Layoff rumors? This VP can't handle the truth

A tense job environment is made worse by a senior VP chasing down snitches and leaks

Layoff rumors? This VP can't handle the truth

Most of us were hired to handle the technical part of the IT job, but few recruiters or interviewers mention the equally challenging -- and perhaps more puzzling -- chore of dealing with office politics. You never know who will be an adult and who will bite your head off in face of difficult news and developments. I was subject to the latter while I was pretty new in my position as a “level 1” IT manager of an operations support department for a regional bank.

At the time, our bank was struggling to keep costs down after deregulation had brought increased competition from other banks. The industry was in upheaval, and we weren’t sure yet how these external events would affect our business.

As always in such situations, we were all wondering what it would mean for us personally. There were many rumors about layoffs throughout all departments, but the execs said nothing. Speculation and fear took over.

Calming the fear

As a manager, I was on the receiving end of the latest dire predictions or factoids overheard by my employees. Separating fact from fiction was tough, and I certainly didn’t want to rumormonger with my team members or peers. I was concerned as well, but I tried to find a good way to deal with it and to allay our stress if I could.

The best way I found to do this was to check in with my boss when I felt a rumor might have some credibility -- and only a few of the whispers qualified among the many that were flying. I hoped to dispel the more alarming notions with my team if my boss could say with certainty that the rumor was false. Sometimes my boss would tell me more about what was going on, which I would keep quiet if told to do so. It was a tricky situation for all of us.

I had a friend who worked as a recruiter in Human Resources. One day she told me that a large section of IT -- which included my department -- would be laying off around 400 people out of about 5,000. This woman had always told the truth before, so I felt that I could trust what she was saying.

I told my boss -- and no one else -- what I had heard. My boss thanked me for the info. He said he had heard similar rumors but no specific numbers, and he could not confirm what I told him.

The fallout

Less than a day later, I got a surprise phone call from my boss’s boss’s boss -- the senior VP of all IT operations!

He yelled at me over the phone: “What are you doing spreading rumors about 400 people in my department being laid off?!” I took a deep breath and told him I heard something about layoffs and had talked about it to my boss, but hadn’t told anyone else. He said the rumor was not true. Then he asked me who had told me this information.

I told him that I did not want to name names because the person who told me probably heard it third- or fourth-hand. (And of course I did not want my friend in HR to get in trouble, but I wasn’t about to tell that to the senior VP.) He pressured me a bit more, but I managed to escape after a sternly worded warning to not listen to or pass on any more rumors. I bit my tongue to avoid telling him, again, “I told my boss and no one else!”

Fast-forward about 10 days, and guess what? We were told about 400 people in IT were getting laid off. I guess the information was too close to home for the execs.

Luckily, I was not among those getting a pink slip, but until the final cuts were made, I was worried that my rumormongering had put me on the senior VP’s hit list.

It’s not easy navigating the needs of a stressful job situation, and how to proceed definitely depends on the people, corporate culture, and specific scenario. I certainly am much more careful about talking to anyone about rumors -- even someone I feel I can trust. As much as possible, they are for my internal processing only.