Companies need to soften the blows of layoffs

The IT honeymoon is over. With a shaky economy, the phrase “job security” has almost become an oxymoron, and while companies want to attract and retain the best and the brightest to their organizations, management is often faced with handing out pink slips to their own valuable employees in order to stay afloat.

Recent months have seen the slashing of thousands of jobs by titans such as Cisco and Nortel, which has left employees at much smaller companies revamping their resumes on coffee breaks. As employees feel stress about the impending axe, management feels stress about handling the environment for both those who are being laid off and those who are left behind.

Alan Sklover, an executive employment attorney at Sklover, Himmel & Bernstein in New York, insists that the best way for companies to handle layoffs smoothly and avoid lawsuits is to treat employees in a respectful manner.

“Treat people as you would like to be treated,” Sklover suggested. “That’s it. If [your company is] considering making changes, layoffs, restructuring, or reassignments, say to yourself ‘how would I like to be treated if it were happening to me? Would I like people to explain honestly what’s going on? Sure, I’d like that. Would I like a company to let rumours fly and let everybody get uptight and nervous? No. Would I like a company to recognize that I’ve got a mortgage and kids to feed, and therefore a sudden change could be very upsetting to those things? Sure I would. Would I like a company to give me two minutes notice and walk me out the door with an armed guard? No.’ These are the various ways to do things,” he said.

“Some companies don’t tell anybody what’s going on because they hope people get nervous and quit because then they don’t have to pay them severance,” he continued. “Some companies are very open and forthright in saying that we have problems, we have to make some changes and we’re trying to figure out what the best way to do this is, we have a certain timetable, we’re discussing things and we’ll get back to you. It all goes back to the Bible: do unto others as you want them to do unto you.”

Peter de Jager, a Toronto-based speaker and consultant on issues relating to change and management, agrees that communication is the key to any change within an organization.

“It’s not the management telling the staff what’s going to happen,” de Jager said, “it’s management allowing staff to voice opinions about what’s going to happen. When a merger’s going to happen there’s nothing an employee says that’s going stop that movement from going ahead, however, there are ways to make sure that a merger, acquisition or a layoff is handled better. Sometimes the best people to ask are the staff. They know how its going to affect them, and understand that when a merger or layoff happens, people worry about the very basic things.”

Any kind of change is stressful, but change that could involve a loss of income surpasses stress to fear very quickly, de Jager said.

“They’re literally worried for their life,” de Jager explained. “I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but that’s exactly what happens. People are worried about basic things. And I know it sounds silly, but when someone is threatened with a layoff, what’s going through their gut is, ‘Am I going to live through the winter?’ The thought process, irrational though it may be, goes as follows: ‘If I get laid off I’m not going to be able to pay the morgtage, I can’t get a job – it’s a time of recession, winter’s coming, I’ll lose the house, we’ll be out on the street, the snow’s going to come, and we’re going to die.’ That’s the emotion that people are dealing with.

“We as managers have to keep that in mind,” de Jager continued. “If we don’t people will leave the ship as soon as they can. There is no employee loyalty anymore. Why? Because corporations don’t deserve it. They have not acted to earn the loyalty. That’s one of the net results of the way we’ve been managing change for the last two decades.”

Munira Ventresca, a former Nortel employee in the area of optical engineering support for upgrades and OAM, as a victim of the company’s cutbacks, and a first-hand witness to the way that change was dealt with within the organization. Once the first round of layoffs occurred in December, the atmosphere was “horrible,” according to Ventresca, who officially finished her job in Ottawa at the end of August, but received her pink slip in June.

“We got our basic work done, but our energy and enthusiasm was gone,” she said.

Ventresca said that about half of her co-workers were not comfortable with the possibility of losing their jobs at Nortel, but the other half were happy.

“They knew they’d be able to get a job,” she said. “A lot of people took the package because it gave them a kick in the pants to go and get another position.”

She admitted that in many cases the stress levels were probably higher for those left behind than for those who were let go, because they were relied upon to pick up the pieces.

de Jager suggests that every employed person conduct the following exercise every six months in order to become mentally prepared for the unexpected.

“Pretend that on Monday you don’t have a job,” de Jager said. “What do you do? Go through the thought process. My resume isn’t up to date. My skills aren’t up to date. Between now and six months from now, see if you can rectify these things. Go to your manager and ask to go on a course of some kind. It will make you a better employee and make you more valuable when your employer lays you off. Make this an ongoing process,” he said.

“Anyone who thinks they are impervious to a pink slip hasn’t been paying attention.”