Firing someone is hard work, you must realize

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 14, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Linda Burton is a vision of death: Not hers, but yours. She's there when the boss tells you to clean out your desk for the very last time. She tries to make it nice.

Are you listening, Baltimore County employees? Will the next 392 people to lose their jobs out there remember how tough this is for those telling you to get lost?

Are you listening, pink-slip victims of the Recession-That-Does-Not-End? They've now turned the business of firing people into an art form, and Burton's performing a pas de death. With her, if all goes well, it almost becomes a mercy killing.

"What people don't understand," says Burton, "is how traumatic this is for the people who are actually doing the firing. They're very uncomfortable. They're getting rid of people they may know socially. They know that the person they're letting go has children in school, and may have just bought a new home. They're very upset to have to give such upsetting news."

Is your heart breaking yet? Those 392 Baltimore County employees facing layoffs at libraries and health centers and such, are you feeling sorry for poor Roger Hayden? Nothing personal, it's just the slimming-down of government.

And those millions across the country, still trying to outlast the recession layoffs, do you want to pat your boss on the head after he's canned you?

No?

Well, maybe it's because the boss hasn't met Linda Burton yet.

She's in charge of "out-placement" -- now there's a euphemism whose time has arrived -- for Right Associates, an international firm with offices here at Scarlett Place. It's a two-sided operation they run: one side that counsels management types on how to professionally kill people in the gentlest, most humane manner, and another (the really good part) that helps those laid off to

reassemble their lives (paid for by the company doing the laying off).

For Right Associates, the last several years have been -- unfortunately for the country -- a growth experience, with layoffs numerous enough that specialists such as Burton have been created to teach bosses of firms large and small the proper deathbed manner.

Right Associates markets itself with a kind of icy, fatalistic logic: If we've got to hurt people, can't we find a way to do it nicely? Never mind blaming Burton for being there at the scene of the crime. Instead, perhaps, give companies credit for sensitivity, even as we hate them for what they're doing.

How does Burton do it? First, she works with managers on sensitivity techniques, on the best language and atmosphere and setting to commit the final cut. Then, on the crucial day, she accompanies the manager when the bad news is broken.

"I'm there to try to piece things together," she says. "I explain to those laid off where to go from here. Mostly, they look at me and try to hear what I have to say, but their minds are reeling. They're thinking, what do I tell my wife, my husband? How will I find another job?"

Burton tries to take them to that next step, preparing them for the new job market they'll face, helping them assess their interests, taking a step back to analyze what went wrong and how to make it better, sharing research on various industries.

She was in a similar spot once, running a consulting company that went under. She had no benefits, no notions of finding a new job beyond checking the classified ads. So, when Right Associates hired her two years ago, Burton arrived with a certain empathy for those in trouble -- and now, after two years, and against all odds, for those bosses pronouncing the death sentences, too.

"It's very traumatic for them," she asserts. "They want to get in and get out. We try to guide them. We try to leave everyone with as much dignity as possible."

Some incidents are easier than others. Managers, she says, worry about employees having heart failure, contacting attorneys, getting violent.

A year ago, Burton says, she was on her way to assist at a firing, having been told in advance that the employee had a pretty short fuse. As she drove to the site, there was a news story on the radio: A postal worker in New Jersey, notified he'd been laid off, had gone on a shooting rampage. Burton imagined instant replays happening here.

"I thought about it all the way there," she says. "It was stressful, but we handled it OK.

"We have to give human beings the chance to handle a tough moment with some dignity. That's all we're trying to do."

Looked at from that perspective, it's an idea whose time has arrived. Burton may show up looking like the angel of death, but she wants to help you toward your next life.

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