The American View: Never Save the Best for Last

If your company is going to do core process thing right, make it the New-Hire On-Boarding process. Set your workers up for success from the beginning, and they’ll be more likely to contribute to a positive, productive culture.

When I joined the staff of Yahoo!’s Dallas operation in September of 2000, my ‘orientation’ consisted solely of a one-hour session in a private-office-turned-conference room. Four of us new hires sat shoulder-to-shoulder, politely watching a clueless HR associate play a videotape of … Yahoo!’s most recent television adverts. We learned how to perform the Yahoo! Yodel and that was pretty much it. There was no discussion about policies, corporate culture, current issues, behavior standards, our products, our competitors, or anything of substance. Our ‘orientation’ was useless. Nothing that I learned on that first day had any bearing at all on howI spent the rest of my time with the company … which wasn’t very long.

It’s possible that our orientation was useless because the HR folks already knew that the entire Dallas site was scheduled to be dissolved six months later. Why waste time integrating new hires into the company culture when there wouldn’t be a company (or, at least, a field site) left in less than a year? Then again, the HR folks might not have known. Looking back at the clues that local management had dropped that autumn, I’m inclined to suspect that no one knew about the pending layoffs that early. For one thing, the site leaders were in the process of planning a new office building across the street. That suggests that most people still thought we were viable.

Personally, I’d wager that most of the Dallas team didn’t know that we were living under a virtual death sentence until that December. During an all-hands quarterly update webcast, Misters Filo and Yang made a cryptic statement that they would ‘never consider’ layoffs to help stem the red ink in Yahoo!’s ledgers because ‘layoffs aren’t part of our culture.’ Riiiiiiiiiight.

Prior to that, my boss and I had spent the autumn and early winter developing a new consulting services line to reduce the friction that came with trying to live-cast video content into a 1990s corporate network. Our manager in Engineering Services and his manager in Special Projects had grilled us about how we planned to make money. Even though they had no clue how consulting worked, they wanted extensive details on how we planned to increase the department’s revenue; everyone was obsessed with profits. We explained the pricing models, service delivery plans, and margin-per-job and our bosses went away happy. If everything went well, our consulting service would be the most profitable (per-person) service sold out of Dallas.

Stock grants and private helicopters for everyone! Yee-HAW!  

On 22nd January 2001, my team launched Yahoo! Broadcast’s new ‘Webcast Infrastructure Consulting’ services line. The sales team took note, and went wild selling our services as a high-value add-on to the normal suite of pre-paid webcast packages. By early February, our roster was full of new gigs. I did some field work for IBM headquarters in New York. My boss did some pre-sales work in Dallas. We invoiced our clients and the money started coming in. Our team made our annual salaries back in our first month of delivery with lots of dosh left over.

Everything was looking rosy … if you didn’t look too close at the company’s books. We’d paid attention to the founders’ slip during the fateful December all-hands, and were keeping a weather eye on company politics. We suspected that drastic action was coming; just a matter of when. Yahoo! overall was hemorrhaging money because their default ‘how many banner adds do you want to buy this week’ sales strategy was bombing in the market. The Dot Com bubble was collapsing and the executives running the company seemed to be in complete denial.

While our numbers were great, we understood how “right-sizing” worked. We’d worked out that a significant chunk of the company was about to get the axe in order to lower costs and bolster the company’s plummeting stock price. We just didn’t know who was going to get sacked.

All told, our consulting practice didn’t last an entire quarter. We made it 80 days from cradle to grave. We’d booked $3,200,000 and had already delivered something like $350,000 in revenue when the axe came down for two-thirds of the Dallas office on 11th April 2001. Be warned, young folks new to the corporate world: success is no protection from layoffs. Also, the farther you are from the corporate headquarters, the more likely you are to be made redundant.

Always remember that you are an expendable asset. A stepping stone for some executive’s nephew to jettison on the climb to another million quid bonus. All of that ‘we’re more of a family than a company’ talk was malarkey.

What stayed with me the most from the dissolution of the Dallas office was how remarkably organized the end of our employment was compared to the beginning. Whereas new hire orientation had been a feeble, unfocused, waste of time, Yahoo!’s mass-termination process was structured, efficient, planned, and meticulously detailed. I was impressed.

The morning of the layoffs, private armed security guards had locked down the facility. Everyone was forced to enter through the food delivery door. We patted down and had our bags checked for weapons. The managers had clearly been briefed about the layoffs the night before, because they were all mysteriously present for duty far earlier than their usual start times.

One by one, we were escorted to one of several parallel conference rooms where HR staff flown in from California gave us our termination letters and a well-organized package of forms, letters, and brochures that described all of the optional benefits we were entitled to. I noticed that the HR people had two sets of exit paperwork: one for what we’d get if we wanted to sue the company over our dismissal, and a second package that featured a significantly better cash offer if we waved our right to sue. [1]

The speeches were prepared and rehearsed. The paperwork was sorted and right to the last detail. The process was streamlined and efficient. I honestly admired how well the layoffs were handled, and told the HR team that on my way out the door. They were shocked (and more than a little grateful) to have someone treat the event professionally (rather than emotionally). My ‘appointment’ lasted maybe ten minutes, and then I was out the door and free to enjoy a leisurely brunch at the café across the street.

The rest of my section trickled in one by one, each carrying their termination package and maybe a small box of personal possessions. The older workers were grim but calm; the younger ones shocked and confused. They didn’t seem receptive to my suggestion that the process had been handled in an exemplary fashion (despite being a wicked kick in the teeth).

This was my first time getting laid off; certainly not the last. I’ve also seen a bunch of layoffs implemented around me over the years. Yahoo!’s was the slickest I ever saw. That always made me curious: since they clearly had what it took to run an error-free and comprehensive HR process at termination time, why in blazes couldn’t they do that throughout the rest of the employee life-cycle?

I’m not saying that a robust Hew Hire Orientation would have helped Yahoo! Achieve profitability, especially back in those days. It would, however, have helped motivate people to do their best and to enjoy their work. Maybe someone else in the Dallas office might have invented a profitable service line like ours that kept the facility afloat a while longer. I don’t know. What I do know – or, at least, what I believe strongly – is that the day when you’re most proud of your employer shouldn’t be the day that they fire you. That’s just wrong.

Also, if you’re a key decision-maker and you know that you’re about to dissolve most or all of a division, consider the welfare of the people you’re jerking around. Maybe you can’t announce your planned layoffs ahead of time, but at least halt new hiring once the dissolution decision is finalized. Don’t put people through all the hassle of getting started on a new job only to have to evaporate on them six months later. That’s just cruel.

[1] This being Texas, none of us felt like suing the company would’ve amounted to anything. Better to take the additional six weeks’ pay in lieu.

POC is Keil Hubert,

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.


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