I got laid off this week.
The news didn’t completely surprise me. I knew the company, which I’ll refer to as “Fancy Startup” (FS), planned to cut some jobs [the numbers-focused CEO told us weeks ago, “We have too many employees and still more to hire. We now have x hundreds of employees and plan to hire x number more. Do you guys think we should have that many? That’s crazy!” He laughed mirthlessly, “By year’s end I expect we’ll have the same number. So…”] I didn’t think I’d be one of the casualties, though it’s always a possibility when you’re not a coveted software engineer in the tech world. FS slashed a significant percentage of the workforce in a “restructure.”
Upon hearing of the news, which I shared freely – may as well, the media reported it – my friends and family have been supportive, offering encouraging words of positivity, platitudes about doors opening and closing and reactions from, “I am shocked. They are idiots who didn’t deserve you,” to “Want me to kick someone’s ass for you? and “Are you okaaaaaaay?”
I am okay. In fact, I feel relief. I feel FREE.
BYE BYE ROSE-COLORED GLASSES
I mostly enjoyed my first 5 months at FS. It’s definitely a fast-paced environment as advertised. Every week in the office felt like a month, with always always something going on.
Often the job sapped my energy. Intense days, often without lunch, or lunch eaten at my desk during a quick break between meetings, sleepless nights ruminating over the previous day’s events; early mornings awoken with anxiety, concerned with things to occur that day, worrying that I’d missed something on my to-do list. I drove myself crazy thinking about ways to improve my teams, techniques to do the best job I could do without the infrastructure or support in place to truly do so effectively. I was the first person hired in my position, which I’ll refer to as Thankless Role (TR): when things are going well, you almost always get no credit; when things are going poorly, you’re often the recipient of of blame and fingers pointing in your direction.
In a matter of weeks after hiring me last July, the company recognized the need for more people in the Thankless Role for other departments and hired three more in few short months. With my manager, the five of us grew close pretty quickly. We’re all experienced professionals with big name companies dotting our resumes and a lot of mutual respect for each other’s different experiences and personalities. The TR team and a few other co-workers helped keep me sane during the last 5-6 months where things ratcheted up to a level of near-constant stress and anxiety. I imagined if you touched me, you’d feel a current of hot stress bubbling under my skin.
By February, when the stress escalated to a level I didn’t know possible and the rose-colored classes finally slid all the way off, I posted on Facebook:
I told one of my co-workers that our company is full of overachieving, nerdy, “gotta get an ‘A'” kids who work themselves up into a frenzy when they fail to be perfect. The kinds of kids who would get upset when they’d get a 96 on a test instead of 100 and I’d want to shake them. (Then I’d go home with a 94 and my dad would be like, “But, why are you bringing home a ’94’ though?” Well, damn). Sometimes they raise my stress levels with their stress. I don’t like people making their problems mine.
By then I could tell the worker bee team players from those who talk a good game and only pretend to work hard while cheering, “Go team!” I sniffed out the self-promoters, the brown-nosers and the politickers (my least favorite type behind even the lazy ones). I sensed the trustworthy and those itching to chuck bodies under buses. Finally, there were “the sinkers.” The sinkers are the people that exist as human cement blocks. They are all to happy to attach themselves to you like a blood sucking eel, whether consciously or sub-consciously, and attempt to drag you down under the water with them. Whatever problems they have, they want to share them with you, have you sink down into the deep, dark water with them. They are dangerous and the office bred more than it’s share.
IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH YOUR FACE?
I’m known as a bit of a meeting taskmaster, which generally people appreciate. In April, we received the results of our annual peer feedback. I asked for feedback from 11 peers and more than one (anonymously) enthused about my facilitation skills, “I like being in meetings run by Keisha, because I know they will be efficient and end on time or early.” I hate meetings. Unless it’s a meeting for fun, with an agenda and an actual interesting topic (or even better: drinks!), I want to get in and get out. Many people don’t know how to run an effective meeting. It’s a skill you have to learn as it’s not really taught. I’ve sat through one too many meetings, the sole purpose for which seemed to give pompous directors and ambitious sycophants a platform to bestow their “brilliance” upon their bored, under-recognized, overworked, over-scheduled peers and subordinates. An hour (because 1/2 hour meetings weren’t part of the culture) of listening to people attempt to prove they’re smarter than the next person. Find a damn penpal. Get a therapist. Talked to a stuffed teddy bear.
