What are some warning signs that your office is about to lay people off


Hi archinectors  what are some red flags you've seen in the past that you or your co workers are about to go on an unplanned vacation? Lately bells and whistles have been going off. Current place it's not so obvious. 

Oct 25, 13 3:32 pm
won and done williams
Lay-offs usually happen towards the end of the fiscal year when budgets are under review. Closed door management meetings are usually a good sign. Tension in the HR department is another. A substantial number of employees not working on billable projects is also a sign. Those not assigned to billable projects are at the greatest risk.
Oct 25, 13 7:43 am
Lots of canceled projects. People suddenly disappearing.
Oct 25, 13 8:05 am

When most of your projects are in schematic design and don't seem to be moving forward, you might be getting laid off.

Employees are asked to limit printing. Other supplies run low or disappear. 





Oct 25, 13 8:49 am
Non Sequitur

Strange men in black masks start to drag away the lower tiered staff.

Oct 25, 13 8:51 am

You come back from lunch and your chair, desk, and computer are gone.

Oct 25, 13 8:56 am

well the only I don't see is cancelled projects, and the "strange men in black masks",  thank archinectors. Strange though what's throwing me off is that a large quantity of new faces are showing up.

Oct 25, 13 8:57 am

other supplies run low or disappear?  has that actually happened at offices?  you can predict layoffs from the lack of paperclips?  i understand the theory behind it, but i would sure think that's kind of penny-wise but pound-foolish.  i remember working at an office where everything went in these 3-binders for each project, so we went through a lot of 3-binders.  we were always short.  i always wondered why they didn't just get more when they ordered them.

i suppose it depends on the size of the firm, but i would think those "in the know" would be a bit closed off from those not in the know, like they would try to avoid talking with the lower tier workers, avoid eye contact, that sort of thing.

Oct 25, 13 9:37 am

curt, on the supplies, I wasn't just laid off, we closed our whole office. I was asked to stop printing stuff about a year before I was laid off and they became very stingy with paper and pens, yes, it was my first indication that we were living off credit, which we were.

Oct 25, 13 9:56 am

From experience, closed door meetings with your project manager with the exec suite. Usually, the more expereinced people they want to keep get informed on the scenario and are told what they are can share with others. Also, people going out to lunch that don't normally take lunch together. Lunch is a good spot to get away from the prying ears of coworkers.

Oct 25, 13 10:17 am

The monthly staff meetings that beging with..."I'm sure you have heard how difficult it is out there, and the intense competition for even the the least desirable projects...last week, SOM showed up for a toilet room ADA upgrade project walk through.."

Or...."Instead of having birthday cake every month, we will now be celebrating staff members birthdays quarterly.....So, In October, it was Sally, Abdul, Brajesh, and Suk, November, we have Mohammed, Bill....oh wait....Bill is no longer with us...."

"Staff instead of our annual holiday party at Maggiano's....we thought it would be more meaningful to order a few pizza's and have an office cleaning day...since it is on Christmas eve, everyone can leave at 4:30 in order to make it home to your loved ones...oh, and no holiday bonus this year.."

Oct 25, 13 11:39 am
won and done williams

I know Kevin W. is being sarcastic, but there is something to the awkward all-staff office meeting either before or after the lay-offs. It would be almost comical if people hadn't actually lost their jobs. Half pep talk/half woe-is-me, management rattles off a series of obligatory motivational platitudes while everyone either cowers in fear or holds back the impulse to give them the finger.

Oct 25, 13 11:48 am

Sadly...I wasn't being sarcastic. Perhaps a bit, but fairly accurate experiences.

Oct 25, 13 11:54 am

No, Kevin is very accurate. Been there, seen that. 

