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Advice from a Real Life Corporate Downsizing Expert

24 February 2010 Written by: Brenda Gilchrist 7 Comments
Advice from a Real Life Corporate Downsizing Expert

By now most of you have seen the movie,Up in the Air with George Clooney. If you haven’t seen it, George Clooney plays the part of Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizing expert. Some of us, like myself, have had to play this role in real life. Unfortunately, some of us have had to take on this role throughout our career, but even more so in 2009.

Most employees don’t realize how much work goes on behind the scenes before a layoff decision is ever made. My clients and former corporate CEO’s I worked for grieve over tough layoff decisions, sometimes for months, before they make a final decision.

Companies should consider a combination of factors such as performance, length of service, skills required, and operational needs. For larger group layoffs, companies may want to consider bringing in

  • an onsite outplacement team,
  • a representative from the Employment Development Department to discuss the unemployment program and possibly
  • someone from an Employment Assistance Program counseling services program, if available.

I think companies should invest in having a downsizing expert to work with them to make sure employees are taken care of as much as possible to lessen the impact. Treating employees well during an exit is so important – more importantly, companies may need to hire them back in the economic upswing.

Having to tell employees (that, in some cases, I’ve never met) their job has been eliminated is one of the toughest tasks to do in HR. For me, it’s one of the toughest things I’ve had to do in my life. In one case, I thought the executive I was sitting with was going to throw up during the layoff meeting. He was literally sick to his stomach and upset about having to deliver the news to a team of six employees that there were being laid off.

In this case, business had dropped so significantly, they had to shut down part of production and start saving costs in order to pay the bankers to avoid shutting the doors completely. The company tried everything before they finally had to make the toughest decision – to layoff teams of employees.

I can truly say I know how it feels to be in their shoes. I had to layoff myself, along with the corporate executive team. For me, I think being part of the decision made it easier, but in the end, I was still shocked that it finally came down to writing my own layoff notice. Even though I knew my job was eliminated due to an acquisition of my company, I still felt embarrassed that I was laid off. I knew working for a start up was a risk, but I still felt shocked that I was unemployed.

I’ve heard people say, “It’s not like it used to be when you worked for a company forever.” Having entered the workforce in the late 80’s, I never experienced that sense of stability. I learned fast that I always needed to have a “Plan B” in the event my job was going to end without notice. Even so, I think we should work hard to do a great job at work, feel good about our contributions and be great employees.

However, we owe it to ourselves:

  • to keep a good balance in life,
  • to continue to network outside of our company to keep connections that may be a lifeline to our next career and
  • to keep up our training or get our certificates we need to stay marketable.

Bottom line, we need to take care of ourselves – and be in control if we are handed a box.

If you’ve been laid off, how do you feel your company handled it?  The good and the bad? What sort of reaction do my words stir up in you? What would you like to share with someone like me? Or, what would you like to see companies do differently? What action can you take to prepare yourself now or in your next job so you are in control of your career?

Brenda Gilchrist is a former corporate HR Executive and current Managing Partner of a Human Resources consulting firm located in Northern, CA.

You can learn so much about this author by clicking here.


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  • anonymous said:

    Was let go in May with two hours’ notice and a security guard to escort me out … after 15 years. Was told this “wasn’t a reflection on me” (wanted to say, “Of course not; it’s a reflection on YOU). Had to sign an agreement that I wouldn’t discuss it, in order to get a pittance of severance (and when I tried to negotiate, was punished for still being in contact with folks). This, from an organization that prides itself on being a “community.”

    How do employers get away with this? NY State is “employment at will” (meaning you can be dismissed at any time for any reason … or no reason) and there’s no such thing as “wrongful termination,” so they can drop-kick you out the door without a second thought. A friend of mine also just went through this. Why is it illegal to mistreat an employee for being gay or handicapped, but not for being HUMAN?

  • Brenda (author) said:

    As discussed in my article, I think it’s important employees are treated with dignity and respect as they leave an organization. It’s not uncommon for companies to have security on watch and it’s very common to have somone walk us out of the office. It’s often hard to predict the reaction of employees and what they might say or do on their way out. In a few cases, I requested a security guard to be available (outside the office in plain clothes) in the event the employee became violent. I think giving employees the option to come back at a later time to collect personal belongings or, give the option to have the company collect and mail their personal items to their home, is a good idea. I prefer to not have employees packing boxes in front of their colleagues and friends – it’s hard on the employee and hard on those around them. I think, in some cases, it’s appropriate to schedule a meeting later (before or after hours) to have the person come back. However, for security reasons, it might be best to pack things up for the employee and deliver the items to them.
    To prevent a possible scene, I’ve sometimes met employees at a local coffee shop to review their termination documents, answer questions and to be respectful that this is a very stressful event.
    We appreciate your honest feedback and for sharing your comments. Is anyone else interested in sharing their experience (good or bad)?

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  • mike davis said:

    How can I become a professional down size expert?

  • Share Quotes : said:

    i always seek career advice from my parents and from industry professionals”,:

  • Helping You Hire said:

    I have not seen this movie, but I do agree with you Brenda that it is greatly important that employees are treated with dignity and respect when they are asked to leave an organization. Working in the staffing solutions and services industry, I have seen this too many times, where employees are rudely escorted out of the premises. It is sad to see how some companies treat employees who have been with the company for so long.

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