Bonnie Wilkins Overcott, 8/3/2015
Current Occupation: Blogger and Writer My blog is workinginthe21stcentury.com and compiles resources and news items, and I write book reviews and editorials about work, careers, pay and benefits, and other 21st century employment issues.
Former Occupation: Assistant Vice President, Diversified Business Credit, Inc. I was the office manager. My responsibilities included IT manager, HR director, facilities manager, purchasing manager, training and supervision and did anything else that needed to be done for this small, but very profitable subsidiary of a bank holding company.
Contact Information: I grew up on a farm and worked since I could walk. I earned a BA in Labor Studies and Communications at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. My first job was at the Sunlight Bakery in Milaca, MN during high school. I worked at an advertising agency as a time buyer, worked in disaster services at the American Red Cross,and spent 25 years in commercial lending. During the great recession I worked temporary jobs until one employer hired me permanently. Besides writing and researching, I enjoy gardening, quilting, photography, reading, traveling and spending time with family, our two cats and friends.
Butcher’s paper covered the window from the hallway into the conference room Monday morning. I noticed it as I passed by on the way to my cubicle on the 34th floor of the corporate headquarters of my employer, Sel-Mor Insurance, Inc. The white opaque paper blocked the view into the conference room. There was no one to ask, “What’s with the papered-over window,” because I started work earlier than my co-workers.” Making a mental snapshot, I headed towards my desk, pre-occupied with the mountain of email waiting for responses.
Reflecting back, perhaps I should have been more concerned. Papering the conference room window was a little odd, but the mind does such a good job of exculpating warning signals. Interviews, performance reviews, strategy sessions and other internal corporate events seemed like possible explanations. None of them required butcher’s paper before, but creativity abounded among the hundreds of young, energetic and enthusiastic employees at Sel-Mor.
Once I found Jean White’s cubicle with the exotic beach calendar, I turned down the row of taupe cubicles that included mine. The calendar was my landmark for finding my cube. The blandness of the sea of cubicles encouraged Sel-Mor’s employees to show off their creativity while decorating the monotonous, taupe fabric walls of the cubes. Plants, collectibles, photos of their children, vacations and pets were artfully arranged. There was a Star Wars-themed cube. Awards received and certificates of accomplishment were displayed. A few decorated for every holiday including stringing lights up to make their space festive. One of my co-workers kept his fish at work, and I stopped each morning to pet the fish’s head as he came to the surface of the water to greet me. My cubicle was festooned with a couple of plants, because I read they purified the air of the International Space Station, photos of my dog in cute poses, and a small wall calendar with pleasant photographs. This year it was butterflies.
My supervisor at Sel-Mor, Mike Young, was a studious-looking, younger man with an accountant’s demeanor. He hired me to work on a new insurance product. After two years, I supervised four people and concentrated on communications, training and trouble-shooting, my bailiwick. Mike was good at analyzing the skills of his staff. He delegated new responsibilities to his employees as they grew into their positions. His staff was loyal to him and that loyalty extended to Sel-Mor.
At 7:15 a.m., like every other week-day morning, I hung up my coat, took my salad from my tote and stashed it in the refrigerator in the lunch room down the hall. I pulled my cell phone from the pocket in the front of my purse, set it under one of my monitors, put the purse into a cabinet and settled into my chair. All phone calls at Sel-Mor are recorded to insure great customer service and provide documentation for legal purposes. Also, any conversation could be heard by everyone around me, even if they tried not paying attention. My husband and I texted each other during the day, if need be.
I logged onto my computer and checked my emails. Many of them required some research, a quick response or other follow up. I flagged those needing immediate attention and began my day. Gradually the rest of the staff filtered into their cubes. Sel-Mor, a progressive company, offered most of their employees flexible hours plus a day a week when we could work at home. I liked starting early and leaving early.
Around 8:30 a.m., Sherise Meyer appeared at the side of my cubicle. She filled in for Mike, our supervisor, when he was out or unavailable. Sherise is a tiny young woman, professional when need be, but also a bit of a mother hen. She was the benevolent one in the department often moderating the edicts that come through our department’s vice president and Mike. She was the one who texted us at home the morning of a snow storm telling us not to risk our lives on the icy roads, but work from home, unless we had a meeting that couldn’t be rescheduled. Sherise has piercing, dark-brown eyes, which miss nothing and twinkle when she is plotting. Today, though, her eyes are filled with tears and her eyelids are red.
She asked me to immediately read the newest email from the CEO and meet with the rest of our staff at her desk in ten minutes. She quickly moved on while I pulled up my email and opened the newest one from Dave Carter, our CEO. My heart was pounding. I felt a sense of dread and my hands were slightly shaking. I feared the announcement of someone’s death or terminal illness or something else equally as horrific.
“To our valued staff: Due to declining revenues, heightened competition, and the poor economic conditions nationwide, management deemed the only recourse available is to reduce the headquarters workforce by 10%.” Of course, “this was an extremely difficult choice to make because all employees are highly valued and your contributions appreciated. This needs to be done to make the company competitive, reduce costs and avoid further cuts in the future. The reduction will take place immediately. Please stay at your desk and continue working unless you are called into one of the conference rooms.”