Oct 25, 13 12:11 pm

ya, that was pretty much all of 2009 through 2011, or around then.  i survived that meeting.  not the birthday cake part though, the office doesn't provide birthday cake here.

if you hear something like "we're just going to come out and be honest with you," or anything that would loosely imply that management is no longer interested in keeping secrets, it's a bad sign, but i kind of figured those sorts of things only happened where there was a large recession going on.  i expect it would look different in the post-recession environment. 

there was a certain resignation of sort at the top levels during that period.  i would expect if a firm was about to do a mass-layoff now, there would be more confidence among the top people, so they wouldn't really need to have those awkward meetings.  instead, they might feel bad for the people they're letting go, but they know they're going to be fine so it isn't as big of a deal.

Oct 25, 13 12:29 pm

I experienced it. The day I was laid off was the day of our weekly meeting where we all talk about what we are working on. I was turning in a set of Cd's that day that I had been cranking on hard. During the meeting, I noticed that my name wasn't under any projects for the coming week. I went back to my desk, ordered prints of the drawings, then I was given official word.

Oct 25, 13 12:38 pm

And the holiday parties did go from grand affairs with hired entertainment to punch and cookies at the boss's house.

Oct 25, 13 12:44 pm


Oct 25, 13 1:04 pm

I worked in an office where the partners owned the building  and they sub-divided the building into two spaces.  We stayed in one space and the other was rented to an Astrology Company.

Oct 25, 13 6:29 pm

Holy Crap ! you archinectors hit the nail on the head as far as red flags,  a lot of what you guys mentioned not everything, but lack of eye contact, awkwardness of senior staff, not necessarily senior in terms of knowledge, I would say the ones in the club and lots of closed door meetings. Ok I guess I know what do to.

Oct 25, 13 8:54 pm

sorry correction that's bad, yesterday must have been thinking of whats ahead when I typed that last phrase. Allow me to correct it : OK I guess I know what to do now.

Oct 26, 13 8:49 am

In the early 80s at SOM when all the Middle east projects came to an instant halt because of global oil/currency crisis and high inflation, full studios/studio heads were called into a room and laid off in Masses.  When the big number hit, always a pattern.  Friday was layoff day.  While caller id wasn't part of the phone handset then, the ring pattern was.  No one would answer their phones when you would get a ring you knew was an internal call.  In one years time, the office dropped from 1300 to 300.  Blood bath.  Getting laid off had nothing more than being on a project which died.  

Oct 26, 13 9:42 am

Wow Ted! I heard of the som halloween massacre where 300 were let go at once from old colleagues. i've actually interviewed at som about several times must have worn the wrong tie cause I thought I had the job. These days som seems to be hiring lots of intern level people.  Every time I apply I seem to get called in. Last time I think I upset them because I kind of embarrassed them, think unintentionally. I will say this, for this bad economy I've been able to work in a bunch of different places, with 1000+ employees, to less than 50 . Experience wise I know because of moving around a lot I got an advantage.  I think in some sense i would not be ad knowledgable if I worked only at one office like a lot of people I know. Also think there is a difference between getting laid off and having your office close down in all but name. Which has happened to me.  I'm used to being in a large group that gets laid off. Never been in a situation where it was just myself. Think that would be strange. Best wishes hope you are all working well.

Oct 26, 13 10:37 am

Unless shifting jobs is a result of a down economy, moving around is not the way to go up the ladder.  I remember interviewing someone who had a year of som on their cv with 6 different projects they worked on while there - to me that said they were given the completely shit job to do such as filing drawings, etc. If you have a big practice on your CV with anything less than 3 year at that place and no more than 2 projects, I would completely discount that experience as meaningful.  at any firm it really takes a min of 6 months to be effective and for that firm to trust and respect your contribution.

Oct 26, 13 11:03 am

No worries Ted,  you would not discount me or my experience if i was on your team. Lets just say I have worked on many projects from proposal, to Ca, over the course of a lot of years. I have'nt "moved around" so much that I don't have years of experience at one place.  When I say moved around also that's just my way of saying was laid off, office closed.  Maybe I should have said involuntarily "shifted due to lack of work". I'd be happy to talk about some old war stories with you over email. Its a small world.

