update: should I lay off myself instead of my team?

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer asking if they should lay themself off instead of their team? Here’s the update.

Last winter I wrote you and you featured me in the “Ask the Readers” feature. I want to send an update along two fronts: first, the outcome (as it was unexpected and good), and second, a Good News update from me!

First, the layoff: This did not go to plan, at all. I appreciated the feedback from readers, as it both provided a reality check and in a couple cases confirmed what I thought. There was a surprising couple of notes in there with a lot of judgement that I was not expecting, but the majority were supportive and the combined effect amplified something I needed to hear, and reminded me of my own value. But even with that soul-searching and realization that I was probably offering a lot to the team I wasn’t considering—a point I’m so glad people reiterated, because I really had written it off, and was wrong to–I strongly felt that I needed to extract myself and hand the reins over. Some of this is about how my job had changed, and some was that I was burned out and had also changed. Since that wasn’t on the table (it was repeatedly declined and I wasn’t going to just quit with no back up plan), I instead decided to do my best to both (1) warn everyone as much as I could get away with, without divulging everything (I was told it would be a violation of my fiduciary duty to the organization and grounds for termination if they found out I had done that), and (2) slow-roll as much as I could, to see if I could get myself out first and thus alleviate the budget request.

We had planned for a New Year’s massacre (we had 7 on the block across all the teams), but an incident came up over the holidays that basically put the brakes on that plan. Business leadership re-trenched for about 6 weeks to let the incident blow over and get some space. We retooled final budget projections for the fiscal year to accommodate the excess salary liabilities to our corporate overlords and planned for cuts just after Valentine’s Day. I identified the candidate on my team for elimination and was in serious talks of my own to move on. Well, in the background of all of this, the candidate for elimination had not disclosed that an immediate family member was suffering from a terminal illness and had been hospitalized since the 3rd quarter of 2020, and candidate was going to have to travel to work remotely from the family home while they prepared essentially to see their ill family member off to their final rest. It was very sad, and as a result, I managed to buy a couple weeks as it looked like the end was imminent and we didn’t want to pile on. All this came up in January.

Then, the day before the termination event was to occur, the candidate’s life partner, who had stayed home while they went to attend to the other family member, was involved in a serious accident and the candidate had to return home immediately, taking a late-day flight, all while the family member was becoming more acute. In fact, as the candidate was calling me and telling me they were purchasing their emergency ticket home to find out what was going on with their partner, the family member in the hospital was coding and other family members were rallying to get to the iPad to say their final goodbyes–and the candidate was essentially presented with an impossible choice. I told the candidate they could take all the time they needed and to just touch base with me when they could in a couple days or so, so we could figure out where things were. We hung up right then, and I took ten minutes to compose myself and immediately informed my biz leaders. I told them my heart was breaking for our candidate and that there was no way in good conscience we could move forward right now. They immediately agreed and went to corporate leaders and HR and postponed indefinitely, saying we would pick it up when the candidate’s life stabilized a bit and we got a better sense of where the candidate’s own mental state and wellbeing was. I was relieved and plowed on with my plan to try and get out first.

The candidate kept me informed over the few days and luckily the family member and partner both made it through ok. The candidate stayed to take care of the partner, who was incapacitated for several weeks, and when the family memeber started to worsen again, they were able to arrange to go back to their family home and be with everyone to say their goodbyes. It was heart wrenching to watch my colleague and friend go through so much loss and stress all at once. We were all as a team just stunned by the way 2020 and the pandemic couldn’t let anyone catch a break, and this colleague especially (the actual nicest person on planet earth)!

The story continued: The day my boss and I were set to meet and discuss restarting the restructuring plan, in early March, our business lead was suddenly let go. When that happened, it was clear that corporate leadership had different plans for us and it didn’t matter what we were trying to do or how we were managing up. The good news was, losing that large salary meant the immediate pressure was off the business to balance books. We went from being on the edge to being quite strongly positioned in the matter of a day.