I made my way to Sherise’s desk where the others in my department were gathering. Once everyone in the office that day was there, Sherise announced that Mike had been let go effective today. He was notified at home before work this morning. I was stunned. Mike was a loyal employee and a great supervisor. I could get an idea at 7 p.m. on a Thursday night, email him and by 7:15 p.m. receive a response. He was dedicated to Sel-Mor.
Sherise explained that those of us chosen for termination would be taken by an HR representative into the conference room. Sherise asked us to keep up with our work while the rest of the terminations were being processed. She assured us that neither Mike nor she got advance notice of the down-sizing.
I understand now how a cow feels when it’s hit in the head to stun her before she is slaughtered and carved up into pieces. Something bad just occurred, but the ramifications are unknown. So I kept plodding in the direction I’m being herded trying to be cooperative. In the recesses of my mind, something triggered the sense I should run. But it seemed futile to attempt to escape and to where?
Nothing could be done to inoculate against the doom seeping through our offices. Heads were kept down appearing intent on work, but every eye tracked the intruders in the hallway to see who they were hunting. My heartbeat sped up and blood pressure rose countless times until I had a severe headache. There was no panic room to flee to for safety. We all felt a collective sense of relief when our row of cubicles was passed by, then horror when we saw who the victim was.
Suddenly a grim-faced, navy-suited woman, who normally handled benefits, turned into the aisle leading to my workstation. I believe my heart stopped and I quit breathing. After Sherise’s announcement, I returned to my desk and slipped the paperweight my Mother gave me when I got my first full-time, permanent job after graduation into my purse. I removed a pair of shoes from a file drawer, stuffed them into my tote along with my iPod, phone and a couple of other personal items. I set them on the back of my workspace and laid my coat over them intending to take it all with me when I was called. Now it was my turn. Before the apparition in dark blue reached my desk, she stopped and sort of nodded at Mark Carlson. Mark’s face was ashen when he rose up and followed her to the conference room.
Mark was a ten-year veteran at Sel-Mor, and the rest of us relied on his knowledge of the history and background of the products we handled. In fact, many people at Sel-Mor called to glean information from him. Later I wondered whether his willingness to help others and share his knowledge reduced his productivity. It was a sickening experience to see him approached and watch the look of panic and doom appear on his face. Mark was stoic on the way out, but I heard a couple of stifled sobs from my co-workers.
While Mark was in the conference room a security guard appeared at his desk with Sherise. The shock I experienced when I noticed the guard was wearing a holster and gun was equivalent to being told I had a life-threatening disease. Regular security guards in the building were not armed with guns. I was forced to accept the deadly reality of the day. They gathered together his coat, attaché case and phone. Drawers and files were searched for any valuables or car or house keys. An inventory sheet was completed by the guard and signed by Sherise.
One by one, the targeted employees were led to the designated conference rooms on each of the ten floors that Sel-Mor occupied. A management spokesperson told them their employment was terminated as of now. The human resources representative explained the ramifications and asked them to sign papers ending all benefits except health insurance which must be paid in full from now on, if they wanted to continue through COBRA. A final check would be deposited into their checking accounts containing an extra week’s pay for each year of employment. In exchange for the severance they had to sign a statement foregoing unemployment insurance for the number of weeks the severance covered.
At the end of the conversation, their key card was confiscated. It was no longer active in the security computer system anyway. The uniformed guard appeared and handed the now former employee the items collected from their work-station. The stunned person was escorted to the elevator and down to the main floor, never again to enter the offices and wander through the hallways so familiar to them. Other personal items like photos, calendars, books and plants were to be shipped to their home.
After a couple of hours, Sherise appeared in our aisle again and told us it was over. She said all those of us remaining were safe. We wouldn’t lose our jobs. There was another email from HR for us to read. I went to my inbox and opened it. HR stressed the need to keep up productivity and not allow the sudden absence of co-workers, which seemed to me as though they were abducted by aliens, disrupt the work needing to be done. I still worked for a wonderful organization and needed to make effective and wise use of my time for the benefit of the corporation and its customers. Management would appreciate receiving feedback, through HR, suggesting ways to streamline processes, save money or identifying redundant positions or people who might not be as productive as they need to be in these trying times.
No audible wailing could be heard throughout the building. No sudden cracks appeared in the walls as the solid concrete beneath our feet shifted. Lightening didn’t strike. There was a virtual sense of mourning as people walked the halls in a daze, some in tears, some with red, puffy eyes and some with jaws set in a grimace.