Oct 26, 13 11:36 am

PS: by the way I didn't know people got paid to simply file drawings Ive seen the copy room admin personnel do that, I've worked on mostly large projects, and finishing 2 of those from proposal, sd,dd,ca, to close out in less then 3 years would be a Herculean task.  If you know of any offices that pay me what i get paid now, just to file drawings, give me a call I wont find going home "on time".  That's another metaphor. all the best.

Oct 26, 13 11:48 am

Share your war time stories damn it!

Oct 27, 13 9:53 am

Let me share an employer's perspective. During the late summer of 2008 our firm was in a hiring mode to support two large projects that had been awarded to us. In the span of two short months - as Wall Street melted down - those two projects went on indefinite hold and a substantial number of other active projects were stopped by our clients. Almost overnight, we went from a staff shortage situation to a serious staff oversupply situation. To say we faced real economic uncertainty would be an understatement.

I've seen this happen 4 or 5 times during my career. Each time it happens, firm management is agonized by the decisions it faces. You ask yourself questions like a) how long will this last; b) when the economy does recover, what sort, and scale, of projects will be available; c) which members of the staff are most valuable / versatile during a downturn and eventual recovery; d) do we need to reduce head count or do we need to institute across the board pay cuts; e) how do we communicate our status to the staff; f) etc. ? 

These are profoundly difficult questions to confront in a short period. And, the difficulty is compounded by that total lack of any real clarity about the future - you feel like you're staring into the abyss. You want to be open with your staff, but you find it incredibly hard to know what to say. Mostly, you keep quiet until a strategy starts to evolve. This, of course, requires a number of closed door meetings with senior members of the firm. You try to carry on per the normal routine, but that's really hard. You know that the staff senses trouble - especially when whole projects go away and there's little to keep people busy.

I will say that we see some (understandably) bizarre behavior at these times. Some members of the staff start sucking up and devoting lots of energy to justifying their role in the firm. Others almost totally shut down. Others undertake a lot of furtive web browsing and private calls in one of the conference.

In the end, management makes the best decisions that experience and circumstances permit. Somebody always loses in these situations and sometimes the decisions we make seem arbitrary to the staff. In my experience, they generally are not arbitrary - it's just not always visible to some members of the staff why we keep one person and lose another. Generally, those decisions are based on our judgements about contribution and potential.

Oct 27, 13 10:49 am

Let me share an employee's perspective. It sucks when the owners can't manage to bring in work (ie arguably the most important of their duties), and the lowest tier employees are the ones who pay for it. I'm not sure there's an alternative, just an observation based on experience.

Oct 27, 13 12:45 pm

Quizzical that might be your experience, and the culture you are/were trying to inculcate in your firm. However I do not think that is an accurate assessment of most firms. I think that most firms lay off people who have not sucked up enough with their senior management, even though they might be the most useful around.

Oct 27, 13 1:05 pm

Fall 2008 was brutal, and still a major source of PTSD for employers and employees alike. I went into September with a full book of projects for the commercial studio and the need to nearly double my staff to get the work all done. And then the phone started ringing and didn't stop for a month as clients called to put their projects on hold.

We were fortunate that our business at the time was highly diversified between public and private work, so there were enough public contract jobs on the books to keep us going in the darkest hours of the downturn. Our managing partner put in a heroic effort, kept us in the black (even if just barely) through the whole thing with no layoffs. But it was still traumatic. A friend of mine owns a firm that had 150 employees at the start of 2008. By the end of 2009, he was down to 12. I can't even imagine what that must have been like to go through, either as a firm principal or junior staff.

When things first get bad, you usually slough off the 10% to 20% or so of your staff who are problematic in some way: poor performers, difficult personalities, sources of trouble, etc. That's just the Pareto Principle in action, and the reduction in treadmill pressure on getting boom time work done allows staff restructuring in a positive way. After that, though, it really starts to hurt. If the first layoff rounds under the 80/20 Rule are roughly akin to having your appendix out, later staff cuts are much more like having your hands and feet amputated.

