A Round Of Layoffs Helped Me Discover My Value As An Employee

Good employers keep a watchful eye on their workers--and they often look for things we don't think about.
06/06/2017 01:29 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2017
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Sharing a pivotal experience from early in my career, with the hope that it can encourage someone else

It was Friday. I had recently reached my one year hire anniversary at the investment banking firm. Sixty-five-hour work weeks had become the norm, and I felt a sense of pride that week as I reflected on how much I had learned, only one year after graduating from college. I joked with my coworkers; these were associates who had been there long before I joined, and were mentors for me. We poked fun at how inexperienced I was when I first began (and still was, for that matter), and how quickly experience changes things. Realizing that daydreaming was not yet a luxury I could afford, I quickly returned to the present. It was an afternoon like any other, as I sat at my desk, diligently spreading financial statements into another valuation model that was due for review before close of business. The year was 2009, and the economy was in a slump as we entered a recession and a deep financial crisis. There were few reasons to smile as an investment banker in those days, even if it were your hire anniversary.

I buried my head in my work that afternoon, and briefly stood from time-to-time to gather myself when I needed a mental break. Upon my next break, I noticed that something was different that afternoon. One of the partners paced in his office, in a manner I had never observed before. He was fidgeting, and seemingly tense. I found it odd ― after all, this was investment banking and being poised under any circumstance was an unspoken rule.

It happened -- the recession finally caught up to us."

I’d turned toward my computer monitor again and began crunching numbers, when I heard a knock on my door. “Aaron, would you please come with me?” another partner at the firm asked. Nervous and timid, I stood quickly and replied, “Sure.” As I followed him, I noticed that some of my other colleagues were being asked to do the same, while others remained at their desk with confused looks. We were herded into a conference room and the door was closed abruptly. Minutes passed as we sat there silently ― confused and nervous ― but It soon dawned upon me what was occurring. I whispered to my coworker across the table, who I often sought advice from, and asked, “Are we being fired?” He looked at me, and without speaking, he slowly nodded his head twice. He calmly signaled to me with an apologetic look that I should embrace this, and not worry, as this is the risk of working in such a tumultuous industry ― the epitome of the term “cutthroat.” I was the youngest of the investment banking analysts, I had one year of experience, and I was Black in an industry that largely lacked diversity. I wondered, amid a down market like that, how I would ever bounce back if I was laid off. The sensation of panic begin to rush through my bloodstream; I closed my eyes and prayed.

Fifteen minutes (which felt like an eternity) passed as I sat in silence, with only my thoughts to comfort me. The conference room door then slowly opened and partners of the firm filed into the room to sit. We all gazed towards them, dreading the anticipated “layoff” speech, as if making eye contact would seal our fate and make it a reality. What followed was something much different, however. “Due to the recent economic downturn, a few of your coworkers have just been let go, and have been escorted out of the building. Things will be a bit different for a while, and we’ll need many of you to take on additional work as we determine how to transition these projects. Don’t worry, these decisions were made carefully, and rest assured that you’re here for a reason. We’ll press forward and continue on.” It happened ― the recession had finally caught up to us.

Walking back to my office, I noticed that some of the senior associates, who’d onboarded and worked very closely with me, had been released. Feeling both sad and afraid that my job might also be in jeopardy, I went back to my desk and continued working. I had never witnessed anything like this before, and it was difficult to process. At 23 years old, I contemplated my future and ability to survive in this industry.

Before leaving that evening, the partner who managed my department stopped me. He could tell that I was still in shock; I didn’t pretend to hide it.

“Aaron, can we chat quickly?” he asked.

“Do you want to know why you’re still here?”

“Yes?” I muttered.

“Although it would have been easy to make decisions based on last in first out, with you, of course, being the youngest and newest hire, we instead felt that it would be unfair. You may make mistakes from time to time, but you avoid repeating the same mistakes twice. You’re eager to learn and driven. Don’t lose that.”

I walked away that day realizing that someone is always watching and observing, even when it doesn’t appear that way. It reminded me to focus on bringing my best to the office each day, and to take full advantage of every opportunity I’m given. It was an important lesson, early in my career.

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