Friday, March 6, 2009

Letting People Go With Dignity

There is perhaps no more difficult a task for a manager than ending an employee's employment. These days, economic conditions are forcing many managers to do just that.

For those on the receiving end, the way one is let go is often more hurtful than the layoff itself. I know this firsthand. I lost my job four times over my career. Only once did I feel I was treated with dignity and respect. The other three times, the manner in which I was terminated stung far worse than the job loss.

So if you have to let people go in this economic downturn, here are some things to keep in mind to make it a bit easier to endure--both for the employee and yourself:

Be compassionate. The people you let go in a downturn are often not among your better performers. In some cases, you might actually be glad to see them go. But they still deserve your respect. Care for them as people, even if you haven't been enamored with them as employees.

A layoff can be a terribly disruptive event. One senior engineer I had to let go was forced to relocate from his home of ten years. He bounced around from job to job for a few years trying to find the right fit. The fact that he didn't meet performance expectations provided little solace for me compared with the setback he and his family would suffer as a result of my decision.

I think managers sometimes try to hide their emotions to minimize their own discomfort. They use numbers to rationalize and depersonalize the decision. That's fine to explain the action but not to excuse an apparent lack of compassion. Sharing the pain can go a long way toward lessening it for the employee. I'm proud to say the aforementioned senior engineer is still my friend in part because I didn't hold back expressing how much it hurt me to let him go.

Be honest. I lost my job once on the day I returned from vacation. My boss called me into his office with another employee where we listened to the HR manager on the speaker phone tell us that we were being let go due to "adverse business conditions." The next week I saw a large display ad in the local newspaper advertising my former position.

What the real reasons were for my termination, I'll never know. Unfortunately, mine is not an isolated situation. Managers often use a downturn as cover to let employees go for performance or other reasons without telling them. That's not fair. When an employee is laid off, the first question that often comes to mind is, "Why me?" You may not be able to share the whole truth, but tell the employee what you can. If performance was a factor, say so.

A loss of employment can be a turning point for the laid-off worker. Don't miss the opportunity to provide feedback that may help that person do better at their next job. Sometimes it's a matter of job fit. Suggest what kind of work you think the individual is best suited for. Point out areas for growth. And, of course, show appreciation for the contributions the employee made to the firm.

Don't be too quick to show them the door. At one firm, by the time I returned to my office after receiving the bad news, I could no longer access the network. Someone sat and watched as I packed my things. Caution may be appropriate if you have some reason to believe the terminated employee might behave badly. But to treat everyone that way is bad policy, in my opinion.

I'm not naive. A recent survey, for example, found that 59% of ex-employees admitted to stealing confidential company information. What's not clear is whether that happened on the way out the door or before they were terminated. I also don't know what they included in that category. For example, would one's Outlook contact database be considered company property? Does the firm really own one's relationships? I've even heard of firms taking departing employees' business card files.

If I'm weighing relative risks, I'll opt for avoiding the risk of becoming known for treating laid-off employees like criminals. I'd prefer to give them time to "put their house in order," to set reasonable limits on what information they can take with them, and to allow them the privilege of saying goodbye to former colleagues. As a general rule, the best strategy for minimizing risks to your business is to maintain good relationships.

Help where you can and follow up. Offer whatever assistance you can to soften the blow of unemployment and help the worker find another job. A generous severance package can be a sound investment if the employee leaves with positive feelings about your firm. Point the individual to helpful resources, provide any leads you might have, and offer to serve as a reference (assuming you can provide a positive one).

One simple step that goes a long way: Contact the person a few weeks later to see how things are going, and offer any encouragement and advice you can. Very few former employers take that step. But it can mean a great deal to the former employee.

Besides just being the right thing to do, treating laid off workers well can pay dividends down the road. This is still a relatively small industry, and we often find ourselves reconnecting with former colleagues and associates years later. I've even heard of one former employee who was laid off with dignity later becoming that firm's client. Business conditions may force you to part ways with some current employees, but that shouldn't mean that you have to terminate the relationship.

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