The bad news was the CEO was now our direct biz unit lead, and was looking at every single thing with a fine-toothed comb (and not particularly interested in our point-of-view on our business). Which was their right! But also led me to wonder why I had spent so much time toiling away at leading a team within a company where my leadership skills and contribution were so undervalued. The outcome was that it re-energized my own search, which I basically iced after the colleague’s family emergencies. I picked up my résumé and started applying everywhere I could find an opening that made sense.

Two weeks later my boss was cut loose, as we were meeting in person to have a workshop together on our departmental plan to present to the CEO. We had realized we needed to figure out a strategy for moving our brand and business forward from our perspective rather than just wait to see what would happen. As I was on my way to the meeting spot, my boss got the call from HR that their work was officially terminated. Instead of having our meeting, we had lunch, and my boss and I built our future plans, all cards on the table. It was stress-eating and mutual love fest and mourning for their job and our work together all at once–LOL!

Meanwhile, the termination discussions stopped and HR wouldn’t return my queries on the matter. After talking to the most senior person left on our business (under the CEO), they made clear that my team’s roles were safe and we would move forward as a unit, and my reporting structure wouldn’t change, except that we now rolled into this same senior leader, as my boss’s job had effectively been eliminated and absorbed across three other departments.

While this went on, I started interviewing everywhere I could and had a real heart-to-heart with my team. My boss’s departure was poorly handled and even more poorly communicated, and it rippled through the org and my team as it leaked out. When they asked me if I thought we were safe, I told them that we had been informed we were, but that I had no more insight and couldn’t speak to the dissonance between the behavior we were seeing (the termination of my boss, the termination of our leader before that) and what we were being told. Further, I laid out that I was actively searching and would happily help them all do the same, with no judgement, and would continually advocate for their growth and advancement internally, too, as much as the organization could accommodate it. Two people asked me privately, point-blank, if they were on the block–but the candidate did not. To this day, I don’t think the candidate realized how close it came for them, and I’m so glad I didn’t have to actually do that.

In June, however, I did get offered a new opportunity! I’m now leading a global team that’s growing like gangbusters and about to launch a new product to market! My old team is still intact, and I worked tirelessly to aim leadership at promoting one of my two deputies–which they did and made official last week. They’ll even be back filling the third seat, but with a much more junior role, retooled to a much different business that, in the space of three weeks, abandoned the strategy I helped my leaders stand up and grow for five years. I don’t think the new direction is fantastic, but I wish them all the best with it and genuinely want them to succeed, which will be easier without me there. The story turned out well for everyone involved! Actually, it couldn’t have been better given the realities and pressures that were happening. The team has 100000% buy-in on their new department chief because they know this person and the person is fantastic. Although the leadership part of the job will be new to them, they are a veteran of the company and the work, and have everyone’s confidence and that’s 90% of the battle. I’ve coached this “new boss” for seven years as their lead, and can say that this is exactly what I would have done had I been able to write the outcome myself!

My new job is smashing! My boss is in the C-Suite and is amazing. I knew in our first interview together that this would be a special journey and it has delivered so far, all the way up to my final “panel” interview with the CEO, who is a visionary without being a jerk. On top of it, I got a 40%(!) salary bump and my benefits are far superior–and quite nearly free.

Thank you and the readers–great blog, great advice, and great community. Work is changing all around us at a speed I never would have believed in 2019 but I’m so happy it is. Onward and well wishes to all the leaders, job seekers, and hard workers out there!

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Estrella the Starfish*

    Nice to have a positive update! Not wanting to derail but, as a non-American, what does OP mean by benefits being ‘nearly free’? Isn’t the point of employer health insurance and such that the employer pays for it?

    1. MommaCat*

      Many employers that offer medical coverage pay a percentage of that coverage, and it’s up to the employees to pay the remainder. My current (very large) employer pays a much bigger percentage than my prior (quite small) employer; I think I paid 30% of the monthly premium, but I don’t remember exactly.

    2. M*

      Lol no. Insurers will often require a minimum amount of the monthly premium the employer has to pay (usually 50%) and then it is up to the employer how much more they will contribute. It’s rare to have 100% of your premium covered – the rest is deducted from payroll. Also dependents are not required to be covered as part of that minimum. Hooray!

