Laying Off Employees Still Best Done Face to Face

By Leon Rubis Jun 30, 2009

NEW ORLEANS—Technology can’t ease the pain of being laid off, four outplacement experts agreed at a 2009 SHRM Annual Conference panel discussion, “Leading Your Organization Through Downsizing.”

“The one-on-one dynamic is still very much at the heart” of outplacement, said Barbara Barra, executive vice president of Lee Hecht Harrison.

“The high-touch part of our services is the core,” agreed George Herrmann, executive vice president of Right Management. But while many people “still want to go into an office,” many are comfortable with technology. “Our data shows that some candidates feel phone coaching is as valuable as face to face.”

The outplacement process isn’t just about helping people write resumes, said Stephen Ford, director of OI Partners. “It’s really about helping rebuild someone’s confidence,” and that of their families.

Strategy Is Essential

Panel moderator China Miner Gorman, COO of SHRM, noted that 34,000 mass layoffs have been announced by U.S. employers since the beginning of 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With downsizings so common recently, the panelists all agreed that planning of layoffs, including exhausting all other cost-reduction possibilities, is essential. Herrmann advised HR to discuss with its executive team “What do we want to accomplish? Where do we want to be on the other side of this? … Try to find a way to get on the moving train to influence decisions.”

Being open about how the company is facing up to financial realities and planning for them help make layoff victims less resentful and help survivors regroup and resume business, panelists said. In addition, it makes layoffs less of a surprise if they have to be done.

“Don’t forget the issue of ‘how do we re-engage people and realign work,’ “ advised Barra. Explaining the rationale for the reorganization and the plan for the future “makes survivors feel better.”

Other observations and tips from panelists regarding downsizing included:

Prepare for news media coverage, especially in remote workplaces without headquarters officials, suggested Ford. “Who will be the spokesman, and are they trained?”

If doing layoffs internationally, decide if you want to offer standard benefits or standard expenditures in different countries.

Lay off employees individually, with the bad news delivered by their line managers, accompanied by an HR representative. If the person becomes argumentative, the line manager can then exit “so there’s no one to argue with” and be replaced by a transition consultant, recommended Gerald Sargent, executive vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. If there are too many employees for one line manager to handle easily, layoffs might have to be done in small groups, but that presents problems in assembling those people and simultaneously addressing survivors.

“Don’t let management use HR [offices] to be the ‘cutting-room floor,’ “ Sargent urged. “Tell them: ‘If you want to do the terminations here, then I’m going to hand out all bonuses and hand out all raises, too.’ “

Employee communications and leaks about layoffs that unfold over multiple shifts—or via social networking, texting and e-mails—are unavoidable and not all bad. “As long as the rumors are not overboard, it can be helpful so someone is not totally blindsided,” said Ford.

The panelists were impressed by the anecdote of one audience member whose company asked its 100 employees how they would like to be informed of impending layoffs on a Monday. The company offered them a choice between letting them know via e-mail, or by coming in to be told in person. As a result, “the people respected being asked what they wanted and didn’t bad-mouth the company” when job-seeking, the attendee said.

“That may work in a small company,“ admitted Herrmann. “Companies are like people; all of them are different.”

Leon Rubis is editorial director of SHRM.


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