Wednesday, 10 December 2008



Half way through the ‘we’re going to make this tough for you maggots’ speech given to all first year architecture students at the U of A, Professor Jim Larson urged us to observe the person sitting to the left and right of us. He told us that by the end of the year, they would be gone. Sorry to state the obvious, but it feels a bit like that right now. People seem to be disappearing all over the place, but the people disappearing around me now are the guy that used to be at the bus stop every morning, someone’s parents from Charlie’s baseball team, or people in our industry that I would see at every industry event.

It seems these days, no matter where you go, there is a story about someone losing their job.

The big difference is the people disappearing today have mortgages, school fees and health care costs. They can’t just check out like the students did, heck those students most likely left architecture to go on to professions that are less time consuming and more lucrative. Who knows, being creative, they could have wandered down to the business college, got a degree in finance and gone on to dream up ideas like credit default swaps. Unfortunately for many people today, there are not a lot of options up the road. For many of you this will be a new experience, you have been fortunate enough not to have experienced a recession, something which can and should influence the way you view your job, your relationship with your co-workers and how you choose to live your life.

In the past few years knowing we could waltz up the road and snag a new job if we chose, has afforded us the liberty of having a ‘take this job and shove it’ attitude. In the event you haven’t read the paper, listened to the radio or watched television, our hay day has come to a screaming halt and while it is little solace, we are not alone. Redundancies are occurring all around Australia and the world.

When this kind of thing happens it is tough on everyone: those going, those staying and those who have to deliver the news. In the recent AFR BOSS leadership forum Ahmed Fahour CEO of NAB Australian Operations said that even though it might be justified, there is nothing worse than an executive having to let someone go. Because you know they have families, mortgages and a life. He says it is not the kind of thing he would want his worse enemy to do, but if you do have to the key is in how you do it. Do it fast, do it quickly, be honest and do it compassionately and finally be fair in how you let a person go, because people will always remember that. Pat Grier director and former CEO of Ramsay Health Care agrees and goes on to say that the way you let someone go is important, because you will come through the crisis and how you handle things during it will reflect your organization for years to come.

The old school of thought is that those that lay off others should be ‘above’ the feelings and behave in a dispassionate way, they think that unless they appear ‘professional’ and somewhat removed from the proceedings they will not be in control of the situation. According to David W. Johnson Director of Employee Assistance program, this is the wrong way to handle an office layoff. Managers need to acknowledge their concern for the person, as well as those remaining. It is also important for them to recognise their own pain in losing trusted colleagues. They need to become involved in the emotional experience with everyone else.

For those left behind the impact of an office layoff can be more sever than for those let go. For the survivor it is natural to become insecure and to not know how to behave around co-workers who have lost their job.

Naturally, survivors fear getting laid off themselves and are relieved that they have a job, which produces confusion about how to relate to others. This often is manifested in avoiding eye contact, or not saying anything which exacerbates the situation, and makes those leaving feel even more abandoned and rejected. Workers that take on added responsibilities may become overwhelmed, yet feel too scared to speak out, for fear that being vocal may move them closer to the chopping block. Many people left behind will display symptoms of depression such as difficulty with making decisions, decreased productivity, irritability, hostel behaviours, and chronic fatigue.

I have had experience with redundancy, when I got laid off one of the guys doing the deed was laughing and smiling through the discussion, the other guy had the good sense to look like he was going to have a bad case of explosive diarrhea. It was not one of my happier career moments, the experience dealt a massive blow to my self confidence, which is still evident today. For a while I felt so bad I wanted to stick my head in the oven and that is no laughing matter in my family. My grandfather’s mother did just that, actually she just turned on the oven, closed the windows and doors and went for a long nap with her baby by her side.

She did this because she learned she had TB and in that time there were no cures, those affected were sent to TB hospitals in the desert. She could not imagine life in the desert without her family. I’ll bet she rolled over in her grave when her granddaughter, my mother, left her husband and moved three of her four kids to Phoenix. It goes to show you that what seems unpalatable to one person, leaving Chicago and moving to the desert, was just what another needed. It depends on your perspective and this is true of office redundancies as well.

Many people believe there are positive aspects of a downturn.

