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Many HR professionals share one common experience during layoffs: a stream of intensely personal stories from employees. Even many years later, such stories can have a lasting effect.
“I had a gentleman come in my office and just cry,” recalls Patricia Mathews, when she worked in an outplacement center during the layoffs at OxiChem in the early 1980s. Now president of HR consulting firm Workplace Solutions, she remembers that “His wife had multiple sclerosis and needed full-time care. He couldn’t leave her to look for a job but couldn’t afford a nurse any longer. So, we had him bring in his wife to the outplacement center so my staff could watch her two mornings a week while he went on interviews.”
‘Why Can’t It Be You?’Mathews also remembers bearing the brunt of workers’ anger. “The anger and blame are directed at you, or they will say, ‘Why can’t it be you? What does HR do anyway?’ I just sit and listen and then try to get them to look at it as an opportunity,” she says. “Several years later, I would run into one of them at a business function, and I would work up the courage to talk to them. In every case, they said they were angry at me but that it was the best thing that could have happened to them.”
David Schwartz, former vice president of HR at Goldman Sachs and founder of retained executive search firm D N Schwartz and Co., remembers a near-death moment with a Goldman Sachs investment banker laid off in the early 2000s. Before being laid off, the banker asked his supervisor if he was on a layoff list. The manager responded, as he was coached, that this was a difficult time and no one’s job was safe. “The banker went home and had a heart attack. It turned out that he was scheduled to be let go. He was out of the office for three weeks and was back in the office for three weeks before we felt comfortable telling him. Everyone felt terrible about that.”
Jerome Carter, senior vice president of human resources at International Paper, remembers when the company closed a mill where he had worked as an HR manager 10 years earlier. “Seeing a list of names of people I’d worked with brought it home. These were people who had contributed to my success and advancement.”
Libby Sartain, SPHR, now retired, recalls working in benefits administration during a layoff early in her career. “There was a man getting up every morning and putting on a suit and not telling his wife,” she recalls. “He would go to the library and hang out. I guess he thought he would find a job before his severance ran out and then tell his wife, ‘Hey, I found a new job.’ I said, ‘You have to tell her.’ He finally told her, but it took him a good year before he found a new job.”
A Little Minor Relief But there are good stories, too. Paul Gibson, chief human resource officer of Mattamy Homes in Toronto, points out that you will often hear from employees who have been laid off—something that rarely happens when you fire someone. “When you do mass terminations well, you get daily feedback when they land on their feet,” he says.
Mathews remembers one employee, a maintenance director, who had a stutter but was an outstanding worker. He couldn’t get past first interviews because of his stutter. So, Mathews called the chief executive officer of a company where the man was interviewing and convinced the CEO to be patient through the interview. The CEO agreed, and the maintenance director got a job. A month later, the CEO called Mathews to thank her.
The author is a freelance business writer and editor in Alexandria, Va., and contributing editor and former managing editor of HR Magazine.
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