Story Time: Dead Man Walking

A ham-handed effort and the vagaries of the role meant that a missed connection and a poor effort combine to become a walking joke that really wasn't funny.

Story Time: Dead Man Walking
Photo by Yohann LIBOT / Unsplash

I am digging deep into my personal stash for this one, as it is a stressful week where a lot of people are being let go at work. Earnings are out, the guidance for the next two quarters (our second half) is a disappoingment to the street.

Now, I don't begrudge this, as business cycles are brutal, and the transition to the coming wave of AI and the resultant realignment of the tech ecosystem are underway for better or worse.

But I am not here to discuss that.

The setup

Circa 2003 I joined a company that did a bunch of measurement and process characterization work. Our niche was instrumentation for measuring things like film thickness, stress, surface roughness among a lot of other parameters.

Of course, if you were in tech at the time, you remember that this was in the middle of the dot-com downturn[1] and that cost cutting was all the rage.

So, what happens when you make instruments for process control and nobody is expanding or upgrading their production lines?

One guess.

If you guesses that you do layoffs, give yourself a gold star.

We had a pretty deep cut of layoffs, and while I was not impacted, a fellow product manager was. I actually picked up a product that he moved off of, when it was transferred from California to Arizona, and he chose to not relocate to stay with it.

The product I picked up was focused on general industrial measurement and test, and he pivoted into a product that was part and parcel with the semiconductor manufacturing process. That turned out to be a poor choice[2].

Anyhow, he was on the list. And like many product managers, he was traveling a lot, and when he was to be laid off, he was in Japan to meet with customers. Naturally, his boss failed to connect with him, so he ws blissfully unaware that he had been terminated.


But that is merely the start of this tale.

The bad

He arrived in Tokyo on the evening of the layoff, and the next morning when he woke up, he called his house to check for phone messages[3]. And the first message on his machine was from the outplacement service to assist him in his transition, and his job search.

Yeah, that's right, at about 3 AM local time (jet-lagged) he called home and learned that he was fired.


Naturally, he cancelled his customer meeting(s), and grabbed the next flight home.

Two days later, he is back home, and he heads into the office. Unfortunately, his "boss" had departed for a two week backpacking trip to some wilderness in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and was "off the grid".

And nobody wanted to tell him that he was fired. So he wandered around the office for a week and a half, with people averting from his gaze, all while nobody (HR in particular) was willing to actually have a conversation with him.

Final thoughts

Look, layoffs, RIFs, restructuring are hard, and a lot of the stress falls on the line managers who have to deliver the news. But having a manager MIA during the action, and failing to properly handle the discussion and steps is inexcusable.

The MIA manager lasted about 2 more years, and in the next turn of the cycle he was also let go.

I have to assume that part of that decision was reaction to his cack-handed execution of the prior layoff.

  1. Ok, it was on the way out, and business was turning back up, but semiconductor manufacturing was still depressed. ↩︎

  2. He landed on his feet, so it all worked out well. No need to feel bad for him at this juncture. But just wait for the details that follow. ↩︎

  3. For those millennials and Gen Z cohort, before cell phones just worked everywhere in the world, you had a land line, and when traveling you would need to call and collect your messages. Also, this was before broadband internet in hotels was a thing, so you mostly used a 33.6K modem to log into your work network to check your email. How barbaric! ↩︎