01/29/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 03/30/2015 05:59 EDT

Tim Hortons layoffs blindsided workers, manager says

They didn’t see it coming. That’s what a laid-off Tim Hortons manager tells CBC News.

Instead, she says, just days before job cuts were announced, the company played down media speculation about mass layoffs and gave employees the impression they shouldn’t worry.

So when Tim Hortons started doling out pink slips at its headquarters and regional offices across the country on Monday and Tuesday, she says, "it was really shocking."

"We all anticipated something happening. I don't think any of us assumed it was going to happen so fast. There was just no transition time and it was pretty much, these guys came in, your job is gone."

"It was just really sour, really ominous,"  continues Jane. "You could just see a steady flow of people being escorted from the building."

Jane is not her real name. She wants that withheld for fear she will face repercussions from the company if it discovers she’s speaking out.

Holding it close

U.S.-based Burger King bought Tim Hortons last year. The company has remained tight-lipped about the layoffs, refusing to make public how many jobs were cut. Until the axe fell, more than 2,000 people worked at Tim Hortons corporate offices and distribution centres in Canada.

Jane estimates 40 per cent of staff may have been laid off from head office in Oakville, Ont. She had worked in middle management. In her department, she says 60 per cent of employees were cut. She also believes some other departments were entirely gutted.

Late yesterday an official in the office of Industry Minister James Moore told CBC News that Burger King had committed to cutting no more than 20 per cent of Tim Hortons corporate staff at its headquarters or regional offices. The official said that commitment was legally binding.

Don’t worry about it

Jane says when Burger King took over, it gave no indication there would be big layoffs. Instead, she says the company told Tim Hortons head office staff, "'We’re here for you guys. We’re here to respect you as employees, empower you,’ and pretty much tried to give us the impression that everything’s going to be fine."

She admits staff were told there would be "minimal" job cuts but adds that the company also stated there would be "great opportunities" for other employees.

Jane learned about the looming cuts from the media. News reports this past Friday speculated about significant job losses at Tim Hortons offices. But then, she says the company downplayed the trouble ahead.

She showed CBC an email from Burger King head office, sent that Friday night shortly after 9 p.m. It stated that "Much of the information that was reported today [in the media] simply incorrect."

The email admits that "Yes, we will be changing our structure." But the letter also states that the company will treat employees respectfully.

It concludes by stating, "We have nothing to announce at this time, however we are committed to communicating with you as soon as we are in a position to do so."

Surprise! You’ve lost your job

Jane says the big layoffs that were announced the following Monday and Tuesday hardly showed respect for employees.

She explains that on Monday, some of the more senior vice-presidents were let go. She also says a team from an external outplacement agency arrived "to essentially perform all the dirty work."

She says the team set up shop in offices left vacant by the laid-off executives "and called us in one at a time, letting us know that this is your package, you’re on your way out and we’ll escort you to the door."

"It was just really poorly executed," says Jane, because employees got no adequate warning. "There was a lot of crying, just emotion running high in the office."

Sign of the times

While employees may be feeling blindsided by the news, it comes as no surprise to Carleton University business professor Ian Lee. "This goes on in almost every merger today."

He explains that when a big company takes over another, it identifies overlapping jobs and lays off people to cut the fat.

"So if you have a marketing department at Burger King and a marketing department at Tim Hortons, you look for anywhere you can get rid of people."

More than one side

Not everyone connected with the company sees the layoffs as bad news. Archibald Jollymore is a former Tim Hortons executive and franchise owner. His wife Anne still owns a Tim Hortons franchise in which he is actively involved.

About the layoffs, Jollymore says, "I’m certainly not surprised at them organizing or reorganizing and trying to streamline the company. That’s totally understandable.” He adds that the restructuring "could be a good thing."

He also doesn’t fear the layoffs will hurt business. "If at the store level, the customer doesn't see a change, I don't think it's going to [have an] impact."

But for Jane, the cuts have permanently sullied her view of Tim Hortons. "I was proud to be part of a company that I thought was part of our culture and national identity."

"But then being part of it and being shown behind the curtains, that whole illusion got quickly swept away. It's just a corporation like any other corporation."