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August 15, 2013

Real Valley Stories: Emailing the Company About Future Layoffs

Editor's Note: Part 9 in an irregular series of stories from my 15 years in Silicon Valley. Part 8 talked about how I determined I was undervalued at work, and started a process to catch up. This time, another real example from the trenches, about how I once prematurely notified the entire company layoffs were coming - and the effort to undo that mistake.

After the dot-com crash and subsequent recession in the early part of the last decade, many venture-backed companies, including my own, were fighting to stay relevant and alive in a suddenly more challenging environment, where customers were exceptionally risk-averse, going with what the vendors they knew and not the ones they didn't yet know. With this challenging landscape as a backdrop, one of the storylines that emerged was not so much one of thriving, but simply survival - and if there was an opportunity to get positive press simply for sticking it out, even if we weren't hitting on all cylinders, it was one we'd go for.

At that time, in early 2002, one of the roles I held for the company in marketing was internal communications. As we gained customer wins, case studies, press releases and press mentions, it was typical for me to take the story and send it to one of our many Exchange distribution lists to the company so we could  all share in the good news. I'd add a one-paragraph intro, send it off and watch the backslapping and replies come in. Sometimes, I didn't even have to do a lot of the work, but I always got some of the credit.

One morning, my news alerts on the company turned up an interview our CEO had done with the Wall Street Journal. I'd known the story was coming, and as I read it, the CEO talked about how we had scaled back our goals from our original unrealistic expectations, had tightened our budgets and had even been forced to do some staff reductions. That last part seemed odd to me, as we hadn't done any reduction in force, but seemed to make sense, as two of our senior vice presidents, one in product marketing and one in sales, had left the previous month.

Wait... You're Saying I've Been Sacked?

As with all our news bites, I copied the text in full, excerpted the relevant quote and emailed it to the company, positioning the news as our showing strength in a tough economy. This bit of work done, I then went to the next task at hand, where my desk voicemail was lit, showing I had a message. I listened, with some horror, as it was a message from my boss, having been left earlier in the day, saying specifically, "Louis, don't send the Wall Street Journal story to the company," which I had, of course, just done.

I stopped what I was doing, and sheepishly made my way to his office, not only ready for a verbal dressdown, but also curious why this piece was so particularly volatile. I knocked on his door and told him what had happened.

"Goddamnit, Louis," he snapped. "You have to recall that message, immediately..." along with a few other choice words, saying that the very first thing I should be doing every day is checking my voicemail and I should have known better.

Attempting to recall the message from the few-hundred person company wasn't perfect, as you can imagine. Those who had already seen the story hit their Outlook inboxes wondered why I'd recall a story from a paper as impactful as the Journal, which only further raised suspicion about what the CEO had said, or I had relayed. My own inbox filled with each individual recall success or failure, and needless to say, I was in my boss' doghouse for the remainder of the day, if not a bit longer.

Two days later, the layoffs preannounced in the Journal came true. That Friday, Silicon Valley's traditional day for eliminating positions, welcomed us with moving boxes and practically every conference room booked for a series of brief one on ones. There was frustration for some, tears for others, and relief for those who probably wanted out. More than one person came by my desk, knowing then what we had figured out earlier in the week, that the layoffs made the Wall Street Journal before they had even taken place, and the CEO had so matter of factly mentioned it, in a national publication.

For months afterward, as you can imagine, the very first thing I did when I got to the office each day, before email or grabbing a Diet Coke even, was checking my voice mails. I became even more careful as I shared news and announcements with our internal mail lists, to avoid anything that could possibly be interpreted as bad news, or an executive saying something he shouldn't. And yes, we had future rounds of layoffs, as the company cut itself practically in half before growing again to surpass its original peak, eventually filing for IPO, twice, and getting acquired.

Telling the Wall Street Journal about planned layoffs before the people impacted were told was bad. Sending news about that layoff to the very people who were going to lose their jobs was bad too. I never made that mistake again.