All opinions expressed in this column (and every Hard Code column) are my own and do not represent Microsoft in any official or unofficial capacity.
Life and layoffs
Layoffs are a very sensitive subject. After all, they can have a dramatic impact on many people’s lives all on the same day. Even so, for many people, layoffs remain shrouded in mystery. Folks ask me, particularly when a layoff is announced, “Why do we have layoffs? Will I be next?”
With all due sensitivity to those people whose lives are upended by layoffs, please calm yourself and take control. Layoffs aren’t mysterious. They are a reaction to our changing industry, somewhat predictable, and you can manage their impact. Worry and panic don’t help. Paying attention to our markets, business, customers, and priorities does help.
Learn how to anticipate a layoff, choose how you want to respond, and prepare accordingly. Life can happen to you or you can happen to life. I prefer to happen to life. Lost or confused? Let’s talk it through.
A layoff at Microsoft is also called a “reduction in force” or RIF.
Why oh why do these things happen to me?
Why do layoffs happen? Everyone knows the technology industry is volatile. When the market or technology change, technology companies must adapt.
Ideally, companies would simply move people around to adjust to the new business direction, but there isn’t one generic role, one generic skillset, and one shared location. Employees can play new roles, gain new skills, and move to new locations, but there are limits to how much can be done at once.
In addition, change isn’t instantaneous. The moment a company no longer need a particular role, skillset, or location isn’t always the same moment when that role or skillset is needed by the company in a new location. Ignoring the costs for a moment, a company could have people adjust their skills or work on small projects until new roles in new locations are available, but that kind of controlled reassignment has issues.
Attempting to reassign hundreds or thousands of roles in a fair, organized, and optimal fashion through centralized planning leads to all the problems you’d expect. History is awash with the failures of centralized planning of resources on a large scale. A market-driven approach yields better results for individuals and the company. People get laid off, return to the marketplace, and find new roles. If those roles happen to be back at the original company at some later date, that’s wonderful for everyone.
I didn’t even see it coming
Will you be next? There’s no way to know for certain, but there are indications of which jobs may be impacted by a future layoff. You can spot these indications if you pay attention to our markets, business, customers, and priorities.
Here are a few common patterns (examples are hypothetical):
- Mergers and acquisitions. If your group merged with another group that does the same thing, a layoff may be on the horizon. The key is whether or not you really are duplicating work and how well-aligned you are with the business direction and customers you serve. These layoffs typically don’t happen right away, so there’s time for you to align better to your business and customers or prepare to switch positions.
- Strategy shifts. If your organization’s leader just announced a shift in strategic direction away from the business and customers you serve, a layoff or reassignment could be in your future. Perhaps you’re with the on-premises service team, and now the focus is shifting to cloud services exclusively. Perhaps you’re working on set-top boxes for cable TV, and now the focus is on streaming video. Perhaps you’re working on a special project, and now management wants to see results sooner than expected. These layoffs or reassignments can happen quickly, so attend those all-hands meetings and listen carefully to any indications of changes in strategy.
- Execution shifts. If your group or organization is changing how it executes, and your skills don’t fit, a layoff may await you. For example, maybe the manual work that takes up much of your day is now being automated, maybe vendors are now doing more and more of your kind of job, or maybe the kind of work you do is now moving to a different location. These layoffs often take place after the execution change is in place, so there’s time for you to embrace the transition and change skillsets or seek work elsewhere.
Regardless of what precipitates a layoff, keep one thing in mind: Layoffs are about positions, not people. Sure, if the group needs to layoff five people out of seven who all do the same job, performance of the people may be one of the aspects considered. However, much of the time, entire groups are laid off, irrespective of individual review histories.
When you are a manager planning a layoff, it’s critical to remember that it’s about positions and not people. If you have performance issues with people, deal with those people directly (see The toughest job—Poor performers).
Most people aren’t impacted directly by layoffs, so stay focused and continue delivering great experiences to customers.
However, if you do sense a layoff on your horizon, what do you do? Ask yourself a few questions.
- Do I like the change in direction? If you like the new alignment, strategy, and/or execution model, then embrace it. Change your focus, your skillset, your work assignments, and maybe even your location, to fit into the new direction. Your manager can help you do this and likely will appreciate your willingness to change.
- Is my skillset still in demand? If the new alignment, strategy, and/or execution model no longer values your skillset, you’ll likely need to change roles. You can do that by acquiring new skills or by finding a different role inside or outside Microsoft that still values what you do. Don’t kid yourself. If the need for your skillset is in decline across Microsoft, it may be time to make a career shift.
- Am I willing to change how I work? Sometimes a change in alignment, strategy, and execution is accompanied by a change in work approach. A great example is our move from packaged products to services. We need to be more agile and ship more incrementally and more often. If you aren’t willing to embrace change, you’ll want to switch roles before change embraces you.
Once you’ve chosen how you’d like to respond to a potential layoff, you need to prepare.
- If you plan to better align with the new business direction and your customers, engage your whole team and become the driver of change—it can transform your career.
- If you plan to enhance your skillset, take the online training you need, and ask your manager for new work assignments that will develop your new skills.
- If you plan to change roles, update your resume and reach out to your network to land that new position (see Get a job—finding new roles).
- If you plan to change locations, be sure to alert potential new managers to your willingness, and consider how much support you’ll need. (The easier you make it for your new manager, the less of a hurdle it will be.)
Regardless of what direction you take, preparing helps you happen to life, rather than life happening to you.
A couple more bits of general advice:
- Store your personal email and documents separately from your Microsoft email and documents (personal email and OneDrive). Hopefully, you’ve always kept them separate, but it never hurts to double check your email subscriptions and document storage to ensure nothing is accidentally out of place.
- Keep at least three months of salary available for emergencies, like a work disruption. Since layoffs are about positions, not people, they can happen to anyone.
If you don’t run your own life, somebody else will
Layoffs don’t have to be unexpected and don’t have to ruin your life. You can prepare, adapt, and potentially avoid being laid off. Even if you are laid off, your preparation can provide an advantage over others in the same situation and get you back where you want to be faster.
Layoffs represent change in a pure form. That change may be disruptive, but it also can be just what you need to reevaluate your career and get yourself on a better path to your personal success. Embrace the change, act with purpose and forethought, and retake ownership of your life.