Once upon a time, at the last software company I worked for, there was a process for employee termination. HR and your manager would summon you to a meeting room, and on the table would be a Red Folder.

When you saw HR walk into a room with a Red Folder you found yourself watching carefully to see which manager walked in as well, followed by our secret spying on who was called in, so that we could predict the email notice of their departure. Much gossip would abound when a Red Folder hit the floor – who was it, what did they do, was it only one? Eventually HR realized their process was not as secret as they intended, and they switched to plain manila folders, not much of a stealthy change but at least it didn’t scream danger like a Scarlet Letter-holder.

If HR walked into a meeting room and your manager asked to speak with you, your heart skipped a beat. At least, mine did – but I have always been jumpy when summoned by my manager, even if the news was probably good, like compensation adjustment time or a chance at a promotion. It became a joke in my department that I would ask what I had done as soon as I was called into a manager’s office, as I braced myself for the worst.

At my current company we are having our compensation conversations, a nice normal time of year, so I was highly appreciative that the subject of my meeting with my manager and the head of our team was clearly stated in the invite. Why? Because I walked in to see a Red Folder with my name on it!

Luckily the head of our team was an old school member of my previous company as well, so he double checked before I walked in that I had been clearly informed of the purpose of our meeting. We had a good chuckle about the history of the Red Folder, in fact.

What he didn’t know was my nightmare last night. I dreamt that my company had done a massive round of layoffs, with everything laid out as clearly as my last company, and as we started the process they reorganized and declared that nevermind – no layoffs were taking place and we were back to our previous roles. Within a week of that rescinded order, we were laid off again, with significantly less clarity and order. With the specter of that dream haunting my sleepy day today, that Red Folder gave me a moment of startled reflection before I reminded myself of the positive purpose of the meeting, clearly laid out in the invite.

Maybe going forward I can make better associations with the wretched Red Folder?

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