In a meeting in March, a woman senior to me in age (by only a few years) and position (by only a couple of levels), gave me the dirtiest look I’ve seen since a random disheveled, wrinkled old woman on the street pushing a shopping cart full of assorted collected trash muttered angrily at me, “You stupid fucking bitch.” My only transgression being my bold existence.
I assume this woman is talented at what she does, though she sometimes appeared scattered and disorganized and is prone to veering off-topic and making disruptive, emotional outbursts in meetings. “Is it just me? Or is this just, like, really fucking stupid? I mean, what, oh my God!…” spastic body movements and eye rolls punctuating her words. During one such meeting, where eight highly paid people sat around for yet another assembly of wasted minutes getting nothing accomplished, stalemate after stalemate, because of ego-based arguments and general foolishness like getting into a disagreement because you don’t understand the meaning of “something is fluid.” (An argument ensued because a senior level person though it meant “fixed” and got upset that his idea wasn’t even considered. In that same meeting a grown man pouted as he complained, “I guess I should just sit here and pretend like I don’t exist.”)
I cut her off in this meeting – politely, I am skilled at diplomacy – suggesting we “table” that discussion for now. It was then that she hit me with the dirty look. I have since tried to recreate this look as I telegraph this story for others, but I can’t quite figure out how to contort my features in the ugly way she did. If my life were ever turned into a movie, her face would have transformed into a pool of slithering, hissing serpents like Charlize Theron saw in the face of the duplicitous laywers’ wives in The Devil’s Advocate. I was amazed; who is that unprofessional, especially at that age?
WHO IS RUNNING THINGS?
Given the breadth of my position – I worked with people across different departments and functional groups – I had unique insight into the goings-ons in many groups and holy! unchecked rampant dysfunction, Iyanla! Backstabbing, infighting, territorialism, competitiveness, badmouthing, defensiveness, posturing, ego-puffing, uncooperative actions, CYA-ing to the extreme, defensiveness – oh did I mention that already? – the list of maladaptive behaviors didn’t end.
Personally and professionally, I’ve been primarily frustrated with ineffectual management and the amount of time I spent existing in an unhealthy environment, absorbing the effects of such poor management in the actions of others, detracting from my ability to actually do the job they hired me to do. Being pulled in different directions by people who seemingly change their minds on a whim or have a vision they don’t clearly articulate into actionable tactics. Leaving employees confused, directionless, off-balance and stressed. Both my manager, who’s one of the long-timers at FS, and a couple of co-workers told me that while I have the fortune of working on one of the most exciting parts of the site, I also work with some of the most difficult personalities in the company. Gee, how did I ever get so lucky? Comfortingly though, they all told me I was handling it well.
AND THEN THERE WAS HER
I have never worked with anyone quite like her. The highly ambitious, Ivy League educated young woman who became a huge thorn in my side. She and I worked on the same team, one of many teams I was on, and while I thought she could be charming, is sharp and hard-working, and appreciated her collection of designer handbags and shoes, I quickly grew to view her as an extremely exhausting energy vampire. She’s high-strung and prone to catastrophizing everything, particularly when she’s stressed, which seemed to be most days the sun rose. She micromanages people out of her need to control things and oversteps her boundaries. She can be dictatorial and too often speaks to her peers in a condescending manner and interacts with her teammates in such a way that implies she doesn’t respect your experience or skills. My position was senior to hers and yet she felt comfortable directing me in how to do my job (because as she once told me, she “did it for a year.” Well, I’ve done it for 10. Shall we take out our swords?) and speaking to me as though I were her employee. One engineer left our team for another – she treated him like a wayward child and constantly criticized his behavior failing to make it constructive. She caused another team member to cry because she hammered at her so much, put so much pressure on her.