      1. Artemesia*

        I worked for a major university and it cost me about $200 a month for coverage for me and my husband. I know people in low paid positions who are still required to pay several hundred a month for the company benefit health insurance — and it probably has a huge deductible as well.

      2. alienor*

        Yeah, my current employer pays all of my premium and I pay the additional premium for my dependent child, but my previous employer, a much larger company, only paid a percentage. And I declined an offer recently in part because they didn’t offer any dependent coverage (there were other reasons too, but that was a big one).

    3. Daffodilly*

      Employer arranges it and covers part of it – but usually not that much.
      Over the last decade we have had 13 different health plans through employers. We have paid anywhere from $200-500 a month for insurance for the whole family, depending on the plan. And it keeps getting worse…

    4. HA2HA2*

      Employer usually pays for most but not all of it. Usually a higher percentage for the employee and less for the dependents, I think.

      It’s often a pretty good deal (a heck of a lot better than buying your own), but not free.

    5. Boof*

      Nearly a grand of my gross income per month goes to health insurance for our family of 4 (the employer does pay part) + usually there’s a few grand of deductables and copays etc too – one example of many I’m sure. When my spouse taught we spent way less on health insurance; ironic since I am a doctor working in hospital but them’s the breaks I suppose. At least I can afford it.

      1. DJ Abbott*

        I worked in a hospital for several years and have work experience since the 90s.
        It’s been a trend since then for employers to pay less of insurance and employees to pay more. It’s one more item in the trend towards paying employees less and paying executives more. It makes employees easier to exploit and executives richer.
        The hospital I worked at eliminated my position in December 2019. One of the reasons I’m not interested in going back there is because they were trying to make everyone get the insurance that would keep all the medical care in their system. I always get the PPO because I have medical issues that aren’t very well understood and need to choose my doctors. They were raising their deductible every year for the PPO. It was obvious and blatant greed.

    6. MeMeMeMeMe*

      Also, large employers can usually arrange for bulk deal plans – so the cost per individual employee is cheaper than what the employee could get on their own.

      1. Artemesia*

        But a small employer with older or sick employees really gets hosed.My husband was a partner in a small law firm with older partners and one of their secretaries had a husband with a chronic health issue — the annual cost 11 years ago for family coverage was about 25K a year per family. The firm paid it, but it was a major cost for the firm.

    7. Roja*

      No, not usually. Sometimes it works out that way (my husband’s old company paid the premiums, but the insurance was awful), but other times the health insurance is “good” but you pay out the nose–my mom, for instance, pays over $800/month for her health insurance, just for her, no dependents.

      1. Hazel*

        Wow! That’s more than I paid to COBRA my (very good, very expensive) health insurance when I got laid off.

    8. Lady Glittersparkles*

      I wish! I had a job offer recently that looked great until I looked at the benefit package – I would have paid well over 1000 per month for coverage for myself, spouse and child. And it had high copays and deductibles for most medical necessities.

      1. DJ Abbott*

        This has been a trend for several years IME. At my old job the deductibles went up every year. Even before that in the 2000’s it seemed like a trend for insurance to cost more for the employee.
        Sadly, it will probably get worse before it gets better.

  2. WoodswomanWrites*

    This is such a thoughtful and articulate update. OP, I couldn’t be more impressed by your skill and by your compassion for your team and your employee who had to face such awful circumstances in their personal life. Despite everything that was going on for your business, the business’s management, and your team, you modeled what an outstanding manager looks like. I’m glad everything has worked out well, and reading your post makes me want to work with you myself!

    1. Chili pepper Attitude*

      Seriously, you navigated this very difficult situation so beautifully! I’m very impressed and so happy for the outcome for all.

      Do you know where your boss wound up?

  3. Lady_Lessaa*

    I just want to say that I appreciate your concern for the person who went through such a hard tine in their personal life.

    More power to you in your new job.

    1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      That struck me as well. I’m glad that the LW was able to do it and even happier that the employee never knew what was going on. I can’t imagine how much more stressful their situation would have been with a layoff hanging over them

  4. Sadie*

    This is one hell of an update – I really rode that roller coaster with you. I’m so glad you stayed while doing everything you could – and now they’re in the best possible position to keep on chugging without you. Congrats on your new situation!

