Being Laid Off, Part 1: Why I Wanted to Get Laid Off

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By Zee

Author’s note: Here in 300 Hours we cover CFA materials and tips, but careers and career experiences are also a very important part of candidates’ lives. I wanted to share one of the most significant events in my career, and how this changed the entire course of what I ended up doing for a living. 

This story doesn’t necessarily tell you what to do with your own career, but it’s an interesting experience, and I hope you can bring some of the learnings into your own career decisions. I’d love to hear your thoughts on my very personal tale in the comments below.

One morning in the spring of 2009, I walked into my local Marks & Spencer and bought a bottle of champagne. I was excited, nervous, and waiting for a very special email to arrive in my work inbox. An email to tell me whether I got to keep my current job, or I had to start looking for another one.

That was the day I was laid off from my job. And this is the first part of my story, where I’ll tell you why I was hoping that I would get laid off, and why that was one of the best things to have happened to me.

I started my career pretty similarly to the average over-achiever: hungry, desperate to prove my awesomeness, never tiring in the pursuit to show how great I was at my job to my superiors. I was a financial services consultant at a prestigious firm in London, providing strategic analysis and advice to investment banks and wealth managers.

The crisis hits
2007 and 2008. The crisis, as many of you know, hit us in many significant events. The one that really struck it home for me was the collapse of Lehman Brothers. I lived about 3 minutes away from the Lehman Brothers building in Canary Wharf, so I had front seat tickets to the Lehman Show on the 15th of September 2008. Watching Lehman bankers solemnly bring their brown boxes out of the Lehman building on Bank Street filled me with a kind of dreadful awe. It’s really happening.

Read the biscuits, not the emails
Meanwhile, our firm wasn’t dead, but it was certainly suffering. Our partners sent numerous emails detailing how awesome our firm was and listing many reasons why the crisis won’t hit us, but the facts were:

  1. We are a financial services firm,
  2. Our clients are financial institutions,
  3. Financial institutions were getting shafted,
  4. We, by proxy, will eventually get shafted too.

There were other clues as well. Cost cutting measures started appearing around the office. There were many, but one stands out clearly in my mind. Our firm always had free biscuits, bought in great big cartons from the local Marks & Spencer. The chocolate ones were a particular favourite of mine.

One day, they just stopped arriving. All hell broke loose.

We also had other larger cost-cutting measures such as less travel & entertainment budget, longer replacement cycles for our Blackberries and laptops. But the biscuits raised the most complaints: consultants were sending angry emails back and forth, arguments in the corridor, people bringing in their own biscuits and handing them out in protest. I remember one colleague exclaiming loudly, “what’s next, they’re going to take away our toilet paper?!”.

Every time one of these random cost-cutting exercises hit us, there was another round of emails from the partners assuring us that the firm has never laid off anyone and never will. Of course, the layoffs happened soon after. If you ever suspect your firm is in trouble, and you want an accurate picture, read the biscuits, not the emails.

“We’re firing a bunch of you, but we’re not sure which ones.”
The cost-cutting measures raised a few eyebrows, but the layoff process that happened next was certainly pretty disastrous from a employee morale point of view. One morning, everyone in the firm received a very long, complicated email that was clearly written by a lawyer. The content of the email essentially boiled down to these 3 sentences:

“We have to fire some people. We don’t know which people. We’ll let you know, oh, I dunno, about 4 weeks later.”

The UK has certain labour protection laws when a firm needs to let go of a significant bunch of people, which was the reason behind the 4-week delay. We would receive an email at that time, notifying us who got to stay, and who didn’t. No surprise that not much work was done in those 4 weeks…

I decide that getting laid off could potentially be awesome
When the announcement was made, I had barely a couple of years of work experience under my belt. I’d just passed CFA Level I. Initially I was pissing myself with panic.

In the ensuing 4 weeks however, I did some careful analysis and inventory of my career. Some points I covered:

  • The layoffs got a nice severance package, equivalent to roughly 9 months pay.
  • I’d been considering switching industries (i.e. leaving finance) to try out media and advertising, but as a green rookie I hadn’t yet worked up the cojones to leave my well-paying job.
  • I’d just come off a crushing 10-week project were we worked about 120-hour weeks on average. I was ready to leave just on the basis of that.
  • The layoffs numbers will be highest at the junior levels, and although I worked hard and worked well, I hadn’t really established a really good working relationship with many partners.

I realised that given all my consideration, I was actually leaning towards being laid off. This would mean I got 9 months of corporate sponsorship to try and make it in another industry. An opportunity I would not have in any other circumstance.

The email arrives: beep, you’re fired
The layoff email was scheduled to come on a Sunday. Let’s all revel in that for a moment: my firm was laying off people en masse, on a Sunday, by email. There’s no easy way to communicate a layoff, but surely there’s better ways.

Was I sure I wanted to get laid off? Of course I wasn’t. I had little work experience, it was the start of what looked like a monster of a recession, and I had a huge student loan to pay off. My bottle of champagne was a small act of bravado and defiance in the face of the enormity of what I had coming ahead. But there was never a better time to take the risk, and the best time was now.

I wished I forwarded the fateful email I got that Sunday to my personal inbox now. Had I known how much influence this would have on my career, I would have liked to keep an electronic copy of it. Because of course, as you guessed, I was laid off via that fateful email.

The journey was on, and I was nervous, unsure, but very excited. It would all work out great, I just didn’t know it yet.

Hope you enjoyed reading this Part One of my tale. In the next part, I will detail the immediate events that followed, my experiences with post-layoffs HR services, and how I spent my next few months free-lancing, getting my advertising job, and studying for my CFA Level II.

You can read the whole series here:

If you’ve got any questions or want to know more about something, let me know in the comments below!


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