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In 2010, Let's Fix How We Do Layoffs

Bob Brody, Senior VP, Media Specialist at Powell Tate
Wednesday, 16 Dec 2009 | 1:48 PM ET

Anyone ever laid off has a story to tell, and even those never let go have probably heard more than a few, too. In the last year, with more layoffs than we’ve seen in generations – 3.5 million at last count – I’ve had occasion to hear plenty of such stories.

Take my friend Gloria. At a recent weekly executive-committee meeting, she heard the CEO discuss a restructuring, obviously code for layoffs. As a public affairs officer in the company, she was asked to draft a strategic plan about the impending changes, including some talking points, and submitted the memo.

Her company then invited Gloria to an annual offsite meeting. “Well, that’s pretty reassuring,” she said to a colleague. “My job seems safe after all.” Why, she thought, would my employer fly me down, put me up in a hotel and feed me to a fare-thee-well unless I’m considered a keeper? “Well, of course,” her co-worker replied. Why on earth would they let you handle all the media for the layoffs, only to chop your head off?”

Then came the big day. Each employee was herded into a conference room and given an envelope, but told to go back to his or her office before opening it. Gloria got an envelope, too. The note inside instructed her to go see her boss, then the HR person.

Her boss told her she was being laid off. Next, the HR person started to read a document to her. All about how the company needed to be better aligned to deliver on its new mission, and how these decisions came so hard.

“You can stop now,” Gloria said. “I wrote that. Those are my talking points.”

She returned to her office, only to find her colleague from the plane ride there crying. Spared the ax himself but in disbelief, he said, “They made you dig your grave and then kicked you into it.”

As war stories go, that’s pretty hard to top, if only in terms of irony bordering on the insane. Yet again and again over the last year we’ve heard such dispatches from the front lines. Employees of long standing given the boot with little or no warning. Offered a pittance as severance. Asked to clear out that day. Heard of humiliations large and small.

Now, getting laid off is never pretty, and seldom even particularly humane. No big secret, that. But even though most companies are fair, others fail to demonstrate concern, much less generosity. In some quarters, layoffs have gotten downright ugly.

Imagine, for example, coming back to your desk from a break, only to find the IT guy shutting down your computer. Imagine being laid off over the phone while out on jury duty, or on your birthday. Imagine getting the news on a voicemail message or via a videotape mailed to your home. No need to imagine anything, folks: all these tales are true.

Hey, we’re all adults here. We understand why employers lay us off. Business is business. But getting laid off is hard enough without your company compounding the fracture. Recruiters tell me that companies that lay employees off without a sense of decency will eventually suffer a backlash. For starters, those left behind will be less productive, with lower morale, and are highly unlikely to recommend that organization as an employer to anyone.

That’s why bosses should try to show some respect. You never know about what could happen down the road, especially when the economic recovery truly kicks in. Come 2010, showing a little heart might actually turn out to be good for business.

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Bob Brody is senior vice president/media specialist at Powell Tate, a Washington D.C. based communications firm and Weber Shandwick's public affairs division. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications.

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