I’ve been laid off six times and learned a few things. For instance, getting laid off happens. When I was younger, I thought jobs were strictly binary situations, you were either hired or fired. I imagined my worst-case career scenario looked like my boss screaming, “You’re fired!” but there was a third option that was just as unpleasant. And that’s losing your job because some beancounter said so.
I look forward to being laid off by A.I. soon—lucky number seven.
1. My first layoff was deeply embarrassing, but then I realized I’m not special
I didn’t tell my parents I had been laid off when it happened. I lied to them for weeks. I didn’t know how to explain what happened because I didn’t understand it. Getting shitcanned is simple: you screwed up, adios. A layoff is sudden, violent in a way, out of nowhere. It just never occurred to me that sometimes your number is up. I also didn’t know I was one of a few thousand who would be sacked that month. I was nothing special. My first layoff was short, sweet, and impersonal. I was a nobody, a fact that was confirmed in the windowless room where they told me I would be receiving one final paycheck. The company was preemptively paranoid that I would try to lash out, so my computer was locked while I signed a stack of documents, and my email was nuked. A bored-looking security guard escorted me to my desk so that I could collect my mug. For a moment, I felt flattered, as if I were some supervillain, but, no, they treated everyone they laid off like an annoying teen shoplifter. As I was hurried out of the building, I saw my company’s CEO loping back to his office like a satisfied jungle cat. He worked in Boston most of the time. He must have been in town to see a Broadway show.
2. The second layoff sucks as much as the first, but you will get used to the pain
I thought being laid off was like being struck by lightning—sudden, and random, and rare. But it turns out it’s possible to be laid off multiple times throughout a career. This is especially true if you work in an industry vulnerable to technological disruption, market forces, and trends. I was more shocked the second time I received an unexpected call from HR to meet them in a meeting room on another floor. The second time I was laid off was an out-of-body experience. I stepped out of my body like a foot sliding out of a slipper and watched my boss perform a short, rehearsed speech about all the company’s challenges, and then he just stopped talking abruptly. I watched him shake my hand and leave, and then the HR person finished his speech without missing a beat: the company is facing challenges, and you’re laid off. She said those words before I could blissfully float away, leaving the rest of me behind, a pile of meat on a chair. I had planned on swimming through the ceiling and walls and into the clouds forever, but gravity took over, and I was back, licking my dry, cracked lips. I could feel the skin hanging off my skull, and my brain throbbed with chemicals screaming, “RUN.” I did not run. I accepted my fate. I thought it was a rehearsal for death. That layoff hurt, just like the first time. And the third one stung, too. They all do, and you get used to it. You get used to knowing it will hurt, maybe even worse, than the last time.
3. It is okay if you get emotional during your layoff, but wait to cry in the stairwell if you can
There are moments when you can’t control your emotions, and the tears pour forth whether you like it or not. This tends to happen when things change unexpectedly. I’ve gotten angry when laid off before, which I regret. I’ve also become scared sitting across from an HR employee explaining the terms of my non-disclosure agreement. But then there was the one time I was able to collect myself. I inhaled and exhaled deeply and smiled. It was a phony smile, but it was also relaxed, resigned. I knew what was happening. I was a veteran, after all. This wasn’t my first rodeo? I knew the process: what’s the severance? Where do I sign? Is this the separation agreement? The pen I was handed didn’t have enough ink for me to scrawl my initials on this and that and to scribble my name here and there, and I made a joke that was like, “well, hopefully, with the money they’re saving laying me off, the company can buy new pens!” I laughed, and the HR person awkwardly chuckled. I thanked her for her time and wished her the best of luck. I may have sold that too hard. I said “best of luck” aggressively, and if I had worn a top hat, I definitely would have doffed it and ended the conversation with a firm “good day.” It felt good to exert some control over a process I had no control over, I was like a piece of trash cheerfully saying, “Oh, no, please allow me to throw myself away.” I walked past the elevator and took the steps, and on the 27th floor, I sat on the steps and sobbed.
