Opinion » Ted Rall

It's Impersonal

Anatomy of a corporate layoff

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NEW YORK—One year ago, I was fired.

Not laid off—fired. Everyone knew there would be a bloodbath. Management tried to keep it secret. But we knew.

When it came, I knew there was a good chance I'd be on the death list. It wasn't rocket science: My boss didn't like me.

I worked three days a week for a company called United Media, which syndicates comic strips like "Dilbert" and "Peanuts" to newspapers. It is owned by E.W. Scripps, a media conglomerate based in Cincinnati. My title was editor of acquisitions and development. I recruited cartoonists and writers, worked with them to craft their features, then edited them after they launched. It was fun. It was also hard. On several occasions, I was pressed to do things I thought were unethical, things that screwed cartoonists and writers. As a cartoonist and writer myself, I refused.

My reviews were mostly positive. But I was given two bits of negative feedback: I didn't seem to care about forms. And I sided with the "talent" rather than the company.

I began to suspect the axe was going to fall months earlier, when Lisa—my boss—dithered about, then refused to approve, my travel to the San Diego Comic-Con. Sure, times were tight, especially in the media business. But other execs were getting their travel approved.

Lisa harassed me. She gave me impossible tasks with no chance of success, assigned me to menial tasks previously left to junior editors and insulted me during staff meetings. You've heard the euphemisms: Downsizing. Rightsizing. Me, I was part of a "reduction in force."

I had been fired from other jobs. They say getting laid off is better than being "fired for cause." You qualify for unemployment benefits. It looks better to future prospective employers. Getting laid off isn't personal.

True, if there's anything worse than having to have a job, it's losing one. Somehow, though, how they fire you matters.

If there's a moment that calls for honesty, it's firing someone. If Lisa had said: "Ted, it's like this: I don't like you. I can't work with someone I don't like. I used to trust you and your judgment, I used to appreciate what you did, but I've changed my mind. It's over. You're fired. Go home," I would still have had that hole-in-your-stomach feeling, but I would have respected her.

Scripps is a cheap company. The previous year, a perfect evaluation earned a Scripps worker a 4 percent raise. Next came a pay freeze and a lie: a pledge not to lay anyone off. The severance offer was four weeks pay.

I flipped through the lengthy severance document. Among the provisions: I could never work for another media company the rest of my life. If I'd signed it, writing this column would be a breach of contract.

There was a deadline to sign. As it approached, Carol from HR e-mailed me. We talked by phone, and when I went into the office, I told her about the media company provision. Would they delete it? "It's a reduction of force," she replied. "We can't change it."

"But a 'reduction of force' isn't a legal term," I said. "It doesn't mean anything. You can delete that section if you want to." She refused. "Don't worry," she said, "we wouldn't enforce that part." She seemed surprised I didn't trust them. Six months later, Scripps bought the Travel Channel for $181 million.