We Still Like Ike
Volume III, Issue II - Fall 2012
  • They call it riff. R.I.F. Reduction in Force. I’m sitting at my desk in the main office after my manager had asked me to travel to the Washington Mutual headquarters in Seattle for an all-hands—even though no meeting notice came. Instead, I got an email invite for a 1:1. One on one. The first and only in two years. It isn’t hard to see what’s coming. The financial institution’s stock dropped in half last month. An hour before my 1:1 the media find out. More than 200 office closures and 3,000 positions to be let go.

    Ten minutes before the 1:1, the woman in the cube kitty-corner to mine stands up. “The Wall Street Journal just announced lay-offs here today.”

    Five minutes before the 1:1, I hear my boss and her boss laughing. Deep, explosive, tension-relieving laughter. Dam-breaking. Uncontrollable. Their voices roll across the floor, flooding the silent cubes where we wait, boxed in by our own anxiety, afraid to be released from tiny spaces, unconnected in the great big world. Raucous, collegial, their laughter heralds jokes we’ll never be privy to, laughter shared the way soldiers laugh after battle, the way police joke after shift, the way family members share memories at a wake. Release.

  • Two minutes before the funeral, my manager saunters by, wordless but still chuckling. I gather pen, paper, and dignity, and head into the conference room. Wish me luck, I tell the empty space. I stand in front of the window. 26th floor, stunning water view, completely uninterrupted by other buildings. Standing by the floor to ceiling glass is like standing on a precipice.

    My manager, clad in power red, Prada shoes and a chic bob, arrives late. She stands in the doorway, looks nervously down the corridor, no doubt for the person from Human Resources who seems to be delayed. Eventually my manager comes in, says, “Someone else will be joining us.” For a one-on-one? She doesn’t say who, or why. When the woman does show up—young, smooth-skinned, all smiles, and dressed in pink right down to the pink plaid scarf around her neck—my manager busts into the same manic laughter as before. Her manager, it turns out, had dropped by her office just moments before to show her a pink plaid blanket he’d received from a vendor. “Well, you can’t take that to a football game,” she tells us she told her manager. “Can you imagine anything more inappropriate or off the mark,” she asks, “than sending a man a pink plaid blanket?”

  • The HR rep clears her throat. Time to get started. My manager shifts demeanor, though her smile doesn’t quite fade. She turns to me and the memorized spiel spills out: company has to cut back, position being let go. She interrupts herself to say to the HR Rep, “Cover for me if I cry.” The spiteful, feeling-sorry-for-myself part of me thinks, sure, you’ve got your friends, you’ve got your inside jokes. I’ve got a mortgage, sick mother, and family to support. Who’s going to cover for me?

    But I understand. I’ve been in her shoes before—well, not Prada—but up all night, worried about the person about to be let go, how she’ll survive, and, in truth, a little drunk with the power I’ll wield. It's terrible, I know, but maybe the poor sap had it coming, not performing better than anyone else. Granted, there wasn't a chance the way work was doled out, the way my manager, for example, had given the larger projects to less-experienced colleagues who had complained that all the opportunities go to the senior people. “The newbies need to cut their teeth.” Meanwhile, I trudged through the trenches of minor system enhancements, pretending my sacrifice didn’t look to everyone else as though the supposed star of the department hadn’t just been seriously doused. And in the last few weeks hadn’t my  ............

  • manager blown innocent situations out of proportion, attributing terrible motives to my actions. Even when I helped others she wondered what I was angling for. She villainized me as I had villainized the people I’d had to lay off—to make the parting easier, to assuage guilt. Justifications to appease my sorry heart. Maybe the pink scarf really was funny, like a pink slip, like my manager’s pink slip of the tongue, of the funny bone, of whatever organ regulates compassion and protects us from recognizing our own cruelty, from recognizing we are villains ourselves.

    I come back to my desk to riff on my RIF. In a few short months, everyone will have been laid off except the few who relocate to work for WaMu’s buyer, Chase. The news will be full of exposés on WaMu risky banking practices that took the company down. The media will riff on WaMu, the employees will riff on the actions of the Federal Reserve, and those who handled the lay-offs will be laid off themselves. My $30,000 invested in company stock will end up worth less than the pink football blanket emblazoned with the vendor’s logo. My WaMu debit card will eventually expire, but when asked I will recommend my former manager, who in truth is one of the kindest people I’ve ever worked for, though, granted, with a weakness for shoes.

  • Today, I say goodbye to the biggest bank to challenge east coast banking juggernauts. Standing in front of the floor to ceiling plate glass windows, standing at the edge of joblessness and financial uncertainty, I take my turn at the precipice where I’ve pointed and pushed others before.

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