By Wahib Ul Haq
, here is a link
to the Medium version.
2020 began with major layoff news from three big companies, Mozilla
, Digital Ocean
, and VMware
. Last year’s biggest highlight was from WeWork
laying off 2400 employees around the world.
A few on Twitter are already posting that they are looking for new opportunities, while some are offering help in response which is very inspiring.
Honestly speaking, I totally admire the courage of affectees who announce it publicly in all such instances. For most people, losing a job creates serious emotional and financial consequences. My first natural reaction is to sympathize with the affectees because it hits home and reminds me of my own experience with the layoff.
I was laid off in 2015 from my first full-time job here in Germany. My story as an expat can offer a different perspective on how it was devastating but ended up teaching me a thing or two.
. . .
My role was eliminated due to what we refer to as “reduction in force”. It took me quite some time before getting comfortable with talking about my “layoff” story with friends and strangers. It’s a cultural thing as well because there’s a fear of being instantly labeled as a failure and your abilities being judged. Now, I quote it frequently and most of the time joke about it as well.
"A reduction in force (RIF) is defined as a separation from employment due to lack of funds, lack of work, redesign or elimination of position(s) or reorganization, with no likelihood or expectation that the employee will be recalled because the position itself is eliminated."
I worked at an early-stage tech startup based in Munich, and it was my first full-time job in Germany after completing my master's degree from the Technical University of Munich. I was called in for an important meeting with the Director of Software Development and the CEO. I was told that the company was very close to finalizing an investment deal in order to sustain and grow. Great news! I was generally happy there, and performing pretty well from my understanding. I was already contributing to the production version and didn’t get any red flags on my performance so far. I was at the end of the 4th month of my probation time (max 6 months) and I thought they were going to reduce my probation time.
And then it happened. It was like a bomb dropped in the meeting. I was told that the potential investor thinks that we have too many people and need to reduce cash burn. I was the junior-most developer in the team so had to bear the brunt of ‘right-sizing’. You hear about such news in the startup world but I felt the intensity of it for the first time so up close.
I wasn’t prepared for this conversation. It couldn’t have been worse timing for me because my wedding was planned to happen two months later. Why are they doing this to me? Shit, everything seems screwed up. What happens to my visa status? Will I be forced to leave Germany? I didn’t even know the rules regarding this. I was in complete shock with my heart in my mouth. I cried in that room once they left. I’ll never forget that moment.
“Life is too short, or too long, for me to allow myself the luxury of living it so badly.” — Paulo Coelho
It’s recommended to not go instantly into “job search” mode but instead take some time off, to avoid adding more stress to an already stressful situation. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the luxury to chill and relax. I had set a one-month goal for myself to find the appropriate next job. It was quite ambitious but I had limited choice.
I wouldn’t recommend this. Long story short, it was a crazy stressful month with 10s of interviews, many coding tests, and take-home assignment submissions. In the end, I was delighted to receive 3 job offers. Since then, I have moved to different adventures in these 5 years but always on my own terms.
The following are a few important things I learned from my layoff experience which also changed my perspective on how I approach work, and how I see my career.
. . .
#1 Your employer can always cut you off
I’m a Seth Godin fan. Godin is a legend in the world of Internet and marketing in general and I can’t recommend enough subscribing to his blog. In his book “Linchpin,” Godin defines a linchpin in broad terms as someone who is “indispensable” to an organization. It has been a topic of debate since then if it is the appropriate advice or not.
But I believe that no matter how unique your role is, how good you are performing and how important you are for the employer, not everything will be in the control of you or your employer. When things will go south for the key stakeholders, they will make some tough decisions. Layoffs aren’t personal, although they often feel like they are. It’s a “business relationship” at the end of the day. This is the harsh reality — no one is irreplaceable.
#2 Try to be “Invaluable” instead of “Indispensable”
I discovered the term “linchpin” during that job search and it has stayed with me since. I don’t agree with the whole message but it still gave me motivation and a positive direction.
As a promise to myself, I decided to strive my best to become linchpin at work and be the best employee in future career positions. We all can make ourselves invaluable in our workplace by being committed to adding value to the company, team, and customers. This is the only thing in our control.
