Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Wayne's story: The view from the other side of the desk

The moment is always awful, Wayne Harrison says. You sit in an office with a good employee, a soon-to-be victim of a job cut. You say you're sorry. You try to offer hope.

Harrison has done it hundreds of times, with hundreds of good employees - good people - each with a similar question: Why me?

One day, he understood.

We've been bringing you stories from around Charlotte, voices that speak to the struggles and successes you'll find throughout our city. Tell us yours, too.

Here's Wayne's story, as told to The Squeeze:

In the mid-1980s, I was working for AT&T. That was during a time we really hadn't begun to hear the words downsizing, re-engineering, rightsizing - all the buzzwords that we've come to learn mean jobs are going away.

I was stationed in Washington, D.C. - area vice president for federal systems, which meant I was in charge of an organization of about 600 people. AT&T began to say, "We need to whittle down our staff." The first round came, and I was given a number of people to just go - an arbitrary number, somebody somewhere had calculated how many dollars that would save. It had no relationship to who, it was just a number. I was given the number and told, "You pick the people."

The first time I did it, it was like 50 people. I did what I was told to do and agonized over every single one of them. I made the decision that no matter who they were, no matter how many managers were between me and them, that I sat with them during that awful moment when you have to say, "I'm sorry, but you're job has been eliminated, and I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

And every single one of them wanted to know "But why me?" And there really isn't necessarily an answer. I can give you the financial answer, but eventually it just comes down to someone has to go. There really isn't a good explanation. You can make things up, but people can see right through that.

I noticed other divisions were going through the same thing. It was repeating itself. My supervisors came back again - by then it was 1985 - and I was tasked with eliminating 200 jobs, almost a third of the division. It was composed of good performers, people with long-term service, good skills, quality people that you would build any organization around.

I made the decision to give them 199 names. My supervisor said, "We need 200 names." I told him, "I want to be No. 200." I truly believed that this was the beginning, and it would continue and grow and spread. It was not an easy decision when you're in your late 30s and you have chauffeured cars and private airplanes at your disposal. And yet, I was totally unfulfilled as a person - and wanting my children to understand that not everyone lives this way.

I moved to Florida and bought a house that was considerably smaller, put my kids in the public school system. I did not have a job and did not have a plan. I went back in the corporate world with a company headquartered in Chicago. I would leave on Monday and fly to Chicago and would return back to my office on Friday.

In that time frame, divisions were shrinking, and once again, I had to start letting people go. Sometimes it would be one at a time, sometimes it would be 10 or 15. One day, I got a call that said come to Chicago, just like i did every Tuesday morning, for a standard meeting. I got to Chicago, walked in. There was a man I had never seen before, sitting at a table.

He looked at me and in a matter of 20 seconds said, "Your job has been eliminated. Here's a ticket back. You're terminated as of this moment. Non-performance related, downsizing, we can't afford you or many others."

Suddenly, I was on the other side of the desk going, "me?" And that's when it hit me just how hard it really is - the shock and the fear. What am I going to do? What am I going to tell my family? I've never forgotten that.

I said to my wife on that very weekend that I somehow want to use the skills that God has given me, but I don't know, because I've been a business person all my life. The very next day I opened the newspaper, and there in the want ads was something called a church administrator. I'd never heard of it. Didn't know what it was.

I called them and went down and met with the senior pastor, and he explained this is how we use people to handle our day-to-day operations. They needed someone to take care of the financial, the human resources - all the things I had done all my life. It was a perfect fit.

But he said, "You realize, of course, we can hardly pay you anything." There I was coming from a solid six-figure salary down to a very, very low number. I thought "There's no way I can feed my family with this."

The job went very well. I found that my gifts matched the ministry just as I'd hoped they would. I was able to make a difference ... feel good every single night when I went home. After two years, we had accomplished everything we had set out to accomplish.

I then came to Charlotte for personal reasons. I went back into the corporate world, once again flying all over the world, evaluating offices to be closed. I did that for a year and a half and said, this is just not what I want. I opened the newspaper again, and there was an opening for a church administrator again, right here in Charlotte, at one of the largest Methodist churches.

Now I am at Covenant Presbyterian. I get to make a difference in somebody's life every day. And I don't think about pennies per share anymore.

There are times, even in the church world, where I have had to let people go. But having been let go taught me what I consider the wrong way to do it. I still meet with each and every one, and hear their story. It doesn't matter whether you work for AT&T and do 200 or whether you work for a church and you do two. We're talking about good people who don't deserve to lose their job. The pain is the same. The feeling is the same. And unless it's you, no one can really understand.


Anonymous said...

Excellent story.

Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic story to see amongst the stories of families in Ballantyne, who are suffering and agonizing over how they're going to pay their mortgages and their kids' private school tuition now that they've lost their six-figure McBank jobs.

Downsizing and putting on the brakes is not a bad thing. I got off the merry-go-round more than ten years ago. As a result, this recession hasn't even touched me. In fact, it's opened doors for me. You just have to get over that big-house, big-car, country-club, social-climbing mentality.

Sympliredd said...

Really great story... it was a good one to read as I reflect on my second lay-off in less than 1 year... There is hope and we will all survive this in the long run. It's just right now the pain makes it really tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel and wonder if there is a train behind it. Thanks for the enlightenment.

Anonymous said...

Great job on volunteering to go yourself...

But getting back into a position to be the 'cutter' tisk tisk. What a shame.