  5. Bookworm*

    Whoa. Absolutely one hell of an update to wake up to on a Monday morning but I’m so glad this appears to have worked out for you in the end, (and it seems your old team?), OP.

    It sounds like an exhausting experience but glad you’ve come out the other side for the better.

  6. Not So NewReader*

    It takes real skill to land a story the way you landed this one, OP. I am so impressed. Thank you so much for protecting that employee with all the personal tragedy going on. We need more leaders who are willing to do that.
    Congratulations on your new job and I wish you the best. You deserve it.

  7. Buu*

    Amazing update. So impressed how you advocated for yourself and your team Protecting the candidate when they were at their most vulnerable is a great thing to do. Enjoy your new job and pay rise

  8. Falling Diphthong*

    It’s interesting how often we hit the theme from top management to middle management: “We need you to convince your team, and Bob, that what we just did to Bob is in no way indicative of how we will act going forward.”

    It’s like they’re astonished that anyone can see the dissonance, and convinced that better messaging and/or a logo’ed water bottle will fix that.

    1. EPLawyer*

      Yeah I have no faith that this “new direction” will be anything but the same old, same old with a new name. The dysfunction didn’t go away just because the team got moved to a new boss. In 6 months, they will be right back to what they were doing before.

      Glad you are out OP. Hope the rest of your team also realizes that words are meaningless in that company and keeps up their job search.

      1. Alternative Person*

        Yeah, it’s a running joke at my job that the only thing that stays the same is everything is changing.

        1. Artemesia*

          I once worked in a failing organization and the response was a major re-organization about every year for several years. We finally went from the penultimate re-org matrix organization to departmentalization in order for them to fire people by department in the merger to avoid law suits. It was a classic of re-arranging chairs on the Titanic.

  9. DJ Abbott*

    OP, this reminds me of the hospital that I worked at that eliminated my position in December 2019. In the two years leading up to that, each year before Christmas they eliminated several support staff, including my boss’s admin.
    A few years before my position was eliminated my boss had gotten me an upgrade and raise for extra responsibility. I had no warning and when I was called to HR and found my boss there I was afraid I was being let go and I was right. Everyone in my department was upset but there was nothing they could do because the decision was made by higher-ups.
    As you can imagine, all this was very bad for morale. In the few years before I stopped working there, our medical residents were turning down jobs at the hospital because of the way it was managed. It really was amazing how much it changed in less than a decade.
    My boss left two months after I did. He had been at that same hospital his entire career, since he was a resident.

    1. Artemesia*

      A lot of medical practices and hospitals are being bought up by venture capitalists whose goal is to strip wealth and the immediate result is squeezing employees — costs for care go up and up and pay and benefits for the people providing the actual services go down and all the money goes to investors.

      1. DJ Abbott*

        Never mind that people’s lives are literally on the line here… there should be a law against this!

  10. alienor*

    OP, you sound like a great manager and I’m impressed by how hard you fought for your team and your employee. I wish business in general and corporations in particular weren’t full of so much BS that good people have to struggle against with limited information.

  11. C in the Hood*

    OP, to me you are Best Boss of 2020/2021. I’m so glad you had stayed on to protect the one candidate and to go to bat for/prepare your team. I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever worked for who would have done all that.

    1. The Prettiest Curse*

      Yes, I was very impressed that they did so much to protect the employee who was having the series of personal crises. A+ for not making a horrible situation a lot worse for that unfortunate team member.

  12. learnedthehardway*

    What a rollercoaster!! I’m glad things turned out okay for you and your team!

    How did things turn out for your boss? Hopefully they also landed on their feet.

  13. AdequateArchaeologist*

    OP, I just want to say how impressed I am that you put your candidate first and really took care of them. I had a string of horrible life events this year, including two deaths, and when my boss + coworkers took over my duties with minimal notice and basically be told me to so whatever I needed they gained so much loyalty and goodwill from me. I’m sure your employee will remember how compassionately you handled the situation. And I’m glad your company didn’t try to ax them in the middle of it all! Was kind of expecting them to just tell your employee not to come back, so I’m glad it went the other way.

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