She and I seem to speak such different languages that our once a week, one-on-one to sync up on our team, inevitably devolved into a relationship discussion, about our working relationship, “When you say this, I feel this…” Also inevitably, she’d take the opportunity to inform me of all the tasks she thought I should be doing that I wasn’t. So often she projected her own bad behavior on to me that I wondered if I were part of some big, secret, clearly unethical, crazy psychological experiment to see just how much fucked up-ness a person can stand. She’d cut me out of things, approach me when there was a problem, too late for me to do anything about it, then blame me for the outcome. On one hand she’d express to me how important it is to be unified in front of our team and then in meetings shut me down when I expressed an opinion, undermine me in front of the team and/or be argumentative.
We were in a freaking relationship except I didn’t get any benefits, just the nagging & the headaches. With her, what you did was never enough unless you were by her side like a lapdog ready to sit when she directed. And if you accomplished this feat it was on to the next thing you needed to be doing, with barely a rewarding pat on the head. Always harder, harder, harder; more more more.
That was my least favorite team. You’re on hyper-alert, always afraid to fail, to come up short despite trying your best, to catch a glimpse of that disapproving look on her face. Waiting for her to get on your case for not doing something else she expected you to do, but didn’t communicate to you, or perhaps did, but in a language that sounds like high-strungese. For her eventually to sacrifice you and tell an exec that she thinks you need to be handled – I know, because I was in a meeting with her and an exec where she did it to someone else. I knew before that I couldn’t trust her, but after that meeting, my guard went up all the way.
She is fantastic at managing up, she’s Teacher’s Pet, and just like Teacher’s Pet, several of her co-workers don’t like working with her. Her mentor is one of the execs and another exec promoted her. When her promotion was announced in a departmental meeting, you could see the unhappiness of others in the room – and it wasn’t jealousy. Another friend of mine got promoted (they were the only two recognized as such in our department) and many were thrilled for him, he truly deserved it and is a pleasure to work with.
The situation devolved to the point where as time went on I began to have physical anxiety reactions to her very presence.
THE WORST MEETING EVER
In March, when a new Exec decided to restructure teams, and largely left the execution of it in the hands of feckless middle management, the process fell apart and the train veered way off the track into a fiery ditch of confusion, misdirection and frustration. There was little support or guidance. 25+ people directionless. I raised my concerns about the flying debris of confusion to various levels of management, careful not to make anything personal: a broken process and unhappy employees who feel like the execs don’t care is bad for business. Ultimately, I want the people on my teams to be happy and be able to do their jobs effectively. Largely, nothing changed for weeks. I grew more frustrated and my feelings of helplessness ballooned. How am I supposed to work like this? Nothing changed that is, until May when the din of dysfunction grew so loud hearing it was unavoidable and three execs scheduled meetings with the impacted teams to attempt to solve the problems they created. I was the lucky recipient of not one, but two meeting invites.
The morning of the WORST MEETING EVER, I headed to the ubiquitous Starbucks for a latte with burnt coffee. As I waited for my filled coffee cup on which my name would undoubtedly be misspelled even though I spell it out, I suddenly felt weak. My heart began to flutter and then race. My face broke out in a sweat. I felt hot. I literally had to have a seat. I couldn’t hear what was taking place around me with the blood quickly filling and then pulsing in the vessels in my ears. I focused on my breathing and though shaky, composed myself enough to pick up the coffee for “Aesha” when called.
I later asked on Facebook:
What does an anxiety attack feel like?
It was the meetings. The idea of these meetings with the whole team and three execs, yet another meeting full of unproductive conflict and tension, filled me with overwhelming anxiety.
