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It’s Not Business, It’s Personal

The crash in oil prices has, by many different accounts, cost America about 100,000 jobs. And that number is very likely to rise if things continue to spiral downward.

But when you just looked at that first sentence and saw the number 100,000, did you put a face to it, or did you skim over the number as if it was just another statistic?

A hundred thousand is a lot. It would fill AT&T Stadium in Dallas. It’s roughly the population of Beaumont or Abilene, and just slightly under the population of Waco.

But the thing to remember is that it isn’t just a number. It’s people. Every single one of those jobs lost represents a dad, a mom, somebody’s son or daughter, or even you or me. I don’t know many people (come to think of it, I don’t know anyone) in our industry that hasn’t been laid off at least once in their lives. In my 40+ years in the business, it’s happened to me four times. Each time carried with it the dread of having to suffer through the drive home, trying in my mind to figure out what to tell my wife, not to mention the “walk of shame” (no, not that one), when you’re carrying the vestiges of your career at Xxxx company down the hallway and out to the parking lot, while your former co-workers watch from the windows above.

But as bad as that is, at least for me, the thing that rivaled getting laid off was having to lay one of my employees off. I have had to do it many times. When I worked for a large, billion-dollar offshore services company, times got tough during the last downturn. I got a call from Human Resources telling me to send three of my employees down to HR, and they would break the news to them that they were being let go. I said “no”. If their lives were about to change drastically, that news should come from me, the person who shared their successes and failures over the years, not from someone they didn’t know in HR. When I told each person individually, we cried, we reminisced, I offered to help them get jobs at other companies, and it seemed to make it a little easier on them.

But I think things have changed in recent years. Employees find out about layoffs through the media, social or otherwise. Don’t quote me, but I’m guessing that back in February, when Weatherford announced that it was cutting 8,000 jobs, a lot of those people affected found out about it first either on the news, in the paper, or on Facebook or LinkedIn. And if you scroll through the scores of news stories that appear each time a company starts slashing, one quote almost always appears: “It’s not personal, it’s business”.

We’ve all heard that before. Companies have an obligation to their shareholders, and the bottom line, and they have to cut costs to keep the bean counters happy. And that’s understandable. The oil and gas industry has put food on my table for decades, and I understand the importance of a healthy bottom line. But in virtually all successful companies, it’s the people that make a bottom line healthy. That’s personal.

There’s a great line in the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail that Tom Hanks tells to Meg Ryan, just after his behemoth big box book conglomerate put her little bookstore out of business. He utters that infamous line, “It’s not personal, it’s business”. Meg’s reply is classic: “What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn't personal to you. But it was personal to me. It's personal to a lot of people. And what's so wrong with being personal, anyway? Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal”.

My laying people off, and my getting laid off were very personal. Many times it can lead to better things. Many times it won’t. But the most important thing to remember for HR people, executives, directors, managers, and anyone else who will ever find themselves in the situation of having to lay someone off is, it’s not business, it’s personal.

Nobody knows when (or even if) oil prices will regain their upward momentum and companies like the Weatherfords and the Halliburtons will be able to bring back some of the people who were casualties of this most recent round of layoffs. But if and when they do, please try to remember that 100,000 isn’t just a number. It’s you. And me.

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