LAYOFFS Difficult task requires tact, understanding


November 04, 1991|By LESTER A. PICKER

Second of two parts The decision's been made, there's no pulling back now. Expenses have been trimmed to the bone, and every other card has been played. The revenue picture still looks bleak, and you've prepped the work force that layoffs are imminent. Now the day has arrived for telling individual employees that they're losing their jobs. How do you do it?

"Non-profit managers are very seldom coached in hiring procedures and never coached in firing procedures," says Kevin Shields, founder of Haymarket Consulting Group in Boston, which counsels organizations on downsizing.

"The fact is that getting fired is a loss," he says. "As far as losses go, it ranks right up there, next to death and divorce. Employers need to be sensitive to that. People are in shock at a time like this."

Here are some factors to consider:

Setting. Most experts recommend that the supervisor who is giving employees the bad news try to find a neutral location for the conversation. This eliminates linking the boss' office with major apprehension for those employees left behind. Of course, if a large number of employees are let go, then the boss' office may be the only practical alternative.

Tone. Don't try to be cute. Employees have a right to be told straight and quickly, without a lot of small talk. Supervisors should realize that this is a highly charged emotional time for employees, especially in the non-profit sector.

It is critical that the supervisor remain calm and collected, allowing the employee to express shock and anger, without being drawn into a parallel reaction themselves.

Platitudes should be avoided, especially the one that goes "Look, this is very hard on me, too." The fact is that the supervisor is still keeping his or her job, so that comment at the very least shows ineptitude and insensitivity on the part of the supervisor.

Stick to the issue. The termination talk is not the time to get into other issues, despite the emotionality of the moment. Naturally, this is an awkward, difficult time for the supervisor, but rambling, off-the-point comments can come back to haunt non-profits later in the form of legal action by a disgruntled employee.

Above all, supervisors must avoid comments implying that the employee may be hired back if revenues increase. Again, that may have legal implications, especially if corroborated by other terminated employees.

Assistance. "A company needs to look at how much they invest in bringing people into the organization. Then they need to ask how much they are willing to pay on the outgo," says Mr. Shields of Haymarket Consulting. In the case of Red Cross of Maryland, for example, Executive Director David Simms offered his terminated employees two weeks pay beyond normal severance, outplacement services and resume workshops.

It is often hard for financially strapped non-profits to come up with a compensation package equal to a valued employee's contributions to the organization. In those cases, remaining staff BTC can be mobilized to provide short-term assistance to the terminated employees. This might involve network banks, resume writing help, use of the photocopiers for resumes, computerized cover letters and personalized letters of reference.

Advance notice. I am a die-hard advocate of advance notice for terminated employees. I believe that internal marketing, the most critical for the success of any corporation whether for-profit or non-profit, demands that every employee be treated with respect. That respect extends through employment to termination and follow-through.

There are consultants today who advocate a "let them know, and let them go" philosophy of downsizing. In this scenario, employees are notified they have been terminated, are given an hour to clean out their desks and are literally escorted out the door. The rationale for this is that it minimizes workplace disruption, helps terminated employees heal faster and minimizes sabotage by disgruntled employees.

Non-profit employers owe their loyal employees better than that. What does such an action say to those employees left behind? And what does such a dehumanizing act do to the management corps? A workplace that fosters this type of culture undoubtedly has other, serious problems.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, especially in the case of non-profits where security concerns are paramount. According to Mr. Simms, the Red Cross qualifies. Despite notifying employees of pending options, they handle termination with a same-day-out procedure.

"We deal with life and death every single day," Mr. Simms says. "When you are dealing with the blood supply, you can't take chances, even that one person may do something foolish in retribution."

Firing is hard on all parties. It involves a grieving period that affects business for weeks afterward. The answer is to expect it, to plan for it, to handle it with dignity and respect for employees, and to grow from the pain. The end result is a stronger organization, with a time-tested culture of caring.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works wit charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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