When a pink slip turns a bizarre shade of gray

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

A year ago, an article in a Sunday edition of The New York Times caught my eye. It was titled, "Congratulations! You've Been Fired."

For those workers who have been on - or perilously close to - the "firing" line, the article with the catchy headline was must reading, made even more so by last fall's meteoric rise of a "You're Fired!" kind of guy. The op-ed piece was written by Dan Lyons, the author of "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble."

A University of Michigan alum, Lyons had been a senior editor at Forbes magazine and then served as the technology editor at Newsweek before he was given the dreaded pink slip in the summer of 2012. He reportedly was planning a vacation to Europe with his wife and twin children when he was informed of the sacking from Newsweek. So much for those frequent flyer miles, he must have thought.

After spending 25 years in journalism, Lyons was then forced to take a different employment tack, joining the marketing department of a software company called HubSpot, a start-up firm that staged a successful IPO in the fall of 2014. Last year the company reportedly was valued at more than $1.5 billion despite discovering that profitability is a very elusive concept in the tech world.

Lyons, who would last 20 months at HubSpot, had high hopes when he joined the firm.

"I thought working at a start-up would be great," he wrote in The New York Times piece. "The perks! The cool offices!"

Soon he discovered otherwise, finding out that "I'd joined a digital sweatshop, where people were packed into huge rooms, side by side, at long tables. Instead of hunching over sewing machines, they stared into laptops or barked into headsets, selling software."

But that is only part of the real story, which is the way that companies announce that your services are no longer needed.

At HubSpot, according to Lyons, it was called a "graduation," a euphemistic way of framing a firing.

When someone was jettisoned at HubSpot, Lyons wrote, the news would be circulated through a "cheery e-mail from the boss," explaining in particularly bizarre terms that a certain female employee has "graduated and we're all excited to see how she uses her superpowers in her next big adventure."

In 2014, Microsoft was hammered in the press for the way it announced the layoffs of 12,500 workers, burying the news in the 11th paragraph of a poorly crafted memo that spewed a lot of "management speak" that should be banned from business language forever.

Last March, the global media network Al Jazeera took the nonsense news of laying off workers to a new level when it trimmed 500 jobs in the most witless way. In a press release, the company's acting director general was quoted as saying: "Over the past few months, we have carefully evaluated every option available to the Network in order to ensure that we are best positioned in light of the large-scale changes under way in the global media landscape.

"Based on this review, we have embarked on a workforce optimization initiative that will allow us to evolve our business operation in order to . . ."

In other words, feel free to complete the sentence, perhaps offering a word of compassion or solace to those in the crosshairs of the layoff notice. Such comfort could go a long way in helping "graduates" avoid stepping in workplace quicksand again.

Published: Tue, Feb 07, 2017