Oct 27, 13 1:42 pm

i don't think quizzical is saying the owners/management pick the most qualified people.  i think he's saying they pick the people they think are most qualified.  often times the management doesn't really know what's going on with the working scrubs.

what "sucking up" means is that you're getting in front of the management, and often times taking credit for the work other people have done.  that's what they see, so their impression is that the people sucking up are performing better than the people actually doing the work.

of course the other side of the coin is that management knows all and sees all. a lot of people in those positions are dumb enough to believe that.  also, a lot of them got their position by sucking up, so they think that's an admirable trait.  bottom line is, it sucks to be laid off more than it sucks to have to decide who to lay off.

Oct 27, 13 2:56 pm

When things first get bad, you usually slough off the 10% to 20% or so of your staff who are problematic in some way: poor performers, difficult personalities, sources of trouble, etc. That's just the Pareto Principle in action,

e.g., if you always do what it takes even when you would rather go home on a Friday night - Always be the best, the fastest and the brightest and won't be he one that gets laid off - I will tell you - after I got laid off in the 08' massacre - it took 12 months before I got back into the game - I could have prevented that by being the best - I wasn't - even now when I go for an interview, I am questioned as to why I was laid - off  - I was mediocre then - now I am just a fast wrist with Revit - Far better to lose sleep working than to lose sleep thinking about what what I shoulda woulda done - One of my current co-workers was at a major firm and she got laid off - now she is always in the office, gets the boss her tea. 

There are no points for 2nd best - only 26 months EDD

Let me share an employee's perspective. It sucks when the owners can't manage to bring in work (ie arguably the most important of their duties), and the lowest tier employees are the ones who pay for it. I'm not sure there's an alternative, just an observation based on experience.

The solution is to not be perceived as the lowest tier employee - perception is 99% reality - be the top tier employee - if there is too much competition at your office and you don't want to put forth the extra effort it takes to stand out, then find a firm where you will stand out.

tell you what? it's just ain't worth being second best - When you lose your life savings and no one will talk to you? - When your career is truncated? 

Suck up,  be the fastest,the first one in and the last one out - be there on weekends too.


read what quizzical says - that's the reality

Oct 27, 13 3:32 pm


BTW, I was at SOM, and I had 6 projects on my list - no it was not the shitty work - I did actual project Revit modeling and production as a member of design teams - I was not doing flat file stuff, title block and other menial work - I do see your point and that explains why it took so long to get a new job and even now to get a better job - i go to interviews and "We will call you" they never do - Just because I worked on several projects in 18 months at Skidmore should not be misconstrued as poor performance and doing lackey work - 

Oct 27, 13 4:04 pm

Xenakis - In general, with 18 Months at SOM I would be looking for good solid work on only 2 projects if design development or CD's so indicating that you were on it long enough to develop a system through phases of the project, working with engineers, getting to a level where you were participating in owner meetings, etc. -- something with duration knowing most projects are large scale and complex - but then again if in the 18 months you were doing design competitions etc., 6 projects would be ok as these are very intense experiences.  The people I interviewed had 6 projects in 6 months so tells me they did squat with other short stints at other practices -  just jumping around trying to improve salary. 

Oct 27, 13 4:54 pm

You might consider only putting 2 of 6 project on your CV [one doesn't have to show everything] - Less is more [as they say]

Oct 27, 13 4:56 pm



that's what i will do - I was on one project for 6 months(SD, DD and into CD)  then it was cancelled due to the economy in 08' 

Oct 27, 13 6:09 pm

bowling_ball: "It sucks when the owners can't manage to bring in work (ie arguably the most important of their duties), and the lowest tier employees are the ones who pay for it."

Of course, another way to look at this is that the owners managed to bring in enough work to provide you a job in the first place. Sometimes macro-economic conditions trump the owners' best efforts at business development. Hardly a business in the US - large or small - came through 2008 - 2009 without experiencing substantial declines in revenue.

I also can assure you that "the lowest tier employees" are not the only ones to suffer. I personally know a number of design firm principals who did not pay themselves at all for several years during the recent recession - and these are capable people. They lived off their retirement savings so they could continue to keep some of their staff employed - now they must completely rebuild those portfolios.

