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Cutting with care

Sun., April 12, 2009

Giving the layoff talk takes some special skills

SEATTLE – When budget cuts forced Neal Oman to lay off an engineer at a Bellevue, Wash., software company, he tried to soften the blow by assuring the talented, but incredulous, employee that he was sure to find a new job in a week.

The prediction turned out to be accurate. But Oman, now a technology consultant in Issaquah, Wash., ruefully recalls the employee’s reaction at the time as, “So what? I don’t want to get another job.”

The recession has claimed nearly 5.1 million jobs since it began in December 2007. Many of those workers likely learned their fate during tense meetings punctuated by fear, anguish and discomfort – and not just on their part.

Even for experienced supervisors, having to lay off someone remains a detested duty. The tsunami of job cuts around the nation is forcing tens of thousands of apprehensive managers to have “the talk,” many for the first time.

Human resources experts advise managers to minimize drama by being direct and brief, avoiding platitudes and, above all, maintaining emotional equilibrium. Instead, many bosses tap dance, ramble on and claim it’s for the best. Some even cry.

“It’s the single most uncomfortable, intimidating conversation a manager goes through,” said Denise Rubin, a veteran human resources executive who has witnessed more than 100 termination meetings at Group Health Cooperative, Coinstar, Bsquare and elsewhere.

“And I’ve seen it go badly so many times.”

To be sure, any distress managers may feel pales when compared with the devastation of losing a job. Research has found that unemployment can trigger depression, erode self-esteem, strain relationships and cause physical illness.

The evidence on managers is still emerging, but they, too, pay a price. Researchers who have been tracking the effects of layoffs at Boeing since 1997 found a clear correlation between managers who’d laid off workers and subsequent health problems, such as ulcers, headaches and heart trouble.

Axing an employee calls for emotional fortitude precisely when a manager may be grappling with his own dread. Rubin has seen numerous supervisors assuage their own unease by disavowing responsibility to the employee they’re about to sack.

“Most managers do not own it,” Rubin said. “They say, ‘I’m a pawn here. I’m just as much a victim as you are.’ ”

Rubin, 55, left her job as vice president of human resources at Bellevue’s Coinstar in January by mutual decision. This month, she launched a new radio show called “Work Does Matter,” focusing on the “trials and tribulations of the workplace.”

Rubin has little sympathy for managers who can’t rein in their own anxiety.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but when the manager is crying, the employee, who’s just lost his job, has to comfort you.”

One HR manager at a Seattle firm said she was so traumatized after spending a recent day laying off people that she was unable to sleep that night despite sedating herself with wine. At one point during the day, a male employee leapt to his feet in rage, prompting her to instinctively touch the manager seated next to her for reassurance.

Even the next day, “you feel like you have to watch your back,” said the manager, who asked that she and her employer not be identified. “You hear about people coming back to the workplace and taking people out.”

Partly to minimize the ordeal on both parties, some employers bring in professional coaches.

Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center, which cut 200 jobs in February, hired Lee Hecht Harrison, an HR firm, for “manager notification training.”

Swedish managers had mock conversations and honed techniques for neutralizing hidden emotions that drive the six most common types of employee reactions.

They learned, for instance, not to reciprocate if a worker turns hostile, a reaction that may mask hurt and disappointment. Someone who responds with exaggerated formality, on the other hand, could be suppressing vengeance and should be given time to make queries.

“Unfortunately in this job market, (laying off workers) is a skill most managers are going to need,” said Frank Buysee, general manager of Lee Hecht Harrison’s Bellevue office.

That’s not to say that giving out pink slips gets less agonizing with practice.

Oman, the technology consultant, said he never got used to termination talks, even after his 20th time. The first round of layoffs Oman ever had to carry out, at Onyx Software, was relatively painless, he said. “You’re getting rid of people who, while not bad, are not a perfect fit.”

But trimming staff from his small engineering department the second time proved far more wrenching. By then, “I had to lay off people that I desperately needed.”

In November, Oman, 45, switched seats when he was laid off from Finsphere, a Bellevue wireless startup. Though Oman knew that the firm’s venture capital was drying up, he thought his status as its No. 2 employee protected him.

So when Finsphere’s chief executive delivered the blow, Oman reeled in his chair. “I was kind of in his face. My initial impulse was to make him as uncomfortable as I could,” Oman said. “But I quickly got over it.”

Stephanie Pearson, a former longtime human resources manager at a Seattle public relations and advertising firm, said some meetings go relatively well – albeit oddly.

Pearson recalled one normally talkative worker who turned mute during her termination meeting. The woman bobbed her head to indicate yes or no and pantomimed with her hand that she would sign her paperwork.

She shrugged her shoulders as if to ask, “Is that all?” Then she stood up and left.

Pearson said layoff meetings shouldn’t last more than 10 or 15 minutes. Longer and it’s a good clue the briefing has gone awry.

An exasperated Pearson once listened to a manager drone on in front of a perplexed employee. Finally the worker caught on. “Are you trying to lay me off?”

“Well, yeah,” the manager replied indignantly.

“Brevity is the word,” Pearson advised.

After witnessing more blunders than she cares to recollect, Pearson has drafted her own golden rules for blunting a layoff’s sting. They include avoiding terminating a worker on his birthday or anniversary date, if possible.

Pearson also favors announcing layoffs early in the day and never on Fridays, in case workers have further questions. And she believes in giving advance warning, even if it comes only moments before the employee sits down before the boss.

“In my book, it’s all about being humane,” Pearson said.

Treating workers humanely benefits managers, too. Sarah Moore, a professor of psychology at the University of Puget Sound, has long studied the human toll of layoffs. She said the ill effects on managers can be partly offset if job cuts are made justly and openly.

That means following clear rules about which workers to cut loose and never thrusting that decision on a single manager.

Yet even best practices, Moore said, likely won’t shield managers from all the fallout.

Moore and her colleagues have tracked Boeing’s boom-and-bust layoff cycles since 1997. Though the research has focused mainly on the rank-and-file, responses from more than 400 Boeing managers revealed surprisingly lingering effects of having to let people go.

But Pearson, the HR expert, reminds beleaguered managers to remember the true casualties.

“The thing people never want to hear is, ‘This is hard for me,’ ” Pearson said. “It’s harder for me not getting a paycheck.”

Tags: layoffs

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