Podcast Transcript; Downsizing Grief Takes Its Toll

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Downsizing Grief Takes Its Toll

Today I'm talking with Pat Werscherl who will be sharing her personal story of grief and how it affected her personally and professionally. Welcome, Pat. Thank you, Linda. Good morning. I know we spoke briefly before about your experience about corporate downsizing, so why don't you go ahead and share with our listeners your story and how it relates to the grief process.

Pat Werscherl - Linda, this happened almost 12 years ago. I was a director of product development for Bristol-Myers Squibb consumer medicine. There were about 100 of us who work at a site in Hillside, NJ. We had worked together for many many years, and we were all that was left of a once larger organization of about 1200 people. I had started with Bristol-Myers in 1986. At that time, the Bristol-Myers consumer had two manufacturing plants, a very active R&D, an extensive marketing group, a substantial component of Bristol-Myers company. In 1990 Bristol-Myers merged with Squibb, and between the two companies, they had a lot of division and slowly but surely as a result of the merger they divested the divisions that were not closely aligned with the core pharmaceutical business. 

One of the first to go was Dracket home products. Bristol-Myers had owned Clairol, and that was the divested very quickly. So by the year 2000 anything that was not directly related to healthcare was gone and then gradually the divisions that were even within the healthcare arena were spun off and so we knew that by the year 2005 it was only two other non-pharmaceutical businesses that were in the healthcare that remained in the Corporation. So we knew that our time was short, but it still came as a shock on January 12, 2005, when one of the vice presidents came into our cafeteria and announced that the entire division was going to be divested in the year 2005. Now in Hillside where we worked there were about 100 people. As I said, we all very close-knit. We were very much a family at that site. Some of us had worked there 15, 20, 25 years. One person even had worked there for 40 years.

 Linda Trignano - Wow 

 Pat Werscherl - So it really was family, and you know with all the things that families have, arguments, squabbles, and competition and sibling rivalry all those things but we still we were a group that worked well together. My department had by that point it was down from 25 to 12people, but even when you considered out of 100, my department is more than 10% of the site. We were told that because it was it was a divestment, we were not allowed to bid on jobs in the rest of the company even though we were not the same type of business as the core business. We were still a pharmaceuticals based business, and so a lot of the skill sets that we had were directly applicable to other sites in the company particularly in New Jersey but because of the terms of the divestiture we were essentially not allowed to bid on jobs at other sites.

So we were confined. As you can imagine getting this news, that our days are to be numbered. We were told that they expected to complete the deal sometime in the third quarter. it's almost as if you got a diagnosis of a terminal illness that you couldn't escape from, and we couldn't escape. Then, of course, they promised an enhanced severance package double of what the employee manual had for a usual severance agreement. So they had put us there with golden handcuffs essentially to keep us there with an incentive and of course many of us were there for a long time.

I was there for almost 20 years, so the severance package with was really quite a large dollar amount, so we were sort of stuck there. So we went through the grieving process. First, there was this denial like well maybe they'd change their mind. Perhaps they won't find a buyer; what will they do they if they can't find anybody to buy us or they won't have everything together so that so somebody can come in really look at us in and give a fair offer. There were always rumors some of which turned out to be true and some which were now what we call fake news but the rumors were almost crippling the daily rumor mill. You didn't dare not go to the cafeteria for lunch because that's were you caught up on the news. Either there or the company gym. Just constant rumors. So there was this whole denial like this isn't really going to happen; they're not going to be able to find a buyer and all these things.

So you went through the denial, and of course, then there was the anger. "Look what we've contributed to the company for all these years; look at the good service we've given to them." We went through all that but what was even worse, because we were a research and development site most of our work was directed towards new products and after about two months they said we're not to launch a new product in the middle of this divestiture.

Suddenly almost everybody at that site nothing to do. That was horrible. People were walking around getting a resume ready of course, but that was the anger and the lassitude it was crippling to watch people.

However, what happened with my group which was really a challenge in a way but also a godsend that after a couple of months the manufacturing plant no longer had our manufacturing plant, so it was within the company that our products are farmed out. The products were being run in the same plan that pharmaceuticals were made out in Evansville, and all the sudden one of the products failed the release test. Everybody in manufacturing denied having done anything wrong but here is a product that we have made in our own plant in our own facility (which had recently shut down) for years and years without any problem. While we were not working on anything new, we had a team that was a crack investigation team. We just jumped on it because we weren't producing any products and we were in a just-in-time inventory. We were dangerously close to having no inventory on this product. Now if there is no inventory of the product that is shipped to retailers, you lose your space on the shelf. Wal-Mart doesn't like empty spaces so if you're the product isn't there something else goes there, and it's not going to be one of your product is going to be your competitors.

Linda Trignano -  It's not easy to get space back.