Oct 27, 13 7:14 pm

Like I said,  i don't think there's an alternative, Your points are good, but like my own, are obvious. This is how capitalism works (and that's another discussion entirely).

i have a hard time feeling sorry for principals who have to dip into their retirements. These are the same principals who make sure to not pay people like me enough to ever retire, not after school debt and not offering medical benefits or a matching retirement plan. So if my boss can only buy a new $80k every three years instead of two, so be it. I'll be on my ten speed for the foreseeable future, anyway.

i don't begrudge anybody making money - not at all. But the deck is heavily stacked against young architects, with rising tuition costs, zero job stability, no future pensions, etc, not to mention the ever-decreasing cultural capital and professional respect we used to enjoy, thanks to the inability of past (and present) generations of architects to actually convey the importance of what we do.

I've worked my ass off my entirelife to get here. I'm still beyond poor but even should that ever change, I'll always remember where I came from. I just can't help but root for the little guy. Nobody else is going to stand up for him.

Oct 27, 13 10:12 pm
Hard to believe that a boss would live off retirement savings while choosing to pay staff instead unless there was an economic benefit. Maybe the boss couldn't run revit themselves? Maybe they were concerned that completely shutting down completely wouldn't allow them to reopen? But hard to believe that it was entirely altruistic.
Oct 28, 13 7:32 am

Well who ever in the work world ever DOES do something to be entirely altruistic? The employee comes to work to get paid.  If an employee sees a potential benefit long-term to working late nights now without getting paid for it, is that altruistic or is it a cost-benefit analysis?

Unless you've run a business - any kind of business - you can't understand how many forces have to be balanced to make it all work.  Yes there are crappy selfish bosses - anyone who won't pay an intern doesn't deserve to keep their license, IMO - but there are also bosses who are trying their best to keep the wheels on the bus for themselves AND their staff and it is HARD to do, 24/7/365, for decades.

Oct 28, 13 8:02 am

when a client asks us to work for free because they can't afford our fee until their tenant gets financing or signs a deal or whatever, but then drives off in a car that costs 3 times what mine costs, i find it hard to be sympathetic.

if my boss, who has a car that costs 5x what mine costs and a house that costs 5x what mine costs, has to live off savings for a year while i'm taking a pay cut and can't afford a savings account since i wasn't paid enough to begin with, i find it hard to be sympathetic.

i don't hold a grudge.  i don't think that would be fair.  i go to work for money, and so do they.  i don't think employers should hold all the cards either.  my position at my firm is negotiated.  i'm not an indentured servant, and i don't owe them anything beyond what they're paying me for.  of course they don't owe me anything beyond what i'm getting paid either.  it seems some of the nutters in my area have some sort of god-complex with employers, as if they are these supreme beings that get to dictate the terms of my employment.  i, on the other hand, support unions and people's right to earn an honest living if they're able to.  my continued employment is tenuous, and can be ended any day be either me walking away, or them firing me.  neither of us have the upper hand there.

when it comes down to it, my labor is a big contributor to my employer's savings account.  they should at least recognize i'm a part of what made them as successful as they are.

Oct 28, 13 9:41 am

Altruism is essentially the compassion of Buddhism. One way to think of it as enlightened self-interest, the idea that by taking care of those around you, you will do better.

It works.

Oct 28, 13 9:41 am
won and done williams

file: I personally know a number of design firm principals who did not pay themselves at all for several years during the recent recession - and these are capable people. They lived off their retirement savings so they could continue to keep some of their staff employed - now they must completely rebuild those portfolios.

That's not altruism; that's pure stupidity, and if true, probably an indicator from an overall business and financial standpoint why the firm was in the straits it was in. 

Come on, let's be serious here, anyone who thinks the firm owner has it harder than the staff during a period of lay-offs is fooling himself. I've sat in those management meetings where lay-off decisions were being made, and I know sure as shit, that while there may have been a lot hand wringing there, it was far more difficult on the people who lost their jobs than it was on the management who retained theirs.

