Plan well and emphasize sensitivity during layoffs, managers are advised

December 14, 1990|By Maria Mallory

Whether it's called downsizing, retrenchment, de-staffing or, most-creatively, skill-mix adjustment, managers will best serve laid-off, as well as "surviving," employees by investing in thoughtful and thorough planning, speakers said at a seminar yesterday.

Though shedding workers during tough economic times is sometimes necessary, managers must appear "extremely sensitive, empathetic and [must] use compassion" when the time comes, said James W. Brinkley, president of Legg Mason Wood Walker, as he welcomed executives to the firm's seminar yesterday at Cross Keys Inn.

The first step is to identify which jobs should be eliminated, said Frank S. "Bud" Piff, president of the Lutherville management consulting firm that bears his name. He was the first of five speakers to address the approximately 40 human-resource executives, controllers and other managers who paid $50 to attend the breakfast seminar.

Well-defined criteria for singling out disposable positions are essential, Mr. Piff said.

Potential targets include jobs done by more than one worker and tasks that overlap or can be strategically combined.

An employee's length of service and performance can also be considered, Mr. Piff said, but he warned managers against laying off workers they simply haven't had the courage to fire.

Special attention should be paid to the mix of employees affected by the layoffs to ensure that the cuts do not single out employees in terms of race, sex or age, Mr. Piff said.

A generous severance package should be drawn up, Mr. Piff said. A good package not only contributes to the welfare of the departing employee but also positively impresses remaining employees, he said, adding that benefits should continue throughout the term of the severance package but that companies should cut unnecessary expenses such as disability coverage.

When "D-day" arrives, employers should map out every detail from how to tell employees the news and where to do it to whether the worker will be asked to go home afterward, said John A. Stevens, senior vice president of Drake Beam Morin.

Keep meetings with employees who are about to be laid off short and to the point, foregoing small talk, he said.

"Let the employee know this is not going to be a good-time meeting," Mr. Stevens said.

Managers should be non-apologetic, he said, since this is a business decision, and should maintain a professional attitude and steer clear of platitudes.

In addition, Mr. Stevens said, all severance benefits should be put in writing for the employee to review later.

Timely access to outplacement counselors -- consultants who help the laid-off employee look for a new job -- is an important service employers can offer displaced workers, he said.

Lawsuits filed by angry ex-employees are always possible, but companies can minimize that risk, said corporate lawyer Steven I. Batoff.

Employers should work closely with their attorneys to evaluate language used in corporate handbooks, employment agreements or any other document containing language that could be viewed as a written or implied contract of guaranteed or permanent employment, he said.

Companies also should be aware of federal and state statutes governing hiring and firing, he said.

Companies also might want to make personal-finance consultants available to departing employees to aid them in managing their money while they are between jobs, said John T. Rogers, president of Legg Mason Financial Services Inc.

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