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Pink slips greet post-vacation techies

The vacation pink slip has emerged as one of the summer's biggest trends, as the industry's mounting layoffs taint technology workers' summer memories.

Carol Chapman had been planning her dream vacation to Canada's Yukon Territory for a year and a half: two weeks of camping and hiking near the Arctic Circle, basking in the midnight sun, and gazing at the northern lights.

The 45-year-old technical sales consultant didn't realize it would be the last vacation she would take from Cupertino, Calif.-based Chordiant Software. The first e-mail Chapman opened upon return from her summer sojourn was a goodbye letter from a co-worker; soon after, a company director phoned Chapman to say she was let go in the same round of layoffs.

"I've never been laid off in my life," said the Morrison, Colo., resident, who worked for Chordiant from her home. "This was a shocker and a real downer."

Chapman is not the only technology worker whose vacation memories were tainted by the industry's mounting layoffs. Judging from entries in job-related chat groups, the vacation pink slip has emerged as one of the summer's biggest trends--and, employees say, one of the most offensive.

For people whose vacations were ruined by job-related anxiety, Labor Day--the symbolic end of the summer vacation season--may come as welcome relief. Although official statistics are difficult to find, experts say an unprecedented number of tech workers came home from their vacations to find pink slips in Federal Express envelopes on their doorsteps, somber voice messages on their home answering machines, and curt e-mails on their personal computers.

Steffen Tengesdal, a 25-year-old Web developer who founded after he got his own pink slip from Vienna, Va.-based Etensity, has stopped counting the number of vacation pink slip stories recounted on his site. Founded by the former Web developer in June, is a sort of online sympathy and alumni outreach group for laid-off tech workers, particularly those in suburban Washington, D.C.

"Lots of people are coming back from vacation to pretty depressing voice mail: 'Hey, don't bother coming back on Monday,'" said Tengesdal, who lives in Arlington, Va. "I knew one guy who had been out of town for two weeks and came straight to the office from the airport. He couldn't get in the building because his access card had already been terminated. He went home and there it was--the layoff notice on his voice mail."

To be sure, getting laid off under any circumstance is tough. But human resources experts say vacation pink slips are especially painful, in part because employees are often not mentally braced for harsh news after returning from a stint on the beach or a few days at the pool. In addition, employees who have been on vacation for a week or two may not have been privy to water-cooler gossip, so they feel more shocked than employees who heard rumors as the news trickled out.

"It's a tough one--for the employer and the employee," said Marc Detampel, a human resources and recruiting specialist and senior manager in the Minneapolis office of consulting group Andersen. "People want to know whether they've been laid off immediately. If it happens when they're out of town, they feel out of the loop, cheated. They feel they've been treated more cruelly than the people who found out about it as soon as it happened...But from a manager's perspective, if you don't have the contact information, there's little you can do to make it easier."

A rough summer
Few companies in the tech sector have been able to avoid handing out pink slips, and the pace seems to have quickened since the unofficial start of summer, Memorial Day. Bellwethers such as Yahoo, AOL Time Warner, Agilent Technologies and Dell Computer have announced thousands of layoffs, and even Old Economy giants such as Corning, Fujitsu, NEC and discount brokerage Charles Schwab announced deep cuts because of the tech downturn. Lucent Technologies alone announced the elimination of 36,000 positions.

Adding insult to the vacation-layoff injury, many workers received pink slips during mandatory downtime. Silicon Valley institutions such as Adobe Systems, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard required workers to take paid leaves this summer, ostensibly as part of cost-cutting campaigns aimed at shrinking the pool of money companies must set aside for vacationing workers.

But according to a study in the July issue of CFO magazine, a mandatory vacation may be a "harbinger of layoffs." At HP, for example, numerous employees were laid off during, or immediately after, mandatory vacations in July and August.

One of the tech industry's most high-profile vacation layoffs came during the third week of August. That's when roughly 160 employees of The Industry Standard--who were on a mandatory, weeklong vacation--learned through news articles and TV reports that the weekly technology magazine would cease publication. When they returned to work the following Monday, they cleared out their desks and filed out for the last time.

In one of the most extreme cases, a help-desk analyst for a small dot-com said his entire company folded--all employees were sent home and the furniture auctioned off--during his one-week vacation. He returned to a darkened office devoid of people.

Say it to my face
The most disturbing part of vacation pink slips, those who have received them say, is that they underscore the relative inexperience of many managers in e-commerce start-ups.

"If you're going to lay me off, do it to my face," said a Palo Alto, Calif.-based technology marketing specialist who was laid off last month during a weeklong camping vacation. "Don't do it on a voice mail when you know I'm not home...It's annoying that these people haven't learned the basics of how to be a good manager."

Although pink slips are not the most pleasant ending to a vacation, some tech veterans try to take a positive approach.

For one, they say, vacation pink slips mean that the company cannot renege on vacation reimbursement promises. In a recent survey by Bloomington, Minn.-based career portal, several tech workers complained that their company did not reimburse them for vacation time that they had not taken at the time of their layoffs.

Others argue that a vacation ending in a layoff may be better than no vacation at all. According to a July study by executive search firm Christian & Timbers, 43 percent of executives surveyed said they had postponed or altogether canceled their summer vacations to deal with the economic slowdown.

"That includes everybody, right up to the CEOs," said Jeffrey E. Christian, the company's chief executive. Others bailed out of speaking engagements and field trips to plants and offices.

Others say getting a pink slip, though difficult, is a definitive end to job insecurities at a foundering employer. To that extent, some recently laid-off workers say they feel liberated to find better jobs or take longer vacations than normally possible.

After getting laid off in mid-July, 24-year-old Web developer Doug Muth seriously considered canceling his vacation. He wanted to visit friends and attend a summer camp specializing in creating anthropomorphic animals near Toronto. But he was starting to sweat the rent and credit card bills--especially because he had not received his final paycheck from his old employer, e-commerce software company Renaissance.

The day before he was set to leave for Toronto, the Allentown, Pa., resident then got a phone call with a job offer from Ascentive, a software company in Philadelphia. He took the offer and had a stress-free vacation.

"To some extent, I was like, 'I want to stay on vacation,'" Muth said. "But I was really excited about my new job. So I felt pretty good about having something to come back to. I guess I'm pretty lucky."