Layoffs: Is there one right way?

Layoffs is a topic in which most of us are, unfortunately, well-versed. These days, it seems as if few of us have avoided being touched - directly or indirectly - by this troubling topic.

I recently received an e-mail from a reader whose company will be laying off people. A manager leaked news of the layoffs- still several weeks off- to his staff and now the word is out prematurely. The reader wondered if the manager was right to tell his staff- even though he was not supposed to- and if the company just should have been upfront with everyone from the get-go.

My first reaction was, "Wow, is HR gonna be mad at that manager!" What a nightmare. The actual event is a ways away and now everyone will be speculating if they're going to get the ax. Good-bye productivity, hello paranoia.

Usually only those managers who are being forced to lay off staff will be in the know. The reader seemed surprised that the event can take weeks to carry out, but it's more the planning and preparation that necessitates the time delay. There are decisions to be made on who's effected, numbers to crunch, severance packages to prepare, etc. Plus, many companies train their managers on the entire layoff process so they're all handled uniformly and with the utmost respect for the people being laid off. Believe me, this is the sort of thing you don't want to drag out any longer than necessary.

That leads us into the most difficult part of this process for the manager- being in the know. You know there will be layoffs and you know who it will be weeks before the event. This is the absolute worst part of being a manager. You have to interact with people whom you like and definitely know will be looking for work in the near future. You hear about their plans, lives and families as usual, and you feel like a complete heel. However, that's why you get the big bucks, it's all part of the job. However tempting it is to clue people in, especially those not being laid off, you simply can't, no matter how much you like them. This is an impossible-to-keep secret and word will get out. Chances are that manager had only good intentions with his actions, but he just stirred up a hornet's nest that will affect the entire company.

My personal opinion is that telling only those who have to know is the best way to handle it. Otherwise, you're going to scare everyone when there are (hopefully) only a small percentage that will actually be laid off. If people sit around and stew about whether they're going to be around in four weeks, they're going to be distracted and not very productive, and their work is going to suffer. Plus, don't forget about the security angle. Unfortunately, disgruntled employees have taken deadly measures in the past. This is a very small percentage, but it must be considered.

Bottom line: There are many wrong ways to lay people off, but there is no one "right" way because the end result is the same. However, I think no-communication-until-absolutely-necessary is the best move for everyone. I'm interested to get your opinion. What has your experience been? What would you recommend? Send your thoughts to mailto:mshaw@nww.com.

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