The Personal Business of Being Laid Off

I was told getting laid off from my dream job had nothing to do with me, but after I was let go, I felt like I had lost a part of myself that I couldn't get back. 

When I need comfort and familiarity, I cycle through five or so different movies I’ve seen at least a half dozen times each. Nora Ephron’s 1998 classic You’ve Got Mail is a frequent go-to. Watching Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), a smug but charming business man, destroy Kathleen Kelly’s (Meg Ryan) livelihood by opening a big chain bookshop beside her tiny independent while they fall in love anonymously online is somehow the perfect romantic comedy.

On my most recent watch, though, I found myself emotional over one particular exchange. Joe visits Kathleen in a bid to win her over romantically and begins telling her that destroying her business wasn’t personal. In response, she tells him, “I am so sick of that. All it means is that it’s not personal to you, but it’s personal to me. Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”

“It’s not personal, it’s just business” is a film and television trope so pervasive that up until recently I didn’t question its truth. When I was laid off from what I thought was my dream job, nearly a year ago, some version of it was repeated by almost everyone who talked to me. 

One morning in mid-July 2017, nearly ten months into my employment as a staff writer, my entire office gathered for an emergency town hall where it was announced that the media giant I worked for would be cutting sixty or so positions worldwide. We were told in vague terms this was because the company was growing and resources had to be allocated elsewhere, elsewhere being our television and film studio. Headlines called this a “pivot to video.” It was a phrase popularized earlier that same year, when MTV News in New York City laid off almost its entire editorial staff.

For an entire week at my office, in hushed tones, water cooler talk turned into discussions about who would get cut and why. “This happens with every media company at some point,” was the general consensus on how to deal with the news. That week, I went for dinner with friends of mine who also worked in media. They all assured me I had nothing to worry about. “You’re too good for them to let you go.” A part of me believed it, as illogical as it was. I was far from the best writer or most efficient worker on my team, and layoffs weren’t a popularity contest. It was all about money, and not us as individuals.

It was a Thursday morning, shortly after my team’s daily meeting, when I received a Slack message from my boss asking me to come to the most secluded meeting room in our trendy, open concept office. Immediately, I knew what was about to happen. The director of HR told me my position was redundant and laying me off had nothing to do with my performance. I was then instructed to leave the office within five minutes with my coat and bag (the rest of my stuff would be mailed to me) and to absolutely not say goodbye to anyone so as to not disrupt the process. My emails and Google Docs disappeared as I was in my meeting, I was not given a chance to save anything. 

As I was packing up what I could, trying to blink back tears while also not alerting my coworkers I had been let go, I couldn’t believe it was over in such an unceremonious way. I meant nothing to this job that had meant so much to me. 

I had nowhere to go. Not wanting to cry on public transit I ended up in a Burger King down the street. I openly sobbed in public for the first time in my adult life. Nobody in the restaurant noticed.

It’s not personal, it’s business.

I began freelance writing in the summer of 2014 after having worked for years at call centres and various dead end jobs. Not being a gifted student or having much interest in academia, writing and literature were among the few things I was passionate about. Though I didn’t admit it to any of my friends or family, I had always dreamed of writing professionally. Because I had never excelled at anything, the idea seemed impossible and embarrassing in the same way declaring you’d want to be a movie star felt. Nobody really got “jobs” in the arts unless they were special, and special was something I was certainly not.

I watched as a childhood friend of mine went from blogging to freelance writing, and I asked her how to get started. She generously gave me my first byline at a fashion blog she edited and later connected me to the right people to pitch at other publications. Even though my friends and family had never heard of most places that would publish me, I was writing for money. More importantly, my dream was within reach. 

Like in all creative jobs, there’s no formula or clear path to finding success as a writer. While talent is a factor, much of it is dependent on being in the right place, knowing the right people, and luck. Without knowing how exactly, I accumulated increasingly recognizable bylines (finally, places my parents had heard of), and my newfound sense of ambition meant I was always looking at what was next.

I soon learned that when you’re in the world of freelance writing, regardless of how sought after you become, how many Twitter followers you have or impressive American bylines you accumulate, you begin grasping for the validation and security of either a book deal or a staff position. Choosing to work in media, especially if you’re a writer, means being steeped in layoffs and restructuring, even when your position is theoretically permanent. This reality is well known the moment you begin writing with the intention of being on a staff anywhere. Because of this, obtaining a salaried job with benefits feels more like winning a prize than a natural career step.

In late August of 2016, I was in talks with a hiring editor for an open position as a staff writer and after many interviews and sample pitches, my first day of work was that October. Before receiving my initial salary offer my friends had warned me this company was notorious for lowballing. Whatever was offered would be much less than what was expected or deserved from a media giant. They were right, and it took an extremely well worded counter offer written by a more experienced (and generous) friend to get a small increase in pay. 

Despite how little I was getting paid initially (we unionized and my pay increased to something reasonable), I was overjoyed to be employed. At work, even on my worst days, I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to write for a living. I remember a conversation with a well-intentioned executive in which he told me how lucky I was to be employed in a creative field, “I hope you remember this often,” he told me. I did feel lucky in a way. As far as jobs went, I found my coworkers and work to be mentally stimulating. My job went beyond just writing, I got to make video content I loved. I helped create a television show and, though it didn’t end up ever getting made, it will be an experience I will cherish forever.

My happiness and supposed good fortune made me feel safe. Each time other media giants announced layoffs, I’d wonder if we’d be the next company to follow suit, but, not knowing how business works, I’d tell myself that a company that was worth (at the time) a billion dollars wouldn’t need to do that until I was long gone. I was safe.

