An Open Letter About Lay-Offs

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Lay-offs are horrible. 

And that’s when the economy is doing okay and entire industries aren’t shutting down.  
 
Andrew here.
 
Aaron and I are sharing this on March 25th, 2020, in the midst of a very stressful and scary time.
 
And because people are home businesses are not making as much money and people are unfortunately losing their jobs. 
 
I was laid off almost six years ago, and hearing about all the lay-offs happening right now is making me think back on that experience. 
 
So I thought I’d share some thoughts with three groups of people. 
 
People who have just been laid off. 
People doing the laying off. 
And people like me who are established freelancers. 
 
Here goes, and please share this if you think it might help anyone out in any of these groups. 
 

Dear people who have just been laid off, 

 
I am so, so sorry. 
 
Being laid off feels terrible because it is terrible. 
 
I remember feeling angry, sad, betrayed, vengeful, even some shame, often all in the space of the same 10 minutes. 
 
It’s okay, and probably actually healthy to feel those feelings. (Except for the shame. You have nothing to be ashamed about!) 
 
For me, those feelings didn’t completely go away for well over a year. Partly that’s because it was my first time being laid off. 
 
I spent my 20s and early 30s working in film production, with stints as a temp employee and eBay PowerSeller. 
 
I think I chose those jobs specifically because you never had to quit and there was no chance to get fired or laid off. The jobs were always short term affairs. They always had an end date. 
 
Then through a series of circumstances that is a story for anther time, I worked at Wieden+Kennedy Portland for 7 years. It was my first and only job-job. Set hours, salary, benefits, the whole meal deal. It was a hard job, but it was a great job. 
 
I was part of a big lay-off. We all knew they were coming for weeks, and while I kind of knew I was on the chopping block, it was still a shock when it happened. 
 
I left with every advantage you can think of, I was leaving a great job, at a time when the economy was strong, so much I had a freelance job already lined up. I was and am also white, male, straight, and tall. And yet I still feel really crappy. 
 
So I can’t imagine what it’s like to feel to be laid off now, without some or any of my advantages. 
 
If you are a restaurant worker, performer, bartender, shop employee or even, shop owner, my heart really goes out to you. I hope the stimulus comes through, and the various organizations and government and non-government agencies putting together ways to help work quickly to ensure you can stay housed, fed and relatively happy. 
 
If you are in more in my shoes, and leaving an agency or studio, more of a desk job, my heart goes out to you as well. Particularly if the lay-offs were selective. As crushingly devastating as an entire staff getting let go is, the very slim silver lining is everyone is in the same boat. When 15 or 30% or any percentage of a company gets laid off, there is added feeling of why me, what I did do wrong? And it tends to create a barrier between the people let go and those who are still on staff, at a time when we need meaningful connection more than ever. 
 
But you have the advantage of being part of an industry that isn’t shuttered completely. 
 
So I want to offer a couple thoughts. 
 
First, as best you can, leave with your head held high. Someone gave me this advice a few minutes after getting let go, and it helped me tremendously. 
 
Instead of leaving quickly, I took a few minutes to myself, then went around the building and said goodbye to people I would miss and who really helped my career. Not only did it feel good, but it opened a door. . One of the people I said goodbye to was Dan Wieden, and because I thought to thank him personally for my job, he passed a job opportunity on to me a week later - with the UN Council on Climate Change no less. 
 
If you have already left the building, (or everyone has already left the building) you can still do this over email, text, heck, even a video you make and share. 
 
As tempting as it might feel (and if it does I can relate), this is not a great time to burn bridges. 
 
Moving forward, feel your feelings, and do what you have to do to take care of yourself. But also try and use this time to get ready for what’s next and when there is work again. 
 
This is a great time to make sure your website is super dialed in. This is especially important for creative people, but hey, even if you are a bartender, it can’t hurt to have a website where you share your experience, favorite cocktails and maybe some videos on how to make them. Who knows where that might lead. 
 
This is a great time to film that film, start that blog, design those posters and keep doing what you do. Some people call them “personal projects” or “passion projects,” other people call them art or creative expression. Whatever you call it, go for it. You’ve got the time and with everyone home the audience once you share it. 
 
This is a great time to stay in touch with your people. Friends, family, but also co-workers and clients. This isn’t about networking, it’s about checking in with and engaging with people you have a relationship with. If the subject of work comes up, and it just so happens that you can help them something, or an idea for a collaboration springs forth, awesome. But really it’s about connecting and supporting right now. 
 
As far as keeping up with the news and on social media, I understand the temptation to be on Facebook. For better or worse (okay, obviously worse) I’m getting my news there. But remember Instagram tends to have pictures of people at their best, and Linkedin has lots of great links and resources being posted by people in your shoes trying to help. I can’t speak to Twitter, don’t use it. 
 
This is also a great time to do a little soul-searching about what you do and what you want to do. If you loved your job, do what you can now to position yourself to get that job or kind of job again. But if you are interested in exploring something else, this is a great time to learn, train and practice something new. There were already so many free online resources out there, and they have exploded over the last week or two. Dig in. 
 
Finally, ask yourself what you can do and give to the world right now. What skills do you have and how can you put them to use? Check in with the non-profits you have relationships with. Maybe they need your writing or design skills, or maybe they just need you to make some calls or to donate some money. Especially if you have left an agency or creative desk job remember there are people in far more dire straits. Do and share what you can. 
 
