What downsizing method is your favourite?

Someone once asked the great Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo how he would like to die. He replied, “In no way.” The rest of us mere mortals might offer the same reply when asked, “How would you like to be laid off?” But no one ever asks this question. Maybe someone should.

Once upon a time (only 15 or 20 years ago, but that was another millennium), victims of cutbacks received humane treatment: compassionately worded three month’s written notice and employment until the final day. He or she could walk out with some dignity and with goodbyes and best wishes from peers.

As the economic climate worsened and layoffs proliferated, the approach became less velvety but somewhat predictable. Layoffs were supposed to always happen on a Friday afternoon and if you made it past that fateful hour without receiving an unexpected call from your manager’s office, you could count on another week of professional life. Some may say the stigma of losing one’s job is a thing of the past, as downsizing, outsourcing and bankruptcies have become as inevitable as death and taxes. Nevertheless, the trauma of layoffs can be profound. Text In the last few years, the mystery-surprise style became fashionable: an “executioner” waited for the unsuspecting victim in the lobby to politely yet firmly break the news and send the now laid-off employee home. In other cases, employees have been known to return to the office from vacation and start up the computer, only to discover that they are not able to log in to the network because their password has mysteriously expired. Then someone from security shows up and suddenly the employee shares the password’s fate: wipeout. No time to pack the family portrait or those framed awards and certificates that speak of achievements, commitment and professional pride; no time to say good-bye to a co-worker.

The outsourcing years kick-started an additional, sinister step in the layoff process: asking staff to train their replacements. While this makes sense for the company as a whole, one can easily imagine what it does to the trainer’s emotional well-being.

Some may say the stigma of losing one’s job is a thing of the past, as downsizing, outsourcing and bankruptcies have become as inevitable as death and taxes. Nevertheless, the trauma of layoffs can be profound. The individuals who lose their jobs are not the only ones affected — those who are left behind to carry on business as usual, at the workplace or at home, also feel the impact.

On the other side of the coin, laying off someone is not an easy exercise for those responsible for the task. Employers often feel they have to protect themselves against possible — if not probable — destructive action by the laid-off employee. Grim statistics suggest a company has more to fear from disgruntled employees than from outside wrongdoers.

This explains why layoff procedures lately have been aimed at minimizing the interaction employees have with company assets and people once they get the bad news. To sweeten the pill and dilute bad feelings, many companies now offer counseling and other post-mortem pampering as part of a decent layoff package.

Recently there has been increased discussion in the press and action in HR departments around stress and mental health problems in the workplace. The toll these phenomena extract from the companies can no longer be neglected. However, it does not take a study to see a link between these occurrences and recent layoff trends.

While eradicating the need for such measures is a whole different subject, it could be argued that it is both possible and necessary to change the layoff culture in ways that benefit both employees and employers.

One way would be to promote the idea of job sharing. The concept is not as popular as it should be, but this is somewhat paradoxical because the cycle of being unemployed, employed and unemployed again often amounts financially to a shared job situation, with the additional pain and suffering that accompanies such a fluctuating employment status.

Although employers and employees have up until now given little thought to this strategy, many people would be financially and psychologically better off in a shared job arrangement. Perhaps in the future, the idea will catch on, easing layoff fears and improving workplace culture as a whole.

— Andronache is a Toronto-based application developer who works for a large IT firm. She can be reached at a.tatiana@gmail.com.

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