Yes indeed, here we are…
I was going to learn something that morning, and it didn’t look promising. I knew the news wasn’t going to be good once I had entered the room.
…at Saint Alfonzo’s pancake breakfast…
The whole get-together had started out nicely enough. Our division director had flown into town and wanted to meet with us. He’d done this before. We’d had lunch at an awesome Cajun restaurant the year prior. Beignets flowed like pancakes. This visit, breakfast was going to be served. I liked a fresh, hot breakfast of fluffy, slightly toasted pancakes and thick, crispy bacon. I liked our director—almost as much as breakfast. He is a nice, honest guy. In fact I liked the company and the people I worked with (still do!).
…I saw a handsome parish lady…
So I was hungry, happy, and ready to eat breakfast. Then, my colleagues and I walked into the conference room, shaking the hand of my director (expected)…aaaand the hand of the Human Resources (HR) director (who wasn’t expected). That didn’t bode well. A company doesn’t fly an HR director in, unannounced, to hand out good news.
Breakfast was ordered and eaten. Bacon and pancakes for me. These would be my symbols, my eating of the bad news under a load of syrup. But I didn’t enjoy it—it was hotel quality. Soggy pancakes and transparent bacon had taken away my symbolic victory.
During the eating of the limp but traitorous repast, half-hearted smiles disappeared as quickly as they appeared. Pleasant small talk, never really my thing, was attempted during the meal, only to trail off into some kind of invisible oubliette. There was a burning Damocles sword above all of our chairs, and I certainly didn’t feel like talking. Pancakes wouldn’t stop the sword when it fell–they had essentially turned back into batter when the syrup was applied. And the bacon was essentially salted air. I just wanted to know exactly what the bad news was, and how bad it was going to be. Who was the sword going to come down on?
…hurt me, hurt me, hurt me…
It turned out we were all in a very bad sort of lottery thing—only none of us knew we had bought tickets to be in it. After the table had been cleared and waiters left the room, we were told that two of us were to be put to the sword—I mean, let go. There were only four of us to begin with, so 50% of the company’s presence in our city was going to disappear.
I didn’t have any trouble figuring out who among us were to be “the disappeared.” Of the four of our crew, one was my supervisor. Another gifted colleague had skills with math, specialized software, and orbital analysis (figuring out satellite positions). He was smart without eating pancakes. I was the newest member to the team, and so I figured I would be gone in spite of just “rock-starring” a successful test for our customer in the prior month. The other colleague also figured he was part of the 50% who wouldn’t be there, using the same reasoning as mine.
We all had done very well in our annual reviews and we had done great work, but that didn’t help. Back in Damocles’ Lair (the traitorous bacon and pancake room) the division director and HR Director talked with us individually. During their talk with me, they were emphatic that both our company and our customer were cutting the contract because of money concerns, not concerns about performance.
The shadow of the sequester was looming and our government customer really didn’t want to spend money they were concerned they might not have (who knew the government was terrible with money?). I was given a little over a month—then I would not be in the company anymore. That’s right–though both directors tried finding other work for us in the company, the company was very small to begin with and no job was to be found.
…where I stole the mar-ga-rine…
They gave us the rest of the day off, just to process what was happening. I went home, to digest the news—and the pancakes. Then I started looking around for jobs.
Could my company have handled this scenario better? Probably, but I am not so sure. News like this is as difficult to hand out as it is for hotels to cook awesome bacon and pancakes. I know my supervisor was surprised as much as I was that morning. I will not complain about the company’s actions. They did well enough. I think they just were as shocked as we were the government customer couldn’t afford half of the team for the rest of the term.
It certainly showed me how insubstantial even signed contracts can be, especially concerning government and money. That supposedly most secure of “sure things” for contractors can disappear into the uncertainty that is sequestration’s maw—just like a pile of bacon and pancakes disappeared into mine.
There’s really no easy way to cut half of an office, or to cut anyone. Today’s contracting environment has certainly given more offices, and more managers, the opportunity to test new scenarios. An off-site is fairly common – a ‘neutral’ location in case things don’t go so well. At the end of the day any surprise job transition is probably best served with a big helping of honesty, and a short wait.
Lyrics come from Frank Zappa’s classic “Saint Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast” track within the classic album, “apostrophe (‘).”