Seven years ago, I was having a coffee with a friend who worked outside of the energy industry when she said, “Do you know how lucky you are to have a job at Cenovus?” My immediate response was, “Companies look very different from the inside.”
Cenovus offered me 20% more base pay than the competition. They had the most vacation, best benefits, nicest building, and were one of the few energy companies listed on the Dow Jones Sustainability North America index. Astronauts, best-selling business gurus, and Silicon Valley disrupters often keynoted company events.
During my employee orientation, they said Cenovus planned to hire 500 people per year for the next ten years. That’s a huge number in a city of just over 1 million. It’s no wonder that nearly every company in town was losing people to Cenovus. Cenovus seduction was killing their attraction and retention stats.
Cenovus reality . . . well, my reality
Cenovus was a great, last, organizational job before I dedicated myself, full-time to Work Feels Good.
The dysfunction and disarray inherent in organizational life was only marginally worse at Cenovus. But, encouragement of initiative and autonomy was slightly higher. So, if you knew how to do your job, and you didn’t need a lot of support and praise, you got a lot done. Many people, myself included, thrived in that environment.
Given that Cenovus was not the worst company I had worked for, I was shocked to see that a recent study of GlassDoor’s global data shows Cenovus to be the 8th worst place to work! Furthermore, it is the only Canadian company on the list. So, does this make Cenovus the #1 worst employer in Canada? No!
Plummeting oil prices beginning in the summer of 2014, combined with Cenovus’s commitment to higher-cost, steam injection production methods and a lack of downstream assets, resulted in the company suffering more than its peers. To slow the bleeding, hubris-fuelled extravagances were squashed, but more had to be done: massive layoffs.
Looking back, total workforce at Cenovus, including contractors, appears to be down by about 60%. Those are deep cuts, even for the energy industry. But more remarkable than the depth of the cuts was Cenovus’s incompetent and draconian management of the cuts.
The infamous computer glitch
In October of 2015, I was in a meeting to discuss a regulatory compliance process. My colleague leaned across the table and said “I’m getting laid-off today.” When I asked him how he knew, he said his access card didn’t work when he arrived at the office that morning. I said it was likely a computer glitch. But, an hour into the meeting he was called back to his office and then escorted out of the building 30 minutes later.
That evening, local news reported the miscommunication between Cenovus HR and IT. It turned out that building access for targeted employees was accidentally revoked the night before they were to be dismissed.
As more cuts happened, there were more mistakes. Cenovus was getting a new reputation: good severance packages, but terrible severance treatment. Exiting the company felt like, “Here’s your bag of money, now hold-on for a hard, ass-kick out the door.” But as the lay-offs slowed so did the bad press, until there was a workplace fatality in the midst of a new round of lay-offs.
Workplace safety is always the highest priority throughout the energy industry. Unfortunately, the worst imaginable incidents still happen. When a worker was killed on the job, Cenovus’s new CEO immediately paused the lay-offs to give employees time to reflect and grieve. But, one senior leader decided to do otherwise.
If there is an ideal example of leadership ineptness, then this is it. As reported in the Calgary Herald, one senior leader decided to continue with lay-offs in his department saying, “I realize Alex’s [Cenovus’s new CEO] message yesterday about the Christina Lake fatality referencing staff reductions planned for this week being postponed, however, it was felt it was important to make these changes now as opposed to waiting any longer.” Employees were horrified.
Masters of illusion
Cenovus had to cut to survive. Yes, they did a bad job of cutting. And yes, they pissed-off a lot of people—both current and former employees and their families. But, Cenovus’s behavior was more of an incompetent response to the manic-depressive nature of the energy industry, rather than conscious, malicious intent. So, why so much outrage at Cenovus?
The smartest person I know, my wife, keeps telling me, “You can only be disillusioned if you had illusions in the first place.” Being disillusioned is the one, common sentiment I hear among everyone who has strong, negative emotions about Cenovus.
Cenovus’s executive leadership promoted the illusion of an oil company that could prosper by mimicking the free-spending, growth-focused, and avant-garde tech giants. For employees, it was a beautiful dream that turned into a nightmare the instant oil prices fell. Now, disillusion-fuelled resentment appears to have found a home on GlassDoor.
“Nothing on earth consumes a man [sic] more quickly than the passion for resentment.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
What’s happening now?
The last, big cuts at Cenovus appear to be over and GlassDoor stats are trending up. But what’s more important is the word in Cenovus and on the street.
In Cenovus, it’s starting to look like a regular company. The near-utopian vision of the future has been replaced with eyes-wide-open, realistic expectations for an energy company still struggling through one of the worst downturns in decades.
On the street, many laid-off employees can’t trash-talk Cenovus enough, but prospective employees don’t care about past mistakes. And, leaders at rival companies usually give Cenovus a break. Why? They know that all it takes is a couple changes at their executive level and they could be the next Cenovus.
Have you worked at a company that messed-up lay-offs as bad a Cenovus? Have you seen an entire workforce disillusioned? Let me know. Please leave a comment below or message me on social media. You can connect with me on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Also, please share this article and subscribe to the Work Feels Good blog to read more.