Knowing what I do now, it’s embarrassing to admit that having a job gave me an identity, a purpose. It gave me a legitimacy I yearned for when freelancing. Before my job, when people would ask me what I did and I’d tell them I was a writer, I felt like a fraud. The reality of freelancing is often waiting months for cheques and payments to arrive. It means knowing that one month you’ll be in demand, and the next month your inbox could be empty. The ebb and flow of the job left me too scared to even call myself a writer out loud to other people. Yes, I had been published—but that didn’t mean I would continue being published or that the people who’d publish me would even have jobs in a month. 

To outsiders, my worth was directly based on how much people were willing to pay for my words. And once I got a staff job, I had all the right answers. “Do you get paid for that?” I was asked multiple times by strangers making (pretty invasive) small talk. “Yeah, of course,” I’d say and immediately I felt their interest in me increase.An actual job? With a salary and benefits?” I finally felt like I had made it.

My job’s honeymoon period lasted a very long time. After the unstructured loneliness of freelancing, I looked forward to waking up before 8:00 AM. My job had a type of social cachet as well, it was a “cool” job. We worked in a former factory with exposed-brick walls in a recently gentrified area of Toronto, something I now realize is a hilarious and embarrassing cliché. I felt appreciated and valued by my immediate supervisors who nurtured my abilities. It has been rare in my experience for white editors to see me, a black Muslim woman, as a multi-dimensional writer who could publish work beyond the scope of identity politics and race. My editors encouraged me to be funny and write about what interested me, something I realize now is the bare minimum expectation as a professional writer, but it’s still more than I can say about the majority of editors who contact me now. 

I still had to deal with bullshit from executives who were out of touch with what those creating content were actually doing—I’ll never forget when one cornered me in a bathroom and mentioned how she mentored underprivileged girls from a black neighbourhood in an attempt at small talk—but my editors were extremely generous with their time and resources, despite being stretched thin with responsibilities. They had years of experience and were patient with how little I knew about the inner workings of a content cycle. Before, I spent hours upon hours alone, second guessing myself and yearning to bounce ideas off others. Now, I was a part of something larger. My colleagues cared about me as a team member, we had fun together! We made jokes in Slack and then we would post them on Twitter for outsiders to see! (Yes, I now realize how lame this is.) I had never understood wanting to see coworkers outside working hours, finally it made sense. We’d meet up on weekends, have meals together—some of my former coworkers are still my closest friends. 

During my employment, a friend of mine and I met up over dinner. We had just had a town hall that evening, in which the company’s president assured us we were part of something great. Talking about my company’s culture, she told me, “There’s no such thing as a cool job.” A job is a job, ultimately those at the top don’t really give a shit about you, she said. “It’s a scam! Capitalism is a scam.” I nodded in agreement, knowing deep down she was right. But in my mind, my job was the exception. It wasn’t like other jobs, it was a cool job people would kill to have.

I was let go just a few days before my 26th birthday and two weeks before a holiday to the Netherlands and Germany with my brother and cousins. After announcing the layoff on Twitter, my inbox was flooded with opportunities from people who wanted to work with me. I’m privileged enough to have the support of my family, I knew I’d never be destitute. Still, I felt sorry for myself. I went to my brother’s house in Ottawa and played video games until late into the night in a dark basement. Each time I remembered what had happened, I’d burst into tears. I deactivated my Instagram and Twitter because I felt too much pressure to show my followers a brave face. My friends and family gave me endless pep talks, but my mind would always go back to feeling like I had lost a part of myself I couldn’t get back. 

My more experienced friends told me I’d get a job in no time. This still hasn’t happened, but I’m not surprised. Job scarcity and low pay from traditional media companies means dozens of my former colleagues and peers have pivoted to working for tech companies that are “creating content,” a concept that not many people can define when I ask. They’re getting paid enough to live comfortably in Toronto, something they couldn’t do before. Now, without a regular 9-5 job, I’m freelancing again, doing about any type of writing or media adjacent work I can 

Recently, two young students at a coffee shop who recognized me from Twitter asked for career advice. All I could think to say was, “Um, network? Talk to people?” I didn’t know what to say. Maybe, “Find a steady government job, forget about your dreams.” 

Why would emerging talents, especially the young people of colour who frequently contact me for advice, want to break into this industry?

Thinking about the future of publishing and media, it’s especially distressing to think of those young and emerging Canadian writers of colour. I look back on what it was like when I was trying to “break in.” It meant dealing with hostility from the few people in Canadian media with power. It meant pitching an editor one day, and seeing them tweet something vaguely racist the next week. I know what I’ve had to endure, and continue enduring in order to get the same opportunities as my white male peers. It was just over a year ago that editors from the few magazines and newspapers we have left came to the public defense of a writer who argued in favour of cultural appropriation. While many eventually apologized, I still think about that week often, as a reminder of who the gatekeepers are and what they think of us. 

I have no idea what my future holds. People tell me it seems like I’m doing great, but I’m not sure what that means anymore. I’ve seen the cycle of lay-offs at other media companies continue across the United States and Canada. Sometimes it’s framed as yet another “pivot to video,” other times, a business transaction. It’s sad and scary to work in media, it scares me to think of what future I have in an industry where losing your job can be met with an “it happens.” Just recently, an email to an editor at a print magazine bounced back. After hearing she was laid off, I checked her social media, only to see she had deactivated her Twitter account.

It’s difficult not to miss the loss of structure and regular money that came with a job. I “got over” getting laid off because I knew I had to; as long as I work in this industry, it will likely happen again. I don’t think it’s healthy to believe having a job should be seen as anything but a normal right.  I spent nearly the last half year trying to move on from something that I was told had nothing to do with me only to realize I couldn’t get over being a part of an industry that can’t fix itself. As long as employment is treated like a coveted prize, it’ll always be personal.