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Learn new skills to avoid the pink slip

Sun., Feb. 7, 2010

I have two employees whose spouse or partner is newly laid off. I have several board members and friends who employ people that have recently laid off staff. And there are always stories when such a profound event occurs, from both sides. Sadly, I am not sure we are getting smarter about how to do it and how to avoid it.

So what can you do to make yourself difficult to lay off?

•Keep learning. In a number of the stories I heard from colleagues, the individual laid off was a longtime employee who was stuck. Business changes and so do the needs for the products or services offered. The people part of the business must change, or go the way of the typewriter and adding machine. If you find your job shrinking due to technology or market changes, you must change, too.

•Learn new skills and cross train in areas that need backup. No NFL team ever lets their No. 1 backup quarterback go, do they?

•Be willing to adapt, and be the first one to notice a change and offer a solution. You are the expert in your position; own it and make it the best.

•Be flexible. Be willing to take a step down if that is what the company needs. Decisions are made for the health of the organization, not your individual needs.

•Check your attitude. When evaluating two employees with similar skill levels, the attitude in the person makes the choice easy.

When my peers talked of the process of laying off longtime staff, you could see just how much it hurt them to take such a step, but they spoke of the coaching, offers of other duties and training to get the person set up to contribute to what the company needs now, not what was of value 10 or even five years ago. Refusal to learn the changing technology led to more than one of these people being let go.

If as an employer you find yourself in the position of managing a layoff, there are all sorts of things you can do right. One of the best situations I have ever witnessed was when Columbia Paint, in the course of a merger, planned to move their headquarters out of Spokane. The company immediately began to find other positions for their staff. It even compiled a notebook with resumes divided by skills and sent it to some of the larger employers in the area. And they let their staff take time off, with pay, to go on interviews. Talk about stepping up and taking care of people who are finding themselves without a job through no fault of their own.

Another company did not quite have the same attitude. It announced months ago the closure of all its mall stores, letting employees know that sometime after Christmas they would be laid off. Some positions were offered severance packages, again with the promise that the severance would kick in when the stores closed. Now the stores are closed and the company is telling its former staff, which stuck with them through the holidays, that due to the sheer volume of layoffs the company won’t have time to get to the severance pay for four to six weeks.

And companies wonder why there is no employee loyalty.

So what do you do to honor the contribution your employee made to the company if you are faced with having to lay people off or reduce staff?

•Have a letter of recommendation ready if appropriate. Leaving with a tangible pat on the back can really help someone get over the sting.

•Outline the severance and insurance options in writing. It is an emotional time and they may not hear everything you say.

•If you can, make suggestions about other employment opportunities with names and numbers.

Staff reductions are never easy for anyone, but a little care and kindness will go a long way. And for those on the other side of the layoff fence, on Super Bowl Sunday the best defense is always a good offense. Start making yourself so valuable you will be unlikely to be the one laid off.

Jan Quintrall is president and CEO of the local Better Business Bureau. She can be reached at


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