A bird can’t soar forever. Perhaps Sel-Mor went overboard in its hiring and spending during the boom times. Certainly the sudden downturn of the economy that caused such a devastating effect on them couldn’t be predicted, or they wouldn’t have completely remodeled and refurnished the executive offices. The week long annual planning meeting for management and the board of directors would be scaled back rather than scheduled at the Chateau Eza in Eze, France, with special events planned daily for spouses and evening transportation to Monte Carlo. They would scratch handing out those ice scrapers, embossed legal pad holders and metallic blue USB thumb drives, with the company logo on them, like candy and not encourage us to use them for stocking stuffers for our family and friends.
Reality settled in during the week. Like an efficient surgical procedure, midlevel managers and employees with tenure were excised. The counselors hired by Sel-Mor to talk to employees needing mental health care stopped coming into the offices. I don’t think anyone stopped in to talk to them. When they’re really needed is after the shock is over and those remaining start feeling survivor’s guilt and depression. No list of terminated employees was provided, so we kept discovering missing co-workers weeks afterward. I realized I’m safe, but not Jayson, whose wife gave birth to their second baby last month. Not Maryanne, the single mom down the hall, who, after scrimping and saving for years, put a down payment on her first house. Nor Sandy who drained her savings account to send her aging parents on a cruise before their health began to fail. No sense of relief or heightened value developed when the carnage ended.
Then anger took hold. I fell into the trap of investing myself into a job and the company employing me forgetting the cardinal rule: We were “human resources.” We were another expense on the balance sheet. Any degree of trust in the smiling faces of top management dissolved.
Rumors started to fly. The ugliest one was that employees with performance problems were the first on the excision list. The down-sizing was a good excuse to rid the company of undesirable employees. Demographics partly determined who was retained so as not to run afoul of federal and state laws. Age, race, national origin, and sex were weighed, not talent or skills or tenure.
A couple of days later, Human Resources sent an email announcing meetings for all staff members to discuss the events of the week, ask management any lingering questions, and hear how Sel-Mor planned to position itself for the future. Any employees out of the office would receive a link so they could view the meeting’s video when they returned to the office or they were given a number to call in, listen to the meeting and ask questions in real time.
None of Sel-Mor’s top management attended the meeting. The Vice President of HR and the Vice President of our department represented management. Both of them, Nancy Brown the veteran HR VP, and Chuck Burton, the recently appointed VP, looked grim and tired. They reiterated the gist of the emails sent the day of the downsizing. A PowerPoint presentation showed us the savings realized through the reorganization and what management planned to do to position us for a more competitive market in the future. I listened, and absent any other data, made the assumption the staff reduction was the only option given the current economic conditions. After all, it was happening all across the country.
They asked for questions. Marlene raised her hand. Marlene was the organizer in the office. She was a short and somewhat stocky woman with a face that crinkled with kindness when she talked. Marlene organized the Walk-a-Thons, the collections to help with medical bills for staff members who had premature babies or needed surgery not fully covered by insurance, and collected items needed by local animal shelters. Marlene completed her MBA while working at Sel-Mor and was aware that there are alternatives to lay-offs. Marlene asked if work-sharing or across-the-board salary cuts were considered. She still appeared emotionally affected by the week’s events.
Work-sharing is accomplished by cutting everyone down to, for example, a four day work week, every other week, thus reducing everyone’s pay but maintaining benefits. The goal is to keep talented, trained employees, retain trust and sense of worth, and avoid the trauma of a lay-off. It’s like an investment in the future. It’s a statement that things will improve and when they do, we want our team intact. It's a “we’re all in this together” action. Nancy and Chuck’s heads nodded, “no,” alternatives were not considered then called on someone else. Marlene teared up and reached for a tissue from her bag. My reaction was, “why not?” but I didn’t vocalize it.
Up until then it never occurred to me there were viable options to the brutal slaughter that just occurred. Sel-Mor never turned to their staff to help with the tough decisions or options to lay-offs. I felt we were treated like furniture and not valued employees with the wide range of problem-solving skills and creative thinking we were constantly told Sel-Mor valued in us. It was a helpless sensation. We were like pawns on a chessboard being moved around by the will of a superior force, which had a strategy we weren’t allowed to know, rather than an integral part of a team. The rest of the question and answer session became a blur as I found myself back on the roller coaster of emotions I’d been going through all week.
Nancy and Chuck didn’t give us any new insights. If they knew more, they weren’t authorized to share details. The meeting ended. Later I would think back and wonder if they weren’t there to identify trouble-makers. Marlene was one. The next week her cube was stripped bare and anytime a passer-by noticed and looked at one of her former co-workers quizzically; they drew their pointer finger across their neck. A couple of days later, the HR Vice President, Nancy Brown, was terminated. After some time an enthusiastic, bubbly woman half her age was hired. She was given the title “Assistant Vice President of Human Resources” even though she reported to the Treasurer and seemed to do the same things Nancy did.
Management reminded us over and over to keep our production up, retain positivity for the sake of Sel-Mor’s customers and not foster negativity in our departments among our co-workers. We were a valued part of the team and the company was dependent upon us to survive the economic downturn. That was the official message. The news of the Board of Directors awarding our CEO a 50% increase in salary as a reward for cutting costs was announced at the end of the fiscal year.