4. Laying my staff off was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but laying myself off was easy
There is no ideal way to tell someone they’re being laid off. It is a dull but traumatic event. My advice to anyone who must deliver this news — executives, middle managers, drones — is to be direct and not make excuses. I have been laid off by a visibly nervous HR manager who tried to feel my pain, and you know what? She couldn’t because she wasn’t being laid off. It is best to pretend you’re a plant, like a ficus tree, a piece of corporate furniture with one sole purpose, and that’s to be a stainless steel asshole. Yes, that’s quite a mixed metaphor. But I know what I’m talking about. I once had an excellent idea, and I was given company money to turn that daydream into a reality, and I ended up spending too much company money. It was a wonderful idea, though. I was given two choices: lay everyone off and then lay myself off. I’m sorry, that’s one choice. I was given one choice, and I did my job. I looked my subordinates in the eye and told them they were getting six weeks of severance and extended healthcare benefits. One blamed the project’s failure on my leadership, another asked me what I should tell their kid. I did not answer them. I listened. Later that week, I turned the lights off on my job and locked the door behind me. That part was easy. It was penpoints scratching ink into paper. No ceremony. I didn’t even sit. I leaned over the papers, did what I needed to do, and escorted myself to the elevator—done and done.
5. I knew the moment I got a sudden, weird calendar invite that I was doomed, but I was still surprised
Joe Pesci’s gangster character is shot in the back of the head by his crime family members in Martin Scorcese’s mob movie Goodfellas. He doesn’t see the hit coming. This is also the way HR professionals are trained to lay off employees. I think. They walk you into a windowless room with no birthday cake, and then BANG! I refused to see the clues once it happened, but they were there, and I only noticed them on the subway home in the middle of a workday. I call that the “final commute.” The trains are usually less crowded, and everyone is drunk or unemployed. I sat there, and I saw it all clearly, in hindsight. My boss had spent our last 1:1 laughing weakly at my lazy attempts at being charming. The previous month, I returned from lunch to find my team at an off-site. I kept asking for next year’s budget, but I was told, again and again, it was coming, and that wasn’t a lie, “it” was coming, but it wasn’t what I wanted. The lesson here isn’t to trust your instincts, by the way. No. People are weird at work, to begin with. The politics of the office are the same politics of a debauched royal court, a neverending struggle for fun and prizes and dental. A royal court is all smiles and whispers, and occasionally, a cup of wine is poisoned. Offices are full of backstabbers, front stabbers, and coworkers who will eventually stab themselves in the face. No, the lesson here is that no one is indispensable.
6. The first thing you should do when you get laid off is to eat a giant hot fudge sundae, extra sloppy
Let me rewrite this lesson: the first thing you should do after you get laid off is go for a brisk walk — get those steps in — and then, if you can, apply for unemployment. Do that as soon as you can. The wheels of the state turn slowly unless you owe taxes. So go for a walk and fill your lungs with air, rude winter air or hot, humid air; it doesn’t matter. If it’s raining, try walking a few blocks without an umbrella. But walk, move, and command your molecules to vibrate ever forward. And I’m serious about unemployment: I once thought going on the dole was beneath me. It wasn’t, of course. That money is yours, and it’s the very least society can do for a person who is willing and able to work. It takes time to get paid, so the sooner, the better. After that, though, I recommend eating a hot fudge sundae or an equivalent sugar bomb. I’m talking about multiple ice cream scoops covered in sprinkles, candy toppings, hot fudge, and whipped cream. Oh, and nuts. I love nuts on a sundae. I would make sure your order is sloppy as hell. Do you like bananas? When was the last time you had a banana split? They’re not in fashion, but I’d like to see them make a comeback. The last time I was laid off, I went to a diner and asked for a sundae with extra hot fudge and walnuts. I knew I‘d have to tighten my belt immediately, but I heeded the words of the ancient philosophers, and I treated myself. Layoffs are cruel. There are worst things that can happen, sure, but that’s not the point. A layoff can be an opportunity to practice kindness to you and yours. Breathe. It is good to be alive, to love, and to dream. Take a moment to enjoy all the good stuff. Eat something tasty. Go to a movie, a big-budget adventure, or a comedy. Call an old friend. Text your mom a funny GIF. Meet up with the gang. Or go home and take a long hot bath and get a good night’s rest. The next morning? Eat pancakes. Go for a jog. Get some endorphins, they’re free. Here’s an idea: sit in a park. Hold off on updating your resume. Pet a dog. Work is not life.
“100% Human-Generated Content” is a new rambly column I’m writing. If you liked it, subscribe to my newsletter. If you didn’t, subscribe anyway, and let’s continue this budding relationship where I write about my thoughts, and you hate me. XO.