Dec 03


I just noticed that it’s December 3, which means that exactly thirty years ago, I was laid off by Millidyne Inc., my employer at the time. I’ve been laid off numerous times in my career (it’s just a fact of life for technical writers), but this particular layoff stands out in my mind because it holds the record for short notice — just three hours.

Millidyne was a small startup company in northern Raleigh, and I had been working there for a year. I had actually landed the job by responding to a Help Wanted ad in the newspaper, the only time that has ever happened to me. (In 1989, the Internet as we know it didn’t exist, and neither did job-hunting online. So reading the classified ads was actually useful.) During that year, I was the only full-time technical writer.

I was doing my work on an IBM PC running DOS, probably version 4.01. (Windows 3.0, the first version of Windows to achieve significant sales in the business market, wasn’t released until halfway through 1990.) It was my first job using a desktop publishing application (Ventura Publisher), and while I had used laser printers in previous jobs, they had always been shared with many other users. This was the first time I had a dedicated laser printer connected to my office computer. And since I was the sole custodian of it, I was also responsible for its care and feeding. I learned how to clear paper jams and replace toner cartridges (which involved ordering more cartridges and disposing of the used ones).

Like many small startup companies, Millidyne fell on hard times financially, and this led to a layoff of about 40% of the employees on December 3, 1990. At 9:00 a.m., every employee was handed a manila envelope by their manager. When you opened it, you found a letter inside. Some employees got a letter telling them that their jobs were being eliminated. The others got a letter announcing the downsizing of the company. I was in the first group, of course.

The laid-off employees were asked to leave the premises by noon — three hours notice.

I was asked to bundle up all of the documents I was working on and transfer them to my boss, who would have to take over the technical writing work. I don’t remember exactly what that entailed, but it probably involved handing him a stack of 5.25″ floppy disks, because that’s what we were using at that time. I do recall that three hours wasn’t enough time to get it done. Fortunately, they didn’t throw me out of the building at noon. I was allowed to remain long enough to complete the handoff process, which took until about 4:00 p.m.

Early December is a lousy time to lose your job. For my family, it wasn’t so bad, because Marie was still employed. We were able to pay our bills while I hunted for another job, and we had a more or less normal Christmas. But it was tough for some of my coworkers. Millidyne had planned to hold an offsite Christmas party for the employees. A committee of my coworkers had been planning it for months, arranging the location, the catering, the entertainment, and so forth. After the downsizing was announced, the party was canceled.

The announcement caught us by surprise, but of course it hadn’t happened suddenly. A layoff of that magnitude takes weeks or even months of planning. I don’t know why the executives of the company chose to keep the whole thing a secret until the last minute, but they knew the Christmas party would never happen. In order to keep the secret, they let the committee members carry on planning it until the morning of December 3, and then pulled the rug out from under them.

That seems cold to me. I guess they felt it was the best way to break the news, but I’m glad I didn’t have to help keep that secret.

As I recall, I was able to find another job pretty quickly in early 1991. I think that’s when I went back to IBM for my second term as an 18-month contractor. More than half of my career has been contract work, and one of the advantages of a contractor’s life is that you usually know about when your contract will end, and you can plan for it. (Not always. My job at Alcatel around the turn of the century was open-ended. It was technically a one-year contract, but they kept renewing it year after year . . . until they didn’t. Still, they kept me employed for five years, and I’m grateful for that.)

Most of the times I’ve been laid off, I was given a week or two of advance notice. Sometimes it’s been less than that; when Alcatel laid off my whole team, we had until the end of the day to clear out. Other times it’s been more; in 2002, IBM laid off a bunch of employees, and it gave us two months notice. But thirty years later, the three-hour notice I got from Millidyne is still the shortest.

It’s a very bad sign when a company lays off 40% of its people in one day. I figured that Millidyne was in deep financial trouble and would not last much longer. And I’m afraid that I was right. A year or two later, I ran into my ex-boss at a restaurant, and he told me that the company was gone.

Ironically, that same ex-boss had received the longest notice of a layoff that I have ever heard of. He had previously been a college professor, teaching courses for a specific degree program. The college eventually decided to eliminate that degree, which meant that his services would no longer be required. But although no new students would be allowed to enter that degree program, the ones already in it would be permitted to complete it. And some of them were freshmen. His teaching position would not be eliminated until the last of those students graduated. So he was given four years notice that he would lose his job.

I’m not sure I would want to know that far in advance.