I don't blame management for decisions that must be made to keep a firm solvent, but please, let's not pretend that the financial or psychological toll on management during lay-offs is in any way comparable to what a laid-off employee faces.

Oct 28, 13 9:47 am

Try walking in their shoes, won.  Seriously.  The 2008 recession was misery for almost everybody, and we're not even close to recovery.

Oct 28, 13 9:50 am

i don't think it's stupid won.  if the boss has the savings to live off for a year, they can make that choice without too much trepidation.  if they have staff that can maintain work that needs maintained, such as small projects that aren't dead but also aren't particularly profitable, marketing, and the various forms of working for free we seem to enjoy engaging in, then they need to somehow pay those people.

often times the employees have skillsets the owners don't have, so it's not just a question of the owner not wanting to do the work (though i'm sure that's part of it), it's a question of them not being capable of doing the work.  it's not just knowing revit, but if the employer has spent a couple decades drawing pictures and handing them off to junior staff, they aren't going to remember anything about the building code and liability they shoulder when signing drawings.  it can be worth paying those people out of your savings account until things turn around.

Oct 28, 13 9:53 am

won: "anyone who thinks the firm owner has it harder than the staff during a period of lay-offs is fooling himself"

I suggest that you actually re-read my entire post. I didn't even come close to saying what you suggest.

All I was saying is that the burden of an economic downturn falls on all levels of staff - from intern to principal.

Oct 28, 13 10:19 am
won and done williams

stone: All I was saying is that the burden of an economic downturn falls on all levels of staff - from intern to principal.

I agree with that. I would just say that the degree of that burden is so different between those who retained their jobs versus those who lost their jobs as to be practically incomparable. 

Oct 28, 13 10:43 am

Agreed, won.  If a principal has to dip into their savings for a year, they are not going to suffer in any measurable way, and besides, they have the resources to make that lost money back in fairly quick order. And they get to keep their jobs, with all of the future potential income that entails.  Owners have the burden of risk, but they also get the rewards.

If I have to dip into savings... well, there are no savings and I become homeless within two months.  So yes, the burden on those below mid-level is much greater. 

Oct 28, 13 11:00 am

I worked in an office where the partner in charge sent two people packing on a Thursday and then drove up in a new car on the following Monday. 

It was a newer "company car" that the business paid for.  I understand the economics of it.  It's his company, and he can spend his money how he wants.  But to lay off two people on a Thursday (because, he told us, he'd heard you shouldn't do it on a Friday), two people with a total of six children between them, and then roll in with a shiny new car the following Monday - THAT's just bad management.  Oblivious to how that would appear to the remaining staff.

Of course this guy, the partner, would show up late and unprepared for pitch meetings.  "We didn't get the project."   Shocker.  He also had NO idea what was going on in his office.  His talents seemed to lie in that his wife's family bought him a partnership, he was good at attending "Lunch Meetings" for several hours, and he could talk on the phone a fair bit... frequently to his son - whose college education I was paying for.  His kid got to go to see a doctor (so I overheard in a conversation) but they eliminated employee health benefits.  Huh?  No.  It's true.

When MY Thursday came around, as he's firing me, he had the nerve to talk about how HE and the other Partners hadn't paid themselves that month. 

In my past three years of unemployment, I dare say that I've had it a bit harder than he has.  Saw him driving around on the road one morning - in another new car.  Getting into the office LATE.  As usual.

If you think that maybe there are going to be layoffs - trust your feelings.  If you want to stay, kissing up does work.  Also you might want to plant a few whispers in the ears of the higher ups about how other people aren't really doing a good job.  Truth isn't really pertinent.  But, don't count on a single word that comes out of management's mouth. 

Just look at a calendar, there's a Thursday every week.

Oct 28, 13 2:33 pm

man....any office that has ppl in senior position that are good at throwing ppl under the bus is a bad sign. Means the higher ups are the same, otherwise they would see through them. 

Oct 28, 13 2:44 pm

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