The Day I was Laid Off from the Zoo

Mike Gellman

As I trembled to maintain my composure and focus on the task at hand, Dan just sat there… patiently waiting for over three hours as I furiously tried to finish what I was doing. He never even broke a sweat.

Earlier that day, I had received a call from our HR Director, Stan, who had an unusual sense of urgency in his voice. He asked me to come down to his office right away. Being that my office was situated at the other end of the Zoo (about a 15-minute walk), I couldn’t help but let my mind wander as I purposely strode across the grounds to get to Stan’s office.

Five years earlier, shortly after getting my Master’s degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, I was offered a dream job working for the Zoological Society of San Diego (more widely known as the world-famous San Diego Zoo). My role included training, facilitating team development and organizational changes, strategic planning, and managing employee recognition programs. I relished the opportunity to equip and enable leaders, scientists, animal and plant care professionals, and operations staff to work together more effectively, improve the guest experience, and fulfill the organization’s mission. The diversity of my magnificent cohort of colleagues was only surpassed by the rich collections of plants and animals that were the focus of the organization’s conservation efforts to help end their extinction.

A mix of anticipation, anxiety, and dread washed over me on that long walk to Stan’s office. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The organization had been experiencing a great deal of disruption and financial strain in the months following 9/11 as tourism dropped off immensely. The Zoo had recently begun a restructuring process which included some exciting changes, but also had many of us on edge and preparing for the worst. When I arrived at Stan’s office, he proceeded to inform me that I was being laid off.

Although I had braced myself for the possibility of being laid off (there had been rumors for months), I left Stan’s office stunned. With mixed emotions, I subsequently ducked into Gaby the HR Manager’s office next door. Then I lost it. Tears erupted as I struggled to make sense of what had just happened. “Why me?” I asked. I had been a devoted and passionate team member. Gaby clarified misconceptions that were racing through my mind and consoled me while explaining that it wasn’t personal. Once I had regained some composure, she informed me that I would need to pack up my belongings and turn in my badge that day. And that Dan, our head of Security, would escort me back to my office and help with my belongings.

Back at my office, I began boxing up my stuff as Dan sat comfortably in the extra chair I had for guests. He told me to take my time. I had loads of mementos, books, presentations, and all kinds of projects that were in mid-stream. I wanted to inform everyone who was counting on me for different things. And most of all I wanted to say goodbye to co-workers and clients I treasured during my time there.

Dan reminisced with me, listened to my myriad of musings, and even shared his own experience of being laid off before. He allowed me time to compose and send a goodbye email to everyone I could think of who meant something to me over my five-year tenure there along with my forwarding contact information. Dan treated me with the utmost respect, well-beyond his official role of supervising my departure.

As traumatic and emotional as things were that day 19 years ago, I’ve never forgotten the genuine and caring way Dan and Gaby treated me. They both treated me with courage and compassion and allowed me to leave with dignity. This meant the world to me. In my experiences surviving layoffs since that time, it’s become clear to me how many organizations miss these key ingredients. Many organizations lay off employees with an empty and vacuous execution of the task at hand rather than helping them leave in a humane and dignified way.

I was also grateful to have received a severance package which included many months of career coaching. This additional support helped me overcome my fears of finding a new job, regain my focus, and eventually led me to new career opportunities that have served me well over the years. Meanwhile, I kept in touch with my former co-workers and clients over the years and have visited the Zoo many times. Years later, they also invited me to become a member of an Alumni Association to stay connected and current with new happenings.

Here are a few lessons to keep in mind if you are in the position of laying people off:

1. Do it in person if possible.

Don’t take the coward’s way out with a callous email or text.

2. Provide emotional support.

Even under the best of circumstances, it’s still traumatic to be let go.

3. Treat affected employees as you would a friend.

Dignity and respect go a long way during a difficult time. Operating with the utmost integrity during layoffs can ultimately enhance your “employer brand.”

4. Provide temporary, ongoing support.

Tangible assistance such as career coaching helps former employees move on from your organization more quickly with a greater sense of control and ability to get back on their feet with a new opportunity.

Sometimes when I visit the Zoo, I run into a former colleague who inevitably asks me “Are you back?” I’ve moved on, yet it would be a privilege to come back and work there again someday.

How do you want to be remembered? 

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About the Author:
Mike Gellman is a seasoned coach, speaker, facilitator, and trusted advisor with 15+ years experience in Fortune 500, nonprofit, and family-owned organizations. He’s the author of Pipe Dreams: 7 Pipelines of Career Success and CEO of High Five Career Coaching which facilitates transformational business and career success among socially conscious, purpose-driven organizations, leaders, and technical professionals.