DETROIT — Early this year, a data analyst at General Motors self-assuredly told a colleague over lunch that her boss had guaranteed that her job would not be cut.
Just weeks before, on Nov. 26, GM had announced it would shutter five plants in North America amid cuts totaling about 14,000 factory and salaried jobs. Just about every GM white-collar worker was on edge — except this woman, her lunch partner recounted.
“Because of her background, I was sure she was safe too,” said the lunch colleague. “So I was really surprised when she got laid off.”
It’s a powerful lesson for Ford Motor Co. folks to remember: No one is safe.
As GM’s crosstown rival cuts salaried jobs across the company, some of those whacked by GM are now reflecting on their experience, the firing process and their life after GM.
They have advice to Ford employees: First, overconfidence is deadly; and second, “Start looking for another job, sell your house and downsize now,” said the laid-off GM employee.
GM cut about 4,000 white-collar jobs last month. Several workers who lost their jobs contacted the Free Press. Two of them, both terminated on Feb. 7 from different parts of the company, agreed to tell their story. One is a woman and the other a man. They each agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because identifying them would endanger their severance packages.
The woman, who is in her late 50s and lives in a Southern state, received 2½ months’ severance pay for the five years she worked for GM. Her spouse is employed and their child grown, and she found another job within weeks of losing her GM job.
“I know for others, though, it was devastating,” she said. “I’m over the angry part. I’m at peace with it, but it’s hard not to personalize it. You feel like you’ve given a whole lot to the company.”
She was happy to give it, too. Growing up in the Motor City, this woman said when GM hired her in 2014, it was a dream come true.
“To me, that rocked,” she said. “GM, after the bankruptcy was trying to do this thing — it was the cult of (CEO) Mary Barra where she is turning the culture around. She did a great thing in creating transparency.”
But there were challenges too, she said, such as some GM lifers struggled to adapt to the younger, new set of workers who embraced Barra’s culture. Still, this woman was self-assured that she was on a growing career path. She even turned down offers from other companies because, “I really wanted to retire with GM. It’s a great company, a great culture. Then, this happened and you’re left bewildered by it all.”
The man, who is in his late 40s with two teenage children, lives in metro Detroit. He joined GM about four years ago, earning more than $100,000 a year. But despite two master’s degrees, one in business administration and one in information technology — he remains unemployed and hopes not to have to relocate. He fears his two months of severance pay won’t cut it for long, he said.
“That’s not enough,” said the man, who hopes to get his 2018 GM bonus of $7,000 to $8,000 at the end of March. That will help, he said, “Plus, my wife is working and we’re able to get through this time. But mentally, I’m disturbed and I’m starting the whole process again.”
On Feb. 4, GM began cutting the white-collar jobs across North America as part of a restructuring intended to save the carmaker $2.5 billion this year. GM said as it went through the process if focused on being transparent and sharing as much information as possible with employees.
“We also made these decisions when the overall economy and job market is strong, which we feel increases the likelihood of our employees finding other job opportunities,” said GM spokesman Pat Morrissey.
The woman whom GM fired, who has a master’s degree in finance, was in a senior-level job. She said she was a top performer. But she also feared that she was an easy cut.
“They could get more bang for their buck from the younger tech people there,” she said. “I could lead better than they could, but they could probably produce more than I could. I didn’t have a development background that some of these millennials have. They’re very versatile.”
Millennials are people between the ages of 22 to 37 years old.
The man said his job loss shocked him because he’d met his annual performance goals and had believed his job was vital to the group.
“I was really surprised,” he said, adding that his group did not have many people in his specific job. “I think they don’t need my role in the group and combined it with someone else.”
Both said GM’s firing process could have been done differently. The woman said she started looking for other jobs shortly after GM’s Nov. 26 announcement, but no one would return her calls over the holidays. The man said neither he nor many of his colleagues had enough time to search for other jobs.
“Managers were scrambling right up to the last day and everyone was scared,” he said. “That’s not fair. Companies should be like families and give employees time and notice, do it in a nice way. Instead, the last day, you get an email to say, ‘Meet me at 11:30’ and you’re called into a room and told your job is no longer needed. You’re given a packet and that’s it.”
GM said the firing process was implemented staff-by-staff and location-by-location over two to three weeks. GM tried to do it with as much transparency on what and when it would act and as sensitively as possible, even compiling a list of other employers and offering outplacement consulting services, a GM spokesman said.
In a Feb. 4 email to employees, GM’s CFO Dhivya Suryadevara wrote: “As you hear about employees that are impacted, please be mindful and respect their feelings. People will respond differently, so always take your cue from them. Bear in mind that GM has adapted lessons from our past and we’ve thought about the individual throughout this transition. We want to preserve dignity to all employees by living our values and behaviors. We recognize that every individual will respond differently, and we will respect and acknowledge those differences.”
But for many GM employees those early weeks in February were nerve-wracking as they awaited an email requesting they go to a conference room. There, they would then face a human resources person who delivered the bad news, handed them a severance packet and within 30 minutes they were fired and escorted out, GM employees told the Free Press.
The woman who lost her job said she cleaned out her desk in December because of her uncertainty of what would happen to her and when.
“It was tough,” she said. “You’re stressed and can’t get any work done.”
In her office, some people cried on the days between Feb. 4 and Feb. 7 as they stood by their cubicles watching some 40 colleagues, one-by-one, go in a conference room and then be walked out of the building, she said.
As for the outplacement consultants, both this man and woman said when they called for help they were put on hold or disconnected.
“They should have enough people to take calls and answers our questions,” said the man. About two weeks after being let go, the man said, “I’m still trying to reach these folks, it’s so frustrating.”
Both GM and Ford are making the cuts while the companies are still profitable, a strategy they said helps them invest in future product and technology such as robot cars and electrification. And, as GM has said, helps its displaced workers find other jobs.
But as transparent and expedient GM has been on its cuts, Ford has been equally as opaque about its plan, maddening many Ford white-collar workers as they await a job-cut process Ford dubs its “smart redesign.”
For months, Ford employees described the mood at Ford headquarters in Dearborn as palpably anxious with “paralyzing” tension waiting job cuts and strategic details as Ford slowly unfolds its $11-billion restructuring plan. Ford CEO Jim Hackett acknowledged employee anxiety in an interview with the Free Press in February.
Ford’s steady refusal to share strategic decisions also frustrated Wall Street investors and analysts.
In August, Morgan Stanley Analyst Adam Jonas unleashed on Hackett publicly, pressing him for details, openly criticizing him for canceling an investor briefing and asking Hackett directly if he’d be around to explain the plan. Hackett emphatically replied to Jonas that he has no plans to leave.
Yet the man let go by GM said Ford’s job-reduction process is a better way to do it versus the whirlwind job-whacking he experienced at GM.
“Ford is doing it gradually, in phases,” he said. “So you can plan for yourself, plan your move and do what you need to do. The whole thing with GM was so sudden, I’m still in a daze as to what has happened to me.”