for the near future. Ever since I’ve been doing what I can to expand my opportunities just in case.

    Employment = never guaranteed

    • Steve says:

      Good on you for being proactive. Especially if your boss tells you that, that is probably a hint that if you were thinking of jumping ship, go ahead and do it. At the very least, have your resumes ready in case you need them.

  10. Kate says:

    My motto has always been “I’m as loyal to the company as it is to me.”

    The first company I worked for after college was sold to a competitor. I happened to be out of the office the day it was announced so my coworker let me know when I got in the following Monday — no one even bothered to call me! Luckily I had been looking for a new job. Working in accounting gives you the benefit of seeing how poorly your employer is doing before everyone else knows. Another coworker, also in his 20’s, said that this was the best thing to happen for the two of us. Otherwise we could have become stagnant by working there longer than we should have.

    It was a rude awakening but I’m glad I learned the lesson while young.

    • Steve says:

      I have believed something very similar, actually. I tend to show respect where respect is shown to me – almost in all situations in life…even outside of work. And very true about working in accounting. You get to see the numbers. Most others don’t. That definitely puts you in a position of knowledge!

  11. I completely agree. Companies are not loyal. Layoffs happen left and right. It’s part of being in corporate.

    • Steve says:

      Yup – it’s all a part of working in corporate America. You can make big bucks doing it, but it can also throw you out on your ass, too. Be prepared.

  12. I have also been on both sides of layoffs. Neither one is much fun.

    But your are right, a job is a way to make money. It’s not a way to find your self worth. After I got laid off, a friend suggested that rather than just stressing over the whole incident, instead, calculate how much money I had earned during my entire tenure with that employer. It’s a good exercise and helps put things back into perspective.

    • Steve says:

      Excellent exercise. I think a lot of people would be amazed if they just calculated how much money they earned at each place that they’ve worked. It will probably add up to much, much more than we think. Then, the natural follow-up question: Where did all that money go!?! 🙂

  13. Stockbeard says:

    Good advice. I try to keep this kind of thing in mind constantly. Your company is not family, it’s a business, and people who you thought were your friends are “just doing their job”. I hate it and it has never happened to me, but I’m not counting on my colleagues or managers to actually fend for me.

    • Steve says:

      Spot on, Stockbeard. Your company is not your family, nor is your work your life. It’s a source of money and that’s really it. Be as prepared as you can so if a layoff does happen, you’ll still be a-okay.

  14. A boss/business will never care about your job/income as much as you do. I went through my own layoff back in early 2009 and it left a really bad taste in my mouth mainly for owners/management. Not because I was laid off but about the timing and how it was done. I lost all respect for my former employers because they had just had a company Christmas party and spent who knows how much on it and then 1.5 weeks later are laying people off. I’m not naive enough to think that if they didn’t have the party they could have even saved one job but it was the principle of it that you tell me how difficult business is so we need to cut staff but you just spent money on bonuses and a Christmas party.

    But I can’t really complain because it’s led me to where I’m at now. We’re on the path to FI, although it’s further away than I’d like, and even with the slow down in the oil field I’ll still make more than I did at my previous job.

    • Steve says:

      Absolutely right, JC. As the saying goes, “If you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will either”. While it’s true that “looking out for #1” can be taken too far, there certainly is nothing wrong with putting yourself first and the company that you work for second!

  15. Jason says:

    Excellent points. I love the “layoff” story.

  16. Yes this! I was laid off four weeks ago and even though we were told that layoffs were coming, no one saw how many would be cut. When our turn came, both of us were completely caught off guard yet fine. The only reason was due to our belief in living below our means. He and I used to have talks about Dave Ramsey podcasts during our shift and we motivated one another to how little we could spend (he lived at home so he definitely always won!). But being able to have a very healthy savings meant that even if it took the rest of the year, I would have been fine. At the age of 25 I hope to be able to always be prepared as I was that day.

  17. John says:

    Early in my career I was “reorganized” out of my job TWICE. They offered me a new job both times, but it would require us to move multiple states away. Not going to happen!

    The long term benefit was that it taught me – no matter how hard you work and committed you are – there are no guaranties. So when I had the chance to start my own company, it was easier (mentally) to do so because who knows, the third “reorganization” may be coming!

    By starting my own company, I was able to retire from full-time work at 49. So to those two companies that tried to move me to another location: “Thanks, guys. Without your help I’d never be where I am now!”


    • Steve says:

      Excellent attitude, John! There is always something that we can learn from everyday life, even (especially!) if those things aren’t all that positive. You sure did, and you are a more successful person because of it. Well done. 🙂

  18. Santhosh says:

    Hi Steve, Good points, Companies talk about career roadmap, work life balance etc., but they hardly walk the talk. At the end of the day it’s your life and you need to take control. At the start of this year, I decided not to spend any minute over and beyond what was required at office. With this I have been to spend a lot more time with my family and yet be efficient at work.

    • Steve says:

      Amen to that, Santhosh! Take care of yourself first and understand that your job, just like any job out there, is nothing more than a source of income. Crucial tip! 🙂

  19. Jack says:

    Great advice, especially to someone who’s never give through that first layoff experience.

    Living and working in Silicon Valley, I’ve been through more layoffs than I can count, but few are as shocking as the unanticipated & unannounced one. Gives you a good irrespective on the transitory illusion of life and security.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Jack, completely agree. Unanticipated layoffs are more of a reflection of the management than it is the staff members, but agreed – it definitely gives us a reason to consider how “loyal” we really should be to the organizations that we work for.

Leave a Reply