The first meeting scheduled for an hour took 1 hour and 45 minutes! Like a family argument that makes you wish you could be anywhere but in that very place, a hot, enclosed room, ripe with the energy of heavy emotions, hovering in the air like smog. Halfway through the meeting a teammate leaned over to me to whisper, “This is so.fucking.painful.” I spoke no more than a few sentences to give the team a chance to express their challenges. Voices raised, figurative fingers pointed, the words “we don’t feel valued, we have college degrees in this subject, listen to us” spoken with most of this directed at High Strung Girl. I felt bad for her, I’m not heartless. To have a few people share, in a room full of people, just how much you have made their work lives difficult must sting and badly. She seemed stunned and remained largely silent, her faithful sidekick coming to her defense. The execs who’d bought into the package she’s sold them, were also stunned. Her reaction surprised me – how could she not know – sadly, the stupefaction of the execs didn’t shock me. They’ve been highly uninvolved in what’s going on with their own people.
In that meeting I knew I wanted out of the company. I started to plot my exit.
Not too much later, I’d find out that a few of my team members had similar problems with High Strung Girl, including having one-on-one meetings with her to talk about their working relationships, and similarly notified their managers of their frustration and seemingly their managers failed to take action [I can’t say this with certainty, but they sure didn’t think so]. Oh, guess what – at least one of their managers is good friends with High Strung Girl. How do you like that? They also let me know they’d witnessed how disrespectfully I’d been treated and supported me. I needed the validation. I’d been feeling alone in the insanity.
A few weeks later, Fancy Startup gave me the boot, a few weeks shy of my (partial) stock option-vesting one year anniversary.
In May, a new TR joined the company. As part of his interview panel, I advocated for his hire. He’d also formerly worked at another tech company with the exec that promoted HSG and whom I am quite certain was instrumental in my being let go. He’s been asked to take over my role. But, wait, I thought the company was restructuring? Well, more power to him, I hope he enjoys inheriting the mess of problems and the remaining difficult people (some did get cut).
I cannot count the number of nights I awoke thinking about work, the hours I lay awake in bed stressing over bullshit related to office politics and a need to defend myself from the very event that occurred. So, I am not sad. I am thrilled that I don’t work there anymore. I predict it’s on it’s way toward an even more toxic environment before things begin to improve, if they improve.
I am good at what I do. It took my last job for me to really learn to believe that. My peer and manager feedback in April was positive and I received a merit increase. In my time there I led several brown bag workshops, mentored another person who is also in Thankless Role, though junior to me, coached others through hard times with their own teams, started a business book club and solicited agenda topics for a weekly town hall-like meeting in addition to doing my actual job. I was no slouch.
I’ll miss my kickball team friends, the lunch crew, my other team members in the Thankless Role, the autonomy I had – when I actually got to do my job I enjoyed it – my standing desk and my professional and reasonable boss. However, that chapter is over now.
For the first time in 11 years – since the last time I got laid off, this is the fourth time(!) – I have few responsibilities. I have no job to get up and go to. Nobody asking me for anything. No stress, no dirty looks, no anxiety. I just have to take care of myself, my bills and my felines. I’m going to enjoy this for at least a short while before I figure out what’s next. I have more time to dedicate to family and friends who’ve received less of my attention because I was in meetings all the time or too stressed and exhausted to handle long conversations after work. So far this week, I’ve spent hours fun Facetiming with my youngest sister, chatted with my mom, spent another couple of hours talking to my middle sister. I’ve chatted with friends on and offline. I’m reading a book for fun, I went to the park in the middle of the day, with the other people who have daytime freedom: the kids, the retired, the stay-at-home mommies and daddies and the nannies. I had sushi & beer for lunch with another laid off co-worker, Mighty, and we toasted to our freedom. It’s summer and 70 degrees in San Francisco, who wants to waste time being upset?
This is one year out of my hopefully long life. The job was meant as a stepping stone. I knew that from day one. I learned A LOT and met a handful of wonderful people with whom I will stay in contact; now is a great time to move on. Each time I’ve been laid off, it’s led to a positive, life-pivoting change and I welcome it.
I left on my desk two post-its written by teammates of mine during a team-building activity I led after the WORST MEETING EVER in an attempt to repair the damage, still without support or guidance. They read, “You are good at team-building” and “You are welcoming and friendly. You are the glue that keeps us together. :)”
Thank you for releasing me, Fancy Startup.