#3 Focus on the career you want to have in the future, not the job you just lost
“The Startup of You” describes how to take the Silicon Valley approach to build a life: start with an idea, and work over your entire career to turn it into something remarkable. It’s a wonderful concept and a necessary one. No one else will care about your career except you and only you have the power to invest in it.
I realized that I haven’t figured out my Personal Value Proposition (PVP) yet which is a foundation for career progression. A developer with a computer science degree and passion for Android app development. Is it enough? What additional unique values do I bring on the table? What can make me stand out?
It’s important to remember that a career is a marathon and not a sprint and there’s a need to continuously increase value in the open job market. This journey still continues for me but that experience made me ask the right (read: hard) questions. The kind of questions that a founder of a startup should ask himself/herself.
#4 Critically evaluate before joining an early-stage startup
Don’t get me wrong, I love working in startups. It’s a great place to start one's career as it offers more visibility of your work and an environment that encourages you to stretch and grow. What I learned the hard way was that I should have critically evaluated the option of joining a one-year-old startup that was running on private investor funding. It should have been a more informed decision with the worst-case scenario considered and how I could mitigate risk if I needed to do so.
Having said that, startups can and will fail and there are no recession-free startups. In retrospect, I was an amateur and it was my first experience working in a real startup as a full-time employee. Vetting a startup is inherently difficult but I don’t think I asked the right questions either.
#5 It will hurt but don’t close yourself off
The first thing layoff does is that it hits your self-confidence and self-esteem. You mistakenly tell yourself, “Maybe I’ll never be good enough to avoid being laid off”. Impostor Syndrome kicks in like never before at a time when you desperately need support and that badass confidence.
Being upset with a layoff is normal, but don’t let your upset turn into obsession or depression. The worst thing you can do to yourself is to not share it with your loved ones. If you need to vent, do so to close friends (or your family, or your therapist) outside of work. You’ll need their love and support to get you back on your feet. Sooner or later, everyone realizes that it’s a phase and a challenge and it will be over soon. Staying positive as much as possible and keeping an optimistic spirit is the only way out. Believe in yourself, because if you don’t, others will have an even more difficult time believing in you.
It’s generally important to be aware of such regulations but it’s even more critical as an expat. I don’t think I was well-informed at that time and ended up learning a lot once I went through the process.
The Protection against Unfair Dismissal Act
The Protection against Unfair Dismissal Act (Kündigungsschutzgesetz; “KSchG”) applies to all companies with more than 10 employees and only applies to employees who have completed their probation time. Within the probation period of up to six months, dismissal is possible with two weeks’ notice and for no specific reason.
After six months, a dismissal can only be based on: (1) personal; (2) conduct-related; or (3) operational reasons. However, the termination must not be discriminatory or violate public policies. Most of the layoffs usually come under “operation reasons” and a key piece of information for me was to know about “social selection” (Sozialauswahl) in Germany.
"The employer must conduct a social selection among comparable employees, which is based on age, years of service, marital status, number of dependent children, and severe disability."
Only the person at the bottom of the list (youngest, new joiner, no family, etc) may be dismissed first and I was fitting the criteria.
In Germany, a blue card is a name for the work permit for highly-skilled non-EU citizens. If you lose your job or resign while having a blue card, you can get a permit extension for three months, possibly even six months. In case of termination of the work contract, you are obliged to inform “Ausländerbehörde” (Immigration Office) of your city without any delay.
. . .
While layoffs are traumatic, once the dust settles you will see that there are positives to take from the experience. I took everything that it taught me and used it to prepare me for future work. Now, when I step into a new workplace or role, I’m far more wise to the inner workings, the politics and systems at play, what I should be focused on, and more importantly, my rights as an employee.
I will leave you with a very famous Urdu couplet which is quoted very often to inspire each other to thrive in adverse circumstances, and never lose the zest for life.
A nearer translation of the couplet would be:
“Don’t get daunted by the fury of opposing winds, oh eagle! These blow only to make you soar higher (into the skies).”