Thank Your For the Layoff

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There’s no way around it.  Firing people stinks.  And while there is plenty of advice available about the “right” and “wrong” ways to do it, even in the best of circumstances, the situation is tough for all involved.

In my own experience, I have made many mistakes when terminating individual employees and overseeing large-scale layoffs.  Early in my career I heeded the advice of lawyers and human resources professionals who emphasized protecting the company from legal jeopardy and limiting the risk of personal retribution from employees.  They advised me to handle things quickly – keep the conversation brief, and we’ll escort the person out of the building promptly – and we won’t talk about the particulars to others after the action is taken. I was sensitive to the safety concerns, having read tragic stories of disgruntled employees turning on their former companies in a violent rage.  Frankly, I was so uncomfortable in these situations that I, too, wanted them to end quickly, like “ripping off a Band-Aid.”

In the aftermath, I’d feel guilty over how I treated the people being let go, and in the days following the person’s departure, “surviving” employees were confused about what had happened and I was unable to be completely honest with them.  My hasty, secretive actions created unease and I’m sure some people thought, “I wonder if he would do that to me?”

Eventually, I had a more positive (or at least, less negative) experience with a downsizing while I was CEO of The Weather Channel Companies.  Early in my tenure there, I recommended closing our Latin American channel.  The business had suffered through several years of losses and whenever we solved one challenge, another emerged to make matters worse.  Once my boss and our board blessed my decision our focus turned to how we would notify our employees and what support we would provide as they moved on.  I received great advice and support from our HR and legal team and in addition to offering generous severance and outplacement services, we carefully thought through the actual notification process, a situation complicated by our having employees in two locations, Atlanta and Miami.  Wanting to notify everyone simultaneously (and not allow for leaks and the rumor mill to take over) we invited Atlanta employees to our largest conference room and connected with the Miami office via a webcast. 

Shuttering the business had been my decision, so I wanted to make the announcement.  I was as direct as I could be, explaining my rationale - including a frank discussion about the economics of the business - and expressing my regret that despite everyone’s best efforts, the unit simply wasn’t going to make it.  From there, the head of our Latin American division and our top HR person explained how everything would be handled: supervisors would meet with their staffs, generous severance would be provided and outplacement counselors made available to help.  It was a tense and somber session, and I was relieved when it was over.

Later that day, I was returning from a lunch meeting outside our offices and walking from my car to the building I saw one of our Miami-based sales people heading towards me in the parking lot. We had met briefly once before, but I didn’t know him well. He stood about 6’ 5” and weighed around 250 pounds; an imposing figure on the best of days, and now we would have an encounter just hours after he sat in a conference room while I eliminated his job.  I knew he’d seen me so it was too late to reward my inner coward by pretending I’d forgotten something in my car.  Scary visions of “disgruntled employee” incidents flooded my brain and as I kept walking, my knees grew weaker and my mind swirled with possibilities. Would he ignore me?  Take a swing?

Finally, when we were about ten feet from each he threw his arms out wide, broke into a broad smile and gave me a bear hug.  “I just want to thank you, Bill.”  

Thank me? 

“I’ve gone through this kind of thing at other companies and no one has ever handled it as well as you guys,” he said.  “I’ll be fine, and I really appreciate the way you took care of all of us.”

Nothing that my colleagues or I had done seemed particularly special to me. We closed a division and made sure people were treated fairly and with dignity.  But when so many corporate cultures have become careless and callous, our actions were unusual and appreciated.  Thanks to the wise counsel and compassionate plan provided by my team, we had made the best of a very tough situation.

 

Takeaways

One might ask how treating outgoing employees well translates to any sort of return on the company’s integrity?  These people are leaving, after all, so what’s the big deal?  The answer is that because people understand that layoffs do happen, they are less likely to judge a company and its leaders by whether they make these tough decisions but rather how they carry them out. While the Atlanta newspaper and trade publications covered the closure of our Latin American channel, speculated as to the number of people affected – the usual layoff stories – people who remained at The Weather Channel spoke positively about was the way the situation was handled.  They were sad to see their colleagues go, but pleased to know they worked at a place that handled this difficult situation with compassion and care.