Monday, August 7, 2023

Looking Back: On Company Layoffs

October 2009 

The Marketing Department occupied a space just big enough to house a total of thirteen desks arranged strategically for maximum efficiency: a row of eight worktables in the middle facing each other, with ample walking room behind the occupant—provided that he or she didn’t push the chair way back, something I personally loved to do whenever trying to break out of a writing slump, me leaning back and staring at the ceiling and trying as hard as I could to rewire my brain. Or better yet, whenever I was trying to take a nap during break time. 

I couldn’t lean that far back, however, at the risk of hitting the guy or gal behind me who occupied another row of four desks, but this time facing a blue cubicle wall. Immediately to my right—but not part of our tightly bound row of eight tables—was my boss’s own desk, slightly bigger than the rest of our own worktables, and with enough distance from us that someone entering the department would discern right away that this guy, obviously, was the manager. 

Orven—whose head is shaved clean, like me—is tall and lanky. He towers over all of us at more than six feet tall, what with the majority of us marketing guys standing around five feet four to five feet five, the average height of a Filipino male. The lone exception to this is Tom, one of our graphic designers, who stands around five feet nine and change, but still shorter than our boss. The women in our department? Well, I’d guess they were a tad taller than the average Filipina height of four feet eleven—nothing to write home about, sure, but you take what you can. 

So why this particular fixation on height? Because there was this specific month in 2009 when everyone at the office—from IT to Accounting to Sales and Customer Service, not just in Marketing—had their shoulders slumped, easily shaving off one or two inches from one’s height. You could see it in the way everyone made their way sluggishly to their workstations, head down, or the way they were miserably hunched over their computers. 

It was a veritable Hobbitville that month at the office, with people shuffling about like, well, hobbit zombies. It had to do with the massive wave of layoffs that just hit the company more than two weeks prior, which, naturally, was affecting employee morale. 

Orven had just come back from another cigarette break that day. I wondered how many smoke breaks he’s had since the day started; I’d already accompanied him—along with the usual suspects, the company’s smoking group that regularly trooped to the building’s rooftop, puffing away and chewing the fat before our official shift began—where we had our customary two sticks while my boss sipped on his morning coffee and I, on the other hand, nursed my mug of tea.

I guessed Orven had burned through half a pack of his Marlboro golds already, and this was still before lunchtime. 

I couldn’t blame him, though. It’s hard enough being at the helm of any marketing department, but imagine trying to design marketing collaterals, regularly send out email promos (read: spam), and update company and client websites for an online-based, Japanese vehicle-exporting firm whose owner was the epitome of extreme micromanagement. Or heck, imagine that now you had to talk to half the team and actually tell them that they’re being laid off. 

I’d say sucking on a cigarette was just what the doctor ordered (not really, but you know what I mean) to mask the bitter taste on your mouth after reluctantly firing someone on orders from the higher-ups. 

No sooner had Orven taken his seat than the Human Resources manager approached his desk, and then motioned to the big conference room beside our department. 

Apparently, we all had to leave our workstations, troop to the conference room, and listen to some sort of announcement. And like the good soldiers that we were, we did. 

What choice did we have? 

So we each took our seats and waited for the announcement. Whatever it was, it evidently had something to do with the layoffs. It was all on our minds, and so the usual good-natured pre-meeting banter was absent, replaced by a nervous silence. 

Our HR manager—in her impossibly high wedge sandals with ankle straps—walked in. I worked six years for that company, and the only thing I remember about our HR manager was her love for wedge sandals. She might have spearheaded a few employee programs here and there during my tenure in the company, but now, when I think about it after all these years, I can’t recall a single one of those programs no matter how hard I try. 

So Wedge Sandals—I’ll refer to her as Wedge Sandals, because why not?—went over to our boss and said something to the tune of “I’ll leave everything to you,” while preparing to hightail it out of the room, prompting a huge sigh from Orven, who requested her to stay. 

I scoffed loudly, enough for her to hear, and blurted out (for everyone to hear), “How can an HR manager leave the announcement of a very delicate matter, which directly affects the employees, to someone else?” 

Wedge Sandals looked at me, and then to Orven, and stayed standing beside my boss’s side. The tense situation was made more awkward after my outburst, but I didn’t care. She didn’t leave the conference room, sure, but she didn’t do the announcement either. She left it to our manager. 

(A quick digression: there is no love lost between me and the members of the HR Department in that company, headed by Wedge Sandals. In that office, the Marketing Department was flanked by the Systems Department and Human Resources, and whenever I had something to complain about with HR, like if any of their personnel screwed up in any of their requests to Marketing—like a job ad, for example, or any other request for collaterals—I’d let them know by simply shouting my displeasure over the cubicle wall for everyone to hear. I wasn’t alone in this assholery, by the way; I had a partner in crime who shared an equal hatred for that HR Department—Jordan, one of our designers. Like me, he loved the “simply shouting your displeasure over the cubicle wall for everyone to hear” approach too. But back to that announcement in the conference room. Digression over.) 

The gist of the announcement was that the company had been forced to resort to downsizing—something we already knew at that time, of course; after all, it had been more than two weeks since coworkers (many of them close friends whom I’ve worked with for the past five years) bit the corporate dust, at least temporarily, and made themselves available again on the job market—but that everyone, at least according to the official company memo, should just keep on plugging along and remain professional as much as we could in light of the difficult circumstances. You know, the usual corporate bullshit fed to the drones whenever there was a round of layoffs. 

The second part of the announcement was that we had to sign a noncompete agreement. Apparently, an account manager stole some confidential information from the company before he left, along with leads and customers, and was now starting to clandestinely recruit some of our colleagues—mostly from Sales and Customer Service, naturally—to join the new business he was starting. 

Needless to say, there was no mistaking the message: it was a direct warning to all of us. Even amid the downsizing, the higher-ups saw fit to issue a word of caution should we choose to “enter into competition with an employer with a similar business after the employment period is over.” In other words, don’t even fucking think about joining the fledgling business that the former account manager was trying to position as a legitimate competitor to Company 1. (May I refer to my previous employer as Company 1, my dear reader? Yes? Thank you.) 

Up until that point, I had been relatively happy with my stint at Company 1, although it wasn’t actually my first job. Fresh out of college at nineteen, I joined a community newspaper in Cebu City as a freelance lifestyle writer and columnist, but only stayed for a couple of years after I got tired of the shitty pay. In fact, what finally pushed me to quit journalism at that time was an entire two months of back pay that the paper owed me, which even today I can’t recall if I was eventually compensated. 

And so I left my freelance writing gig for the newspaper and decided to go full time as a marketing copywriter for Company 1—the first time in my professional life that I would join an outsourcing firm. But more on that later.    

So as we filed out of the conference room with copies of the noncompete agreement in hand, it occurred to me that perhaps it was high time to look for other options career-wise. That day I started updating my résumé, and the succeeding days I’d start emailing copies to recruiters. 

In less than a year, both Orven and I—and majority of the Marketing people who didn’t succumb to the massive layoffs—would be gone from Company 1. (Spoiler: yes, I survived the downsizing, but in hindsight, I actually preferred to be laid off. Why? Those who were downsized at least got a sizable severance package. I only got my paltry last pay.) 

While other members of the team started reading their noncompete agreements, I shoved my copy inside a desk drawer, fished out my pack of Marlboro golds and lighter from the same drawer, and approached Orven, who was already checking his pockets for his own pack of smokes. He looked at me, as if reading my mind. 

“Cigarette break?” I asked.