Pat Werscherl - No, once you lose the space, it is virtually impossible within the next turn of reset to get it back because now you've lost their trust. So we were dangerously close to backorder, and of course, the plant didn't tell management. This is really a crisis situation and of course our management was saying if we are going to back order and we lose this product, we would lose our biggest customers such as Wal-Mart, Kmart, Albertsons, all the big chain stores. If we lose this, we're going to be losing a good chunk of our reputation or product, and that will mean that we will not make as much money on the deal. There won't's be business bonuses, yadda, yadda. So it all fell to the group of the 12 of us to do the research into it. We jumped on it and sent people out to the plant. It turned out that somebody in purchasing had purchased the wrong grade of one of the materials. What they purchased came in with a lubricant and the formula added lubricant so when you add twice as much lubricant in a pill, it doesn't dissolve. We did all this analysis and plant realized, got the right grading back in production, and everything was fine.

During that period of time, it was really difficult to keep people motivated, to keep people engaged but it was a challenging problem that kept our group together. But we were walking around the site of the living dead, and everybody's looking at us because they literally had nothing to do. We were sweating' it, and so is a very interesting challenge, and I'm actually grateful that we have this challenge. As a result , there were a couple of other things that fell apart. That happens when you're under such stress, because it affected the plants that were making the products because they were afraid that they were going to lose the manufacturing piece. If they lose the manufacturing piece, they would have to lay off people. It was a whole chain reaction. So people made mistakes.

There were a couple of other incidences in the nine months that we were waiting for our demise where my group had to do an investigation in our lab and figure out what went wrong. The result was that at least three of my teams of two or three scientists ended up getting Presidents awards which ran up to $1500 for each person individually on top of everything else. So we really came through this as star performers under the circumstances because we helped solve problems and it helped us get through this terrible, terrible period of waiting for the ax to fall. As a result, I completely change my life.

Linda Trignano - Before you talk about how that affected you, I just want to discuss a few points that you made. You said, "stress causes mistakes to happen," and as you know, this podcast is an educational series to have managers understand that grief is a lot more than death. Your point about downsizing, and I have had those personal experiences where you equate to the site of the living dead, I equated to being at a funeral every day because you don't know when it will end. The stress of that alone, never mind having no work to do. Do you have any inkling how the others outside of your 12 member team managed their no work aspect (which is really crushing)?

Pat Werscherl -  People came in late, left early, took long lunches, people wandering around. That was 12 years ago so you couldn't do video streaming. We all had company computers that didn't have games on them; you couldn't even play solitaire on them. You'd walk by people reading newspapers and putting in face time, sitting in their seats but not engage in anything and I think that idleness on the part of so many people also led to the rumors because when you have nothing to do except go visit another cubicle what did you talk about? After you got passed the weather, you talked about what was the latest on the rumor mill. That idleness and the lack of communication to us about what was going on just spread the whole rumor mill, which was crippling.

Linda Trignano -   And in there, there is the aspect of people handle the stress of downsizing. The thought of losing their job causes a broad spectrum of reactions, and I can imagine some people took it in stride and said: "I can recover from this" and other people that were totally panicked.

Pat Werscherl -  Well we had some people who worked there for 40 years, so many people, including myself, were eligible to collect their pensions. So many people were just sitting there planning their retirement and those of us who were long-timers they were in a different situation from people that had five years or less. Those people were hustling to get out and find jobs in other companies because even though there was an enhanced severance package, it was not worth it to hang out if you had an offer in a real position. So we had the constant leaving of the younger crew.

Why would they stay to get a month severance when they could get a decent job?

There weren't a lot of new hires during this period of downsizing, but there were also fresh faces, the young faces. I had a couple of new Ph.D.'s in my group that had done their postdoc with us, and those were the people that needed to get out as fast as possible and find themselves new positions and they were the ones with young families. They needed to move on. That was also a constant theme of the lifers. Some of us were planning the next phase of our lives. Many of the people that were eligible for pensions actually retired. They sat back and were planning their golf game or whatever. It was all different strategies. The older group said, "okay, this is a sign, that I'm done." Then there was the younger group that was saying "I got to get the heck out of here and find a decent job" and then there were some of us in our 50s. It was a tough age to decide what will we do next. So everybody was dealing with the downsizing differently.

Also, it was interesting, you know I was a member of the company gym from the time they opened it up in 1996. So I consistently used the gym, and I still always go to the gym two to three times a week. It was interesting to see the people that stop going and the people that started going. You know many people say I got to get myself in shape because I'm going to be putting myself out there for a job. As many people as there were left there were different strategies for all of us as to how to cope with it. So like I said, my group had these technical challenges, which was such a great distraction. People would say to us "you're so lucky" because we're jealous that you have something to work.

Linda Trignano -  I think most people in the company that you're describing really want meaningful work. It’s one of the basics for so many people. It's hard to go to work and do nothing all day. For many of us; not for everyone. 