In closing, I want to reiterate how sorry I am for being laid off. Take care of yourself, lean in whoever you can, stay safe and healthy, and good luck. 
 
 

Dear Agencies, Clients, Studios, Practices, Shops, and Production Companies, 

 
Laying off people is no fun. 
 
Notice I didn’t say it’s as hard on you as it is on the people you are laying off. It’s not. Unless of course you are closing shop entirely and you are out of work yourself and have been investing in your business versus yourself, in which case, oh my gosh I am so sorry. 
 
I really want to address creative businesses that are not shutting their doors but are laying some people off. 
 
I am not an HR specialist, I don’t have any training. But I do want to share a few thoughts based on what my experience was like
 
Before you do lay off anyone, think it through again. And again and again after that. 
 
If you are a small business or shop and covering payroll and rent is a problem, I get it. 
 
But if you are a big company with a CEO and other people with a C in front of their name, go back to the C Suite, and get creative. 
 
What happens if you all suspend your own salaries and live off bonuses for the rest of the year. How many jobs could that save? 
 
What if everyone took an across-the-board pay reduction? 
 
What if you put all these people on a new project designed to alleviate and address what is happening right now in the world based on what your company is good at? 
 
If you are not the one deciding to lay people off but having to deliver the bad news, offer up some of these suggestions. Push back. 
 
You have an opportunity to be remembered as the company that made some sacrifices and stood by your people, or one of the many that didn’t. 
 
But if you do lay people off, here are my suggestions.  
 
First, be honest but also kind. 
 
If I were getting laid off right here are some thing I would appreciate hearing if they are true.  And even if they aren’t entire true. 
 
“We are really sorry to have to let you go.”
 
And then I’d want to hear why. 
 
More specifically some of the ways I had contributed and would be missed. That just feels like a nice thing to do and a nice thing to hear. 
 
Also “We are going to do our best to hire you back.” Or “We are going to do our best to hire people back,” if I am in fact not going to be hired back. 
 
What I would not want to hear is any criticism of my performance. At all. 
 
The time to have heard any of that would have been months ago during some kind of performance review. 
 
Also, think about how you send someone off who is leaving of their own volition, after several years at the company. 
 
Can you honor people leaving in a similar way? 
 
Yes, the added challenge is everyone is working and socializing from home right now. But put on your thinking hat and come up with some ways to make this less painful for everyone. 
 
Second, be generous. 
 
I read that some agencies are giving employees six months of health care. Great.  
 
I would hope that employers are being as generous with benefits and severance packages as possible. 
 
I would especially hope that employers are looking at their own biases and not being more generous with say, white guys, than with everyone else. 
 
I will share that when I was laid off I thought about how many hours and late nights I have given the agency and demanded more money. And I got it. 
 
In retrospect I recognize the privilege involved in both my asking for and getting that extra money. 
 
Thirdly, give people something to help them move forward. 
 
I actually can’t remember what my severance package was. 
 
What I do remember is a booklet the agency had prepared for everyone letting go. It started with a letter essentially saying you are going to be okay, you are leaving a great agency. And it included the recruiter’s email at every other big agency in the world. 
 
It was such a great gesture, because it gave me a path. 
 
So think about ways you can help people leaving. 
 
Make a booklet. 
Give them their work computer. 
Extend their proprietary software license for a year. 
If they are a writer order them a huge stack of books (and order through the Powell’s employee union site, so 7% of the money will go to laid off workers). 
 
Here’s one more idea, treat them to a Mt. Freelance membership!  
 
If you are an agency owner or in HR, we’d be more than happy to give you a discount given the challenges you are facing, especially if you needing to buy multiple memberships. 
 
And if you are an individual who still has a job, and wants to gift it to someone who no longer does, we’ll give you an even bigger discount. 
 
Fourth, and lastly, keep in touch! 
 
It’s very easy and natural for employers to let someone go and have no more contact. Reaching back out after letting someone goes is hard. 
 
But remember even in the best of times it feels really crappy to no longer hear from somewhere you worked for a year, or five years, or two decades. 
 
The person you laid off is probably not going to make the first move. 
 
So it’s up to you. Check in with them. Either as a company or as a person. And not just how’s it going over FB messenger. 
 
Really check in, and offer them something. Some information about places that are hiring, the news that their healthcare has been extended, even just some praise on a personal project they just shared with the world. 
 
It will mean a lot. Even if you don't hear back. But you probably will. We all like closure. 
 
And that brings me to people like me. 
 

Dear Fellow Freelancers, 

 
I’m talking to you, anyone who has been freelance for a few months, but especially anyone who has been freelance for years. 
 
There are all of a sudden a lot of new freelancers amongst us. Please resist the urge to see them as competition. 
 
Instead, reach out. Check in on them. Welcome them. Share your experiences and your advice when and if they ask and are ready. 
 
Some of these folks are freelance by default and will be going back to full-time work they can. 
 
Some of them were maybe already thinking about going freelance someday and that day has come. 
 
Let’s remember that when work comes back there is going to be a huge need for freelancers. So there will be work to go around. 
 
And let’s remember that the better we can all be as freelancers, the better it is for all freelancers. 
 
When folks hire freelancers workers and it works out, they keep hiring us. When it doesn’t, they stop. 
 
So lend a hand (virtual of cause), an ear, some advice and whatever else you have. 
 
All best, 
 
Andrew & Aaron 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

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