Jim Kenyon: TomTom Workers Learn the Meaning of Redundant

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Redundancy is a good thing in many spheres of human activity. Take missile defense systems, for instance. Someday, North Korea might actually figure out what it’s doing wrong, and it wouldn’t hurt to have multiple shots at thwarting a nuclear attack.

But it’s not so good when your job becomes redundant. Just ask 25 or so TomTom employees who until a couple of weeks ago worked at the global software technology company’s offices in Lebanon.

Last month, those employees — 10 to 15 percent of the Dutch company’s Lebanon workforce — were informed that their “positions will be made redundant.” Which is another way of saying you’ve just been laid off, but please don’t take it personally.

When I brought up the layoffs, TomTom spokesman Sebastian Mathews, a very polite Brit, informed me, “We don’t really use that term in Europe.” On the other hand, the meaning of redundant is “fairly clear here,” explained Mathews, who works out of TomTom headquarters in Amsterdam. “It means there’s no longer a role for you.”

Maybe that’s better than being laid off, but I’m not sure it’s much consolation to the affected workers. But assuring longtime employers that they’re being made “redundant” instead of just saying they’re getting the ax, I suppose helps ease the consciences of TomTom execs as they stand around the gourmet coffee machine in the company’s renovated dining room in Centerra business park. I do find it ironic, however, that a company with the name of TomTom is determined to stamp out redundancy. Maybe they should just call it Tom from now on.

After receiving the news, employees had the option of cleaning out their desks immediately or hanging around for a few days. Either way, they were invited to attend a farewell luncheon held in their honor.

Sort of a last meal.

“It was with a very heavy and sad heart that we had to say goodbye to colleagues and old friends,” Marius Swanepoel, a TomTom department head, wrote to the roughly 200 remaining Lebanon employees. “Many of these colleagues and friends have been with the company for a great number of years.”

The memo and other management missives about the layoffs (sorry for not sounding more European) weren’t meant for public consumption. But current employees who were upset with the treatment of their “colleagues and old friends” sent the information my way. I’m not trying to make Swanepoel the bad guy; he was just the messenger. He only arrived in Lebanon in January, after 11 years with TomTom in Europe and his native South Africa.

TomTom is a big company, with 4,700 employees worldwide. Lebanon is a blip on the company map. TomTom started out in the early 1990s by developing a global positioning system that steered motorists from Point A to Point B without having to stop at a gas station for directions.

Some Lebanon employees who got the heave-ho had spent more than a decade in the business. They remember when the company was called Geographic Data Technology, or GDT, until it was sold in 2004 to Tele Atlas, another Dutch company, for $100 million in cash. Four years later, TomTom acquired Tele Atlas for a whopping $3.7 billion. “TomTom went into a tailspin after overpaying for digital map-maker Tele Atlas in 2008,” Reuters wrote in a 2015 story about the company’s future.

According to Reuters, TomTom now appears on the road to recovery. CEO Harold Goddijn told the London-based news agency that automakers see TomTom as one of the few companies besides Google capable of providing location data “good enough and fast enough to meet the safety requirements for computer assisted driving — and ultimately, self-driving cars.”

Sounds like TomTom is moving in a direction that made folks in Lebanon expendable — or redundant. The people who were laid off weren’t engineers or managers. They were worker bees. When names of streets and roads on TomTom’s digital maps required correcting or updating, they did the research and confirmed the changes.

Mathews, who was in London when we talked by telephone the other day, said the “move is toward less manual collection of data to automated collection of data.”

In other words, some of the work that had been done for years in Lebanon was becoming redundant.

I talked with former employees. As part of their severance packages, they signed confidentiality agreements that warned them about discussing what had happened. I agreed not to use their names.

“If it wasn’t for us, they wouldn’t have very reliable maps,” a former employee said. “We gave them a lot of years, and we were proud of what we did. Now to be out of a job because we’re redundant is hard to swallow.”

Another laid-off worker had a different take. “Nobody really has reason to gripe,” the worker said. “It’s a business. They have to make a profit.”

I get that. Still, it would be nice if it wasn’t always about enhancing profit margins and increasing shareholders’ dividends at the expense of loyal employees.

From what I can tell, many of the 25 or so now out-of-work Lebanon employees earned about $20 an hour, which comes to roughly $40,000 a year. Add it all up and their salaries would be almost enough to cover Goddijn’s 2016 compensation package, which totaled $1.1 million, according to Bloomberg News.

When I stopped by TomTom’s Centerra offices last week, Swanepoel, who oversees the department where the layoffs occurred, was good enough to talk with me.

“We don’t do any of these things lightly,” he said. “But the company needs to be able to survive. If the company doesn’t survive, a lot more people are going to be worse off.”

I suppose that if things ever get really bad, TomTom can always staff up the Department of Redundancy Department to look for further cuts.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.