Recently, I had an informal dinner with a member of my new leadership team, who we’ll call Victoria*. The subject of layoffs came up. It’s no surprise that the tech company I work for is cutting back its workforce, so we were discussing it and the potential impact on our business. I immediately thought of my own experience in July 2013, when my role was eliminated as part of a broad reorganization.
Since I just started in my current role 2.5 months ago, I thought I’d share my story with her….part of the “getting to know you” process. Back in 2013, I felt fortunate to be offered two alternate positions immediately, a rare luxury among the 17 affected people on my team. I knew I’d be taking one of those two roles, versus looking for a possible better fit. You see, I had returned to work from disability in late 2012. While I was out, my role was backfilled. When I got my doctor’s approval to return, I was “on the clock”. I had only 30 days to find a new gig. Needless to say, I was not anxious to repeat the uncertainty of that experience less than a year later, even with the offered 60 days of search time. After I explained this — my story with a happy ending — she paused thoughtfully for a moment. Her response left me speechless.
“I’m surprised they would offer you a choice like that, since you were just out on disability.”
Stunned, I immediately launched into my complete company resume, ticking off each accomplishment. Presumably, Victoria knew about my career successes, and brought me onto the team because of them. Her comment made me feel that I had to defend myself. That regardless of my achievements, my disability leave downgraded my stock as an employee.
I’m proud that in that moment, I defended myself. But I reacted from my back foot, extracting every bit of evidence of my professional worth. Here’s what I wish I had said:
Victoria, I have spent most of the last decade dedicated to our company. I take great pride in the work I do, and in what I have accomplished here. For more than half of my 8.5 years, I have also battled Rheumatoid Arthritis. I have won awards, received promotions, and regularly earned the highest review marks possible, both pre and post diagnosis. I am an asset, and my work earned me the choices I was given. My disability status was not, and should not be, a factor. Your comment suggests that I should have been given fewer options simply because I took company-offered leave when I was too sick to work. That is horribly insulting, both to me and to our company.
I realize that people make mistakes, that they say things without thinking. This did not feel like that. My view of Victoria, and of my place on the team, immediately changed. I am having a hard time believing that my experience won’t be affected by her view that “disabled = less deserving”. It seems assumed that I cannot produce the same level of results as my peers, because I have physical limitations. I wrote awhile back about my typical “Brains versus Brawn” response at work. Until now, it’s been largely effective, and has allowed people to get more comfortable with my disability. But for the first time, I’m concerned that I am viewed as an anchor, not as an asset.
* Pseudonym to protect her anonymity