Another Day, Another Bad Layoff

By John Hollon

May. 7, 2009

Say what you will about Sam Zell, winner of the 2009 Workforce Management Stupidus Maximus Award, but one thing is clear: He has infused a sense of consistency and predictability in his management minions at the Tribune Co., who then are relentlessly efficient in carrying out the shortsighted, regressive, ham-fisted management policies that he inflicts upon his workforce.

Here’s the latest “Can you really believe this?” action from Zell’s Phi Beta Kappa management team: Three editorial staffers at Tribune’s Baltimore Sun were laid off last week as they were in the middle of covering a Baltimore Orioles baseball game from the press box at Camden Yards.

One of the staffers–sportswriter David Steele–blogged about how it feels to get canned by phone in a very public way while you’re doing your very public job.

“Yes, it felt just as bad as you imagine it would,” Steele wrote, “but it’s a little different when you’re 44, when you’ve been in the business more than half your life … and when it’s your specific job, not your entire newspaper, which has just become defunct. And when the people responsible for giving you the news were a few dozen blocks away, calling you on your cell phone in the middle of a baseball game you thought you were going to write a column about for the next day’s paper.”

Although this isn’t the absolute worst firing I’ve ever heard about (the nurse who was called out of surgery last month and told she was getting laid off definitely tops this one), it’s certainly par for the course for how Sam Zell and his management “brain trust” do business.

Steele says that the first thing he did after getting the news of his layoff was to let all his friends and family know what had happened. “The overriding theme” from all of them, he wrote, was the same thing: “They [Baltimore Sun management] couldn’t tell you to your face?’’

“They had their reasons,” he noted. “Step back far enough and squint really hard and you can see them. As long as you ignore the fact that they made arrangements to get a replacement column into the paper long before they ever dialed my number. And the fact that if you go up high in the stands behind home plate, you probably can see the Sun building from Camden Yards. It’s not a plane flight away. It’s literally walking distance; Sun people with tickets had been making that walk since the ballpark opened.”

I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again here in the Year of the Endless Cutback: Firing someone is a one-on-one activity that should be done in person, face to face, supervisor to worker. There’s a reason for this, and it is simple: It should be handled that way because management should be forced to personally confront the consequences of its actions. And that’s why doing it by e-mail or phone is a cop-out. It dehumanizes a process that is pretty inhuman to begin with.

Why did the management of the Baltimore Sun opt to terminate staffers by phone from the ballpark when they could have easily done it in person?

David Steele has an answer: It’s because “the people ultimately responsible, for the gutting of the paper and the callous treatment of its employees, whether they were in the office at the time or not, are a plane flight away. Clearly, to them ‘Baltimore Sun’ is just a line on a balance sheet. Or a bankruptcy claim, in this case. Practically speaking, none of us should even have had low expectations for how this would be handled. ‘No expectations’ was probably shooting too high.”

Like Steele, my expectations for Zell and his management team are so low that they are on the floor. Nothing Zell does should surprise me, and that’s why he’s so deserving of this year’s Stupidus Maximus honor.

Simply put, it’s because he’s a guy who not only is adept at demoralizing his workforce, but also highly skilled at making himself look crazy at the same time. And as I noted before, in a world with so many bad managers, that’s a really tough combination to beat.

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