One of these is the opinion that it will provide the good swift kick in the arse Generation Y needs. Others see it as a great opportunity to get off the work treadmill and invest the time it takes to innovate.

This was discussed in the last episode of This Week in Tech, a nerd podcast I listen to.

They acknowledged the downturn was beginning to impact the Silicon Valley. Yahoo and eBay have both laid off 1500, 3000 gone from Xerox, 9000 from Dell and the EDS / HP merger will result in the loss of 25,000 tech jobs. Ouch, I won’t say anyone in the valley is happy; never the less, they hope it might be a catalyst for greater innovation.

When the dotcoms went belly up, the truly innovative entrepreneurs really started to think. Kevin Rose is an example, Rose got let go from his job which gave him the time to devote energy to an idea he had. The idea was Digg a website that allows users to discover and share content from anywhere on the internet. Only the most dugg stories appear on the front page, or make it to his video podcast Diggnation. It is through listening to Diggnation that I learned the meaning of MILF and GILF, bridging the generation gap between me and my teenaged sons (no I am not going to tell you what they mean look it up yourself – tip you won’t find it in Oxfords English).

Kevin Rose is 31 years old now and has graced the cover of Business Week “How this Kid Made $60 Million in 18 Months” and Inc. “The Hottest Small Company in America”.

Not only is he rich and famous, he is practically a rock star, on a recent live diggnation done in London he was mobbed by admiring fans. A pack of nerds can really get out of control. Of course we aren’t all as clever as Kevin Rose, but it is possible for us to take advantage of the time we might gain in a slowdown to innovate. It is also a good time to do more with less and so we should, the temperature is just right for austerity.

Everyone is cutting back in Bollywood big production companies are sacking people, delaying production and renegotiating salaries.

At Google they’re cutting capital expenditures to make their earnings estimates, so forget about having all the M&Ms you can stuff your gob with anymore.

And finally, a true example of real people really cutting back, Lindsay Lohan was seen taking the subway in New York and Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are making their own coffee and bringing it to work in matching mugs!

Google, Bollywood, Tom and Katie – clearly we are not alone and this slowdown will most certainly impact the way we behave, when speaking of the impact this will have on us the demographer Bernard Salt says “wild and conspicuous consumption would be seen as immoral. In some respects the embrace of McMansions and plasma televisions leading up to the 2008 collapse mimics the embrace of big hair and shoulder pads in the Dynasty and Dallas world of the late 1980s. Both scream excess to middle-class consumers.” So guys Austerity - in / consumerism and big spending - out.

Again, depending on your perspective, it could be a good thing. I have to agree with Pat Grier from Ramsay who said one of the great things about a crisis is that it usually brings in new leadership which leads to a process of really questioning why we are here, why we exist and what are we trying to achieve? To put a positive spin on it, this crisis offers us the opportunity to think about our core values as an organisation and as individuals, considering what is important in the long run and prioritizing. We all learn lessons in times like these, some say that we become more authentic, echoing who we really are rather than who we wish we could be and that will be a nice change.

Futures Rambling #40 Interview.
Anne-Marie Leslie
SVP Human Resources
Cochlear Ltd

To download a podcast of Futures Ramblings

Chinnery, Kevin “ Life After the Fall” BRW, October 23, 2008

Dlamini, Buhle “ Achieving More With Less – The Key to Balance and Success” Fast CompanyFebruary 08, 2008

Hamm, Steve “The New Age of Frugality - Americans’ charge-it culture is getting an overdue reality check. An overdue reality check. But will the new discipline stick? Business WeekOctober 9 2008

Jones, LaMont “Fashion Designs Reflect Recession Worries” Pittsburgh Post-GazetteFebruary 08, 2008

Low, Lenny Ann “Fame and frugality in these tough times” Brisbane Times, November 4, 2008

Reddy, Sameer “Recession Dressing - Troubled times offer the chance to redefine our core values and take another look in the mirror”. Newsweek, November 13, 2008

Salt, Bernard “Consumers Will React Against Corporate Excess” The Australian, October 30, 2008

Wade, Matt “Bollywood Bucking in Tough Economic Climes” The Age, November 13, 2008