Letting Go

The changes in economic and social conditions in the past year have been accompanied by significant contractions in staffing levels in organizations of all sizes. Things can go particularly sour during the layoff process if management doesn’t give clear, credible explanations of what is happening and what people can expect.

Prepare for the worst

When layoffs are a necessity, organizational checks and balances should come into play. The selection of individuals to be cut and the documentation of the process must follow existing company policy; criteria for termination such as tenure, performance, and attendance must be consistently applied.

Don’t fire on Friday. The people who lose their jobs will have too much time to stew if they have to wait until Monday to register for unemployment insurance and look for a new job.

Terminations should be carried out privately in face-to-face, individual discussions, not in group sessions, phone calls, or e-mails. The immediate supervisor or manager should conduct the interview, not a human resources specialist. The organization must preserve HR’s neutrality.

Tell the truth

Be sure that everyone who will conduct termination interviews has all the necessary information, including the underlying business reasons for the layoff. Tell the truth about the reason for the cut; a false or misleading explanation can win a labor case in court even if the intention was to soften the blow.

Prepare supervisors to deal with emotional outbursts or nasty remarks directed at them. A personalized termination letter is a useful tool for structuring the conversation and keeping it on track. The letter should explain what is available in terms of outplacement services, how to use the company’s Employee Assistance Program, how your company handles Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) provisions for continuing health insurance coverage, and how to apply for unemployment benefits. (Visit the Society of Human Resource Management’s Web site at www.shrm.org for more information about these issues.)

Finding another job is the most urgent concern for most terminated employees, so supervisors should explain how your organization will handle references. Supervisors should also have final pay checks ready, and the checks should include every single penny of compensation due, including sick, vacation, incentive, and commission pay.

Meet folks who stay

Again, be sure to meet employees in person; don’t announce the cut in an e-mail or interoffice memo. For the people who stay, though, group meetings are preferable. Not everyone is brave enough to ask questions about job security or how the extra work will be handled; it’s a real plus to encourage such questions and answer them directly.

The sooner you can get the group together, the better off everyone will be. Do it the same day if possible, or early the next day. Explain the business reasons for the cuts in terms of both current need and long-term strategy. Describe what the range of impacts on the organization and the staff will be. The tone of the meeting should be upbeat and forward-looking, but candor is critical.

After the meeting, get everyone involved in their specific tasks or projects as soon as possible to keep them focused on business. It doesn’t pay to pretend that nothing has changed, so be overt about checking in periodically and individually to see how people are recovering from the shock. Know that it will take a while to adjust to the losses, and that no one really forgets.

Liz Kislik, president of Liz Kislik Associates, specializes in customer marketing and service efforts that involve people and phones. She can be reached at 99 West Hawthorne Ave., Suite 200, Valley Stream, NY 11580, or by phone at (516) 568-2932.

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