Good ways to deliver bad news
Open talk, empathetic listening make staff cuts more than a cold exercise in cost saving.
The e-mail came Monday, April 6, in the wee hours of the morning.Skip to next paragraph
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“Regretfully, the firm has to engage in some significant spending cuts,” it read. “This now must include laying you off, effective immediately. I have enjoyed working with you and have appreciated your help. If you have personal items in the office, you are more than welcome to collect them at your convenience.”
Sydnie Taylor was shocked by her boss’s e-mail. A paralegal at a Houston law firm, she’d been preparing to go to work when she happened to check her e-mail at 6 a.m. “This could have been handled much more appropriately,” she says.
Many laid-off Americans share the sentiment. In an era of mounting layoffs, 88 percent of employees rated the handling of their layoff as poor or very poor in a new survey by Telonu.com, a workplace ratings site based in Milpitas, Calif.
But other companies, aware of the importance of treating people well, are taking a different path. Faced with the difficult process of downsizing, they’re talking openly and listening empathetically – not only with the people leaving but also with those staying. And they’re laying the groundwork for improved worker loyalty and, sometimes, an internal cultural change that should pay huge dividends when business recovers and the economy prospers.
“Despite the horror stories of surprise pink slips and rude security escorts from workplaces, most employers and managers care very much about their employees and do not relish some of the hard choices required by the current economy,” says Maury Hanigan, a layoff coach in New York.
The trick is how to do it well.
To avoid confusion, executives at Continuum, a design and innovation consulting firm in West Newton, Mass., spent weeks planning the best way to lay off 18 employees – a 14 percent cut in staff.
At 11:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in March, executives met with the workers they were going to let go – individually and in groups of three or four – to explain the situation. At noon, the entire company assembled to hear details.
“Our whole culture is built around transparency and candor,” says Kory Kolligian, Continuum’s chief operating officer. “The most important thing is for people to understand why these decisions are being made. Our revenues are smaller than they have been. We cut costs in every way before we cut salaries and people.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF INTEGRITY
To ease the transition, Continuum increased its severance package and paid full health benefits for those leaving. When work picks up again, the company will bring people back on contract.
“People were upset to be laid off, but not upset by the way we handled it,” Mr. Kolligian says. “Even when we’re constrained by the economy, we can’t lose sight of fair play and integrity.”
Fair play and integrity are key elements of a successful layoff, workplace specialists say.
“When organizations treat people with respect and dignity and use fair procedures, they are signaling that they care about the well-being of their employees,” says Edward Kass, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. “When employees feel that the organization cares about them, they reciprocate by caring about the organization’s well-being and act accordingly.”
Employees at Agilent Technologies knew well in advance that they were going to be laid off when the Santa Clara, Calif., maker of measurement equipment downsized several years ago, Mr. Kass says. Those slated for layoff “actually felt bad for the people doing the layoff and worked very hard right up to the last moment.”