By Bridget Manley, publisher, and Charlotte Matherly, contributor
The sweeping layoffs and gutting of the iconic Harrisonburg firm Rosetta Stone began Tuesday with a mandatory company-wide Zoom meeting. By the end, whole teams of people learned they would no longer have jobs.
Others at the language learning company’s Harrisonburg office found out Thursday morning their jobs, too, would be eliminated.
Several employees affected by the layoffs spoke to The Citizen on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly and feared they could lose their severance pay. They said employees from across the company attended a Zoom meeting with IXL’s CEO Paul Mishkin, along with the company’s head of human resources. In the meeting, IXL leaders announced the company would be streamlining and “doing more with less” and that many employees would be exiting the company.
Following that Zoom meeting, employees met with HR representatives in breakout meetings, where they were told that entire teams were being laid off. In some cases, as many as 30 people in various departments were told their positions were being terminated.
This comes after Rosetta Stone changed hands twice in less than a year. Cambium Learning Group bought Rosetta Stone last fall, then announced in February it was selling the Harrisonburg-based language learning software company to IXL Learning. IXL is an online education company with its headquarters in San Mateo, California, and boasts that its platforms and software serve one in every five children globally.
None of the employees interviewed knew exactly how many people were laid off at the Harrisonburg office. IXL also laid off workers at Rosetta Stone’s Arlington and Seattle offices, as well. Employees told The Citizen that while a few were spared, “almost everyone” in Harrisonburg was let go.
IXL Learning officials declined to answer questions regarding the number of layoffs in Harrisonburg.
But Eric Bates, an IXL spokesperson, issued a statement to The Citizen saying, “while Rosetta Stone is moving in a new direction, the changes we are making at the company will ultimately help it grow.”
“We value Rosetta Stone’s historic connection to Harrisonburg, and meaningfully investing in the city is part of our plan once we complete our restructuring,” the statement added. “We want to emphasize our deep respect for our former colleagues and their contributions, and have provided support to them during their transitions onto future endeavors.”
According to employees, just about every person was shellshocked.
“There were people who were upset, who were scared,” one employee said.
Some employees were told their last day was Tuesday, while others were told their positions would be phased out over the course of 2021. Members of some divisions weren’t told they were laid off until Thursday morning.
Employees say that so many people were laid off in Harrisonburg, IXL Learning had to comply with the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act. That law requires companies who have at least 100 employees at a single site of employment who are firing at least 50 employees to give advance notice of the intended layoffs.
Employees confirmed that most everyone affected have been given severance packages, including pay and benefits while they transition out of the company. For many, it makes the transition easier.
But for those who described the Rosetta Stone team as being “like a family,” it does little to soften the blow. Many employees had been there for decades, and some had never known another job since their college graduations.
One source, interviewed over email, said she noticed a drastic shift in the culture from the company and job she once loved — one she found interesting and enjoyable.
“It feels [IXL’s] executives have considered us like cattle being sold, not humans with families navigating a very difficult period in time,” she said. “This company has done a great disservice to so many people who have given many years of dedication to them.”
And she said while the workers have banded together to help each other, she said she feels largely abandoned by the parent company.
“I have so many wonderful and talented colleagues,” she said. “We all deserved better than being blind sided with a hostile Silicon Valley take over.”
For Harrisonnburg, Rosetta Stone was a homegrown success story. It was the brainchild of two brothers and Harrisonburg natives — Allen and Eugene Stoltzfus.They thought learning a language would be easier by using technology. The business quickly took off. After starting in 1992, Rosetta Stone was, for many years, Harrisonburg’s Crown Business Jewel. Over the years, the company’s headquarters moved to Arlington, Virginia, and the company saw its own layoffs and financial troubles over the years.
But this latest news is a body blow to the community.
“I was very saddened to learn of what transpired this week, and my heart goes out to all those who were impacted by the decision,” Mayor Deanna Reed said in a statement to The Citizen.
She said the city will help support those at Rosetta Stone and other companies who have lost their jobs over the last year. And that, she said, includes trying to lure other employers to Harrisonburg.
“We also remain committed to working toward attracting new technology sector industries and careers to the city so we can keep our high-skilled workforce here at home with job opportunities that match their education and experience, and continue moving Harrisonburg’s economy forward,” Reed said.
For the team at Rosetta Stone in Harrisonburg, the shock and despair of Tuesday’s announcement quickly moved into a feeling of solidarity and hope, as former and current employees began reaching out to each other to offer moral and career support.
Threads popped up on social media with leads about jobs at other tech companies in the Valley. Some offered resumé and cover letter writing assistance, and employees began to reach out to each other to see how they were holding up and what they could do to help as they all experienced collective grief.
“People who have been affected or laid off in the past, they have all reached out in different ways,” one employee said. “There is an incredible network and outpouring of people who care. That has been a beautiful light.”
Employees also say that keeping “the talent” local is important.
Some employees see hope in other Valley startups, and hope that tech — and those who worked in the original tech company in Harrisonburg — can play a part in spurring new startups and bringing companies to the city.
“The Rosetta Stone story is a uniquely Harrisonburg story,” as one employee put it. “I really think a bunch of different things are going to happen.”
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