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Layoffs represent failures of company, not individual employee

I still remember the first time I was laid off.

In 1988, Northern Telecom was still only a $3 billion upstart. There had been downsizing rumors for weeks, so when one morning a guy with polyester slacks and a pistol showed up laughing with our director, we braced ourselves for a euphemism. We were summoned individually to a room without windows. "You have been invited to pursue your career elsewhere," they intoned. "Please surrender your badge."

"Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!" we wanted to shout, but didn't.

There was no chance to say goodbye: They cancelled our e-mail before we'd even been herded to the door. We could come back on the weekend to remove personal effects under the watchful eye of a management toady.

The scene in the parking lot was like an outtake from "Night of the Living Dead." Ten a.m., and all the guys seemed to need a shave. Gosh, no wonder we'd been sacked.

"Sacked," by the way, is left over from the days of guilds and journeymen. Craftsmen owned their own tools and little else, so if your master decided he didn't like you anymore he had only to hand you a sack containing them, and you could bloody well hit the road. No need to mince words with further discussion of golden parachutes or COBRA requirements.

The second time was when the University gave me the sack. I used to publish academic computer software for the Duke University Press, whose then-director wrote all his correspondence on a typewriter and eventually decided that publishing software was not a reasonable occupation. Should've seen that one coming, shouldn't I?

But even for a man who's made a second career of finding a second career, January was a hard month. This time I was the heavy, the stone-hearted bureaucrat behind the guillotine. I helped select and lay off two people.

Their anger, self-pity and fear made me howl inside because I could not cross the gap between us. I was the boss for whose sins they must suffer; they did not ask or permit me to play the seemingly hypocritical role of friend. By the end of the second day after the layoff I had come down with the flu. It seemed the least I could do.

Society teaches that organizational synergy makes a company larger than the sum of its employees. This idea is embedded in our very laws of incorporation. But those next few days, in the midst of my fever, a suspicion touched my mind now and then that maybe this wasn't the whole story.

A person has a soul. She cannot but bring to her job every ounce of experience, every dream she has dreamed, every fiber of her drive for excellence-but the job doesn't know what to make of all that. She has a thousand skills and passions that the company cannot define, harness, advance, understand or use. So when the inevitability of layoffs arises, who has failed whom?

To put it another way, my job involves looking at numbers. When the numbers say, "This person is of little value," and your moral conscience says, "This person is of infinite value," what do you do?

The practical problem is not whether we have layoffs, but how we are to understand them. The humblest line worker, filing clerk or wet-behind-the-ears college grad, when placed in the balance against the whole weight of the Corporation, tips the scales his or her way. It is the company that fails employees, not the other way around. It fails to understand them, train them, tap their interests and abilities-fails to be enough of a community to let people blossom in the midst of its wholeness.

Sackings constitute nothing less than an indictment of the corporate way of life, an admission of defeat and shame for the firm. Whatever a company's size, layoffs should never occur until every executive has experienced a few sleepless nights to season his actions with humility.

Who loses face in a layoff? A job is just what people do, it's not what they are. What they are is human, bigger than any mere cabal formed to manufacture widgets or to make money. That corporations are amoral and imperfect is nothing to boast about. My company was unable to accommodate our employees' peculiar genius, and I feel ashamed.

Paul Baerman, Fuqua '90, is a Durham resident.

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