I remember the day well. It was a sunny, crisp early fall day in 2008.
Despite the beautiful weather outside, the international economic climate and internal grumblings at my then-employer (a large Fortune 500 company) were very dark and troublesome.
I had intentionally taken a peaceful stroll to work that morning to put my mind at ease, bracing for what was to come upon entering the building lobby and ascending the elevator to my then-home on the sixth floor.
My walk to the office on this particular morning entailed deep breaths and mental attempts to keep everything in perspective.
Lehman Brothers had just declared bankruptcy and was on the verge of disintegration. Scores of other banks were dangerously close to a similar demise. The economic system, it seemed, was on the brink of total collapse.
Within the company I was working for, liquidity issues directly related to the financial crisis had risen to the surface. Publicly, the credibility of the company was rightfully being questioned. Shareholders were not happy, their sudden loss in confidence powerfully conveyed through a drastic 80% decrease in the company’s stock share price over a two day (!) period.
Word around the office hallways indicated impending doom; the company would cease to exist if not saved by an external buyer. Even if there were to be a successful acquisition, heads were surely going to roll.
No one, it seemed, was safe.
I was less than four years into my career as an IT professional, and had already experienced turmoil and toxicity in the workplace — but nothing quite to this degree. I had no idea what to expect, and barely anything to fall back on should I get an ill-fated call from HR.
I was scared, and felt a complete lack of control over my own destiny.
Reductions in Force, AKA Layoffs
It wasn’t long before leadership made the decision to reduce costs through strategic layoffs. Positions would be eliminated, deadweight would be cut loose. It was simply a cost of doing business.
This program was deemed “RIF”, an acronym for “Reductions In Force”. In other words, a politically correct term for firing a lot of people at once.
Toxicities within the management and senior leadership levels ensured that transparency was all but non-existant. Employees below the management level were left to fester and worry. Around the office, rumors circulated and there were extreme levels of paranoia.
In a word, the mood was dire.
It turned out that HR representatives would occupy various floors within the building, setting up shop in conference rooms. A summons to one of these conference rooms would be the last call you would get as an employee of the company.
My desk happened to be located right outside of the room to be occupied by HR on my floor. On the morning that the RIF program went into action, I was expected to proceed in a “business as usual” fashion as a stream of co-workers were called into the room, only to soon be escorted by my desk on their way downstairs and out the door for the last time.
When all was said and done, I survived the wave of layoffs as I had age and lack of experience on my side. My employer had all of the leverage: I would be retained at a junior level salary, carrying with me a not-so-subtle understanding of the alternative. My position in the situation ensured that I would gladly do whatever was asked of me.
It would be valid to question the leadership decision to carry out mass layoffs in such a visible fashion. The message sent by this decision was clear, and in stark contrast to the otherwise non-transparent culture that had been instilled.
Those of us remaining after the layoffs had been manipulated by fear and uncertainty, and I don’t doubt that this was a calculated outcome (or at the very least, a positive side effect) in the eyes of leadership.
Turning a Negative into a Positive
Reflecting back on my experience from 2008, it laid the groundwork for changes in my outlook regarding my job, and changes in my general lifestyle decisions.
I had observed, first-hand, many people being suddenly laid off. Lots of them were vocal in stating their lack of preparedness for handling such an unexpected event. I was also exposed to the general fear and uncertainty of the time, both within my company and the economy at large.
One would be hard pressed to flip on the TV or engage in a conversation without the topic turning to the current state of affairs at some point.
Initially, I was thankful just to have retained my job. After awhile, though, I fell victim to taking it for granted once more. The wounds of the situation had started to heal and fade from memory. After all, we are trained to forget a crisis almost as quickly as it has happened. The twenty-four hour media cycle is desperate to keep our attention.
Fortunately for me though, the damage had been done. As the months went by, the general feeling of unease started to escalate again. Even though I managed to suppress it for a period of time, in the back of my mind I knew how quickly things could change. I had already seen it happen once.
This persisting unease and lack of certainty eventually got the better of me, and it fueled a strong motivation to claim control of my future.
I wanted to do everything in my power to ensure that I wouldn’t be rendered helpless should I find myself in a similarly toxic and unfortunate position at some point down the line.
To the extent possible, I never wanted to be in a position of submitting power to my employer ever again.
Dissecting the Employer-Employee Relationship
It’s easy to feel comfortable in a particular job situation. The company may seem stable, the salary and benefits may sufficiently support your lifestyle.
The mentality in this situation is the opposite of the scarcity mentality. When immediate needs are accounted for, motivation to build a foundation that grants control of the future may be lacking.
Living a comfortable life that is directly supported by your employer means that you will be less likely to end the relationship on your own accord. You may also be less likely to plan an extraordinary future for yourself, and push yourself to get there. Thus a pattern of inertial sets in.
By the same token, should an employer suddenly terminate the relationship, the chances of a disastrous outcome to your personal life are higher.
In a circumstance like this, all power in the employer-employee relationship has shifted to the employer. I was personally in this exact situation during the 2008 financial crisis.
By taking my position for granted in the early years of my career, I had surrendered any reasonable amount of flexibility should a sudden life change occur that was beyond my control.
In order to regain some of the control I had surrendered, I started to build up a nest egg that would safeguard my future.
Shift the Balance with F-You Money
One way to regain power in your relationship with an employer is to build a nest egg which allows you to step back and make solid decisions at crucial points in life. Imagine how different your outlook would be in the event of a sudden job loss if you had the ability to take your time evaluating the next steps.
By contrast, imagine if you had your back against the wall in this situation and needed to rush into a less-than-deal job to replace the lost income.
One of my favorite bloggers is Jim Collins. One of Jim’s anchoring themes revolves around the importance of establishing a strong nest egg, which allows flexibility and freedom in your life. You can read more about this idea in his article Why You Need F You Money.
The idea of F You money can be directly applied to what I’m writing about here in many obvious ways. It will allow you to:
- Shift the balance of power in the employer-employee relationship back into your favor.
- Stick to your convictions at your job and in dealing with your bosses and peers.
- View your job not as a burden that you are stuck with, but as something that you enjoy and get something out of.
- Have the ability to remove yourself from a situation if it gets unbearable, or to react gracefully should your employer hit the eject button on your job.
Building your own F-You fund ties directly into the idea of paying yourself first.
Every job has its pros and cons, and my intent here isn’t to perpetuate an idea that a toxic or negative work environment is a given. Regardless of your personal outlook on your job and your current situation, it is important to balance it with a healthy outlook on the future.
Nothing is a given in life, and taking anything for granted directly contradicts this fact.
I used my experience during one of the most tumultuous economic downturns of my generation to re-align my priorities and ensure that I can withstand a sudden or unanticipated change in my professional life. Hopefully, what I’ve shared here today will allow you to make similar changes that will enable more control of your future.