After highlighting the good and bad sides of your typical Canadian work environment, I’d like to show you a third side—an ugly one that I discovered in the last two positions I held in the corporate world.
I worked in the private sector where the term “permanent employee” doesn’t mean much. When employers need you, you get to work. When business slows down or if you aren’t a good fit for the position, employers usually cut your hours—this is a passive-aggressive way of telling people to start looking for another job, and when you get the hint, it usually works well without drama. For instance, when I worked as a French teacher, a full schedule was about 30 hours a week, i.e. two three-hour long classes per day, five days a week. Business was slower during summertime when a lot of students took time off so we would typically work part-time or have a full day off during the work week. But if you started being scheduled to work, let’s say, Monday morning, Wednesday afternoon and Friday afternoon, you knew that you were no longer in the school’s good book.
While I hated this passive-aggressive with of dealing with employees, it was still better than North American-style layoffs in the corporate world.
In both of my last positions in the public sector—first at the House of Commons and then in a Crown corporation—times were tough because of the global economic downturn.
Cuts were unavoidable. It sucks but it happens.
What I found shocking is the way the cuts were made.
For instance, in my last position, I was collaborating with an employee who had been working in her position for over ten years—let’s call her Mrs. Smith. That morning, we just had a meeting together to start a new project and hire a freelancer. I had brought the freelancer in and Mrs. Smith was happy with my pick and with the way things were going—she had welcomed some help as she was very busy and couldn’t handle the workload by herself.
Early in the afternoon, Mrs. Smith was called for a meeting with our director. I saw her walking to the boardroom with her notebook under her arm.
A couple of hours later, she hadn’t returned to her desk. Soon, the news was making rounds that Mrs. Smith had been let go, and so had a few other employees in other departments. An email from our director confirmed the news a few minutes later.
And this is the ugliest part. Mrs. Smith had absolutely no idea that her ten-year-long career was going to end that day. She was told she was being let go because of budget cuts during the meeting with the director. She wasn’t allowed to go back to her desk and gather her stuff. She had to surrender her work phone and building pass immediately and was escorted to the parking lot by security guards. One of her co-workers was called to bring her purse, jacket and personal items in a box.
And she was left all alone crying in the parking lot, wondering what the hell she had done to be treated like a criminal.
Our director was a nice person—he had been told by his director to let her go and he had no choice. I can understand that and I don’t blame him. Cuts happen, it sucks.
What I find shocking is the way people are being terminated.
Being laid off without a warning. Being escorted off the premises by security, like a criminal. Being asked to surrender your keys, phone, and employee ID on the spot, as you are still processing the news that you no longer have a job. Not being able to say goodbye to anyone, to finish the email you had been drafting before the meeting. Having to call a friend at work to bring you your personal items in a box. Having to come back late at night, escorted, to finish cleaning off your desk.
The risk of sabotage, theft or other damage (in revenge) is deemed high enough to make it worthwhile. But why make layoffs so degrading, so vile? This is not a way to treat employees who have been on the job for years, decades even.
And that’s for “amicable” layoffs. Gee, I don’t even want to know how it’s done with people who are being fired.
The aftermath of a layoff is bad for employees on the job too. People get paranoid and wonder who will be next. Productivity drops if people start looking for another job. There is a lot of distrust and resentment toward the company. In the case of Mrs. Smith, we couldn’t reassign her workload for a while because we didn’t have access to her emails and nobody knew the exact stage of the various projects she was working on. Human resources actually had the nerve to call Mrs. Smith at home to ask her for help—she refused and she was damn right.
And Mrs. Smith isn’t the only person I’ve seen being laid off. It happened time and time again in the past couple of years. I’ve seen people being escorted out, I’ve seen carton boxes filled with personal effects being brought off the premises, I’ve seen people crying in the parking lot and co-workers speculating on what had happened.
Employees will never embrace budget cuts but they can understand them, and most would go quietly and with some dignity.
But they aren’t given the chance, and the degrading treatment they are subjected to is certainly the ugliest side of the North American work environment.