Legal

A Humane Approach to Layoffs

By Jon Hyman

Aug. 2, 2016

Our life experiences dictate our worldview. Such is the case with my opinion on the corporate layoff, as it has recently hit very close to home.

For the sake of anonymity, I’ll speak in hypotheticals.

An employee (I’ll call her “Jane”) has worked for Company X for nearly a decade over two different tenures. By all accounts, Jane is a good employee and well-regarded by her peers. Company X recently agreed to acquire Company Y, which, unfortunately, has made Jane’s position redundant. As a result, Company X decides to eliminate Jane’s position. So far, so normal.

Here, however, is where the story takes a turn. Company X, for lack of better description, sandbags Jane. It made the decision to eliminate her position in March, yet doesn’t communicate it to her until May, when it calls her into a conference room, tells her she has been laid off, and that it’s her last day of employment. Jane, shell-shocked, packs her office, takes her severance agreement and leaves. Jane later discovers that the negative and unwarranted performance review she received in April was part of a plan to support Company X’s decision to include her in the May layoff.

Employers, we need to approach layoffs differently. Employees caught in the net of a corporate downsizing aren’t necessarily bad employees. More often than not, they are victims of circumstance. Yet, too often we treat them like hardened criminals. I know of employers that perp-walk the recently laid off out of the building with armed escorts. What message does this send to the laid-off employee and to the employees left behind? That we don’t think of you as a person, but as a cog in the machine, which we likely don’t trust. This mindset needs to change.

What happened to treating employees with dignity, fairness and respect? Just because we are laying people off doesn’t mean that we should stop exhibiting these values.

How can we treat employees more like human beings in handling layoffs? Let me offer four suggestions.

  1. Overcommunicate with all of your employees. Be open and honest in why your employees are losing their jobs. Explain how the layoff will affect them, including the timing of the layoff and, for those losing their jobs, the severance benefits available. Keeping your employees informed will help squelch the rumor mill, which will undermine everything you are otherwise trying to accomplish.
  2. Treat everyone equitably. As best as possible, use objective criteria to determine who stays and who goes. Employer X used negative subjective criteria in Jane’s performance review to justify including her in the layoff. Jane did not perceive those subjective criticisms as warranted, especially when she was an objectively high performer, and no one had ever before similarly criticized her for the reasons expressed in her negative review. The use of these subjective criteria left Jane with the (not unreasonable) belief that Company X purposely lowballed her review to justify her inclusion in the layoff. This gamesmanship not only reflects poorly on your organization, but it could also lead to pretextual challenges to your decision-making in later discrimination lawsuits.
  3. Help people find jobs. Consider laid-off employees for other opportunities within your company. Provide written job references that will help them land on their feet. Offer outplacement that will assist them in writing effective résumés and networking to find new employment. And, for goodness sake, if you (practically) promise a specific position to a laid-off worker, don’t later give it to someone else. That’s just plain mean.
  4. Don’t toss people out onto the street. When someone loses a job, time is their best asset. Provide them as much as you can afford. If Company X knew in March that it would have to lay off Jane (an otherwise quality, longstanding employee with good character) in May, what was the harm in telling her in March? It would have provided her two extra months to find another job, and it wouldn’t have left Jane with such a bad feeling about Company X. Companies claim concerns about confidential information excuse such (mis)behavior. If that is a legitimate concern for a specific employee, you might be justified in treating that employee differently. Otherwise, you have no reason to treat a laid-off employee like a criminal. Even the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, or WARN, Act provides 60 days’ notice before a mass layoff. You can simultaneously protect your information and treat people humanely.

The bottom line? Treat your employees like human beings throughout the layoff process, and everyone will be better as a result.

What happened to treating employees with dignity, fairness and respect? Just because we are laying people off doesn’t mean that we should stop exhibiting these values.

Jon Hyman is a partner at Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis in Cleveland. To comment, email editors@workforce.com. Follow Hyman’s blog at Workforce.com/PracticalEmployer.

Jon Hyman is a partner in the Employment & Labor practice at Wickens Herzer Panza. Contact Hyman at JHyman@Wickenslaw.com.

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