Pat Werscherl -  Right. If you consider that through all of the downsizing, the last group of people were the people that were not let go because you let go of the poor performers first, all things being equal. If there are two people that you have to choose from and one is a star, and the other was a poor performer, the poor performer gets to the top of the layoff list. So we were not a bunch of people that were used to sitting on our hands. So that also made it difficult. Like I said, when I started in 1986, there was something like 1200 people. We were more than decimated by the time the announcement came through.

Linda Trignano -  And also the fact that you mentioned early on that you could not bid on other company sites. Having come out of a large corporation, I know that that piece is a pretty important one because there are so many jobs in a large corporation that you can take your skills and make them portable into another position. Locking this group out of that is a big statement.

Pat Werscherl -  It was almost like we were being rejected on one level, like your not good enough for us anymore you have to get out of here which is not true. There was also the rejection that we were told "after everything was settled and the deal was closed and if we didn't have jobs we could then bid for jobs at the other site but we would not be given any priority over anybody else from the outside that was bidding for the job.

Linda Trignano - lt is Interesting. 

Pat Werscherl -   Although, as it turned out, I would stay. Of the hundred people that were left, about 15 did get jobs at the New Brunswick site so that their pension and their vacation was bridged, but they didn't have plant seniority. In other words, you were a low man on the totem pole for vacation. Many people eventually did get a job. When they were an applicant for a position as well as somebody from some other unknown company unknown, they seem to get the precedent for the position. We worked with our colleagues from all over the company, so people knew us and knew what type of work we were doing. So many people were able to make the transition and stay within the company. However, that was not part of the deal, so we did feel this rejection like "no, you can't come to the other sites." I understand the legal reasons why they had to say that, but it just added to that feeling of loss. You know when you mention grief in the workplace. I immediately, this is 12 years later, and I'm still talking about it. It is still pretty fresh.

Linda Trignano -  I think that you earlier described the whole grief process, and when you have a traumatic event happened to you like that, it does stay with you. I think that's an important point to make here. That it's not that you end your time at Bristol-Myers Squibb and move on and can put that experience to the side, it's imprinted on you, on each of us that has such an experience. The feelings remain, and I think it's compounded because it's not just your feelings, not your feelings of anger or rejection but seeing your colleagues, your friends, your work family going through the same thing. It makes an impression on us, and I think when that happens, it just simply stays with us. It becomes part of our life story.

Pat Werscherl - I still get together with about five or six of the guys in the department every quarter for dinner, and we're now talking 12 years. We used to have yearly reunions but unfortunately the gentleman that organized them passed away, and nobody picked up the torch on reorganizing the get-togethers. However, for at least ten years, we had an annual lunch across all departments. A lot of us still keep in touch with holiday cards. We were family. They closed the deal one month after I turned 55, which was a godsend. It meant I was going out as a retiree. When you take your pension at 55 obviously, you get a different cut than you do at 65 but other people who had to take their pension before 55, only got 30% of their benefits. I got health coverage, which I just recently went off of when I went on to Medicare. I got to keep my stock options. Then I said "okay now what am I going to do with the rest of my' life?"

Linda Trignano -  Good question.

Pat Werscherl -  Yeah. So I was part of a high-performance group, and I'm looking at them, and I'm like "I will never and ever in my short time that I have to work, assemble such a high-performance group. Like this is all handpicked. I've been working with them for 12 years. I'll never have another group like this. I was in a new group of people who are either managers or directors of the pharmaceutical industry, and I was on the executive board at the time. I looked at everybody around the table. We were all in our mid-50s and had lost our previous jobs because of a merger or acquisition, found another one, and then lost their job again after two years because of another merger and acquisition. I do this every two years. I can't do this emotionally so I said this is the end and I applied to law school, and I never went back.

Linda Trignano -  That is really an excellent example. How long did it take you to transition into your new career?

Pat Werscherl -  Well I was fortunate that I was kept on by the acquiring company for almost six, seven months as a consultant and then that took me into 2006, and then I prepared to go to law school. I started law school in 2006 and graduated in 2009, and started practicing right away. I passed the patent bar in 2008, and I've been writing patents since then.

Linda Trignano - Really a success story rising out of what so many go through nowadays. This transition, downsizing whether its a merger and acquisition are just simply companies coming and going. So I really applaud you, applaud the effort and the success that you have achieved.

Pat Werscherl -  I really enjoy what I am doing, and I think when somebody close to you dies or when something like this happens you stop and look at your life and say "Is this is how I want to be spending the rest of my life?" "Is this what I want to be doing?" and sometimes the answer is no. I lost my parents when I was in my 20s, and those were both critical points where I really examined my life and made some changes, and I think that's what sometimes happens as part of the grief process. You look inward. I know my life will end, that their life ended. What do I want to do next?

Linda Trignano -  That is really very good thoughts, and I hope that employers and individuals that listen to our conversation, really hear that downsizing is the grieving process and it does have a profound impact on individuals that lasts for the rest of their life.

So I want to thank you for taking your time today to talk with me and share some of those really significant thoughts.

Pat Werscherl -  You're more than welcome. My pleasure.

Linda Trignano - Thank you.