Beyond 'You're Fired': How To Lay Off Workers

The labor market just keeps getting worse. AT&T, DuPont, NBC Universal and Credit Suisse announced layoffs this week — and they weren't alone. Throughout the business world, managers have been calling people in, and giving them the bad news. There can be a right way — and a wrong way — to let workers go.

Most of us can imagine what it would be like to stand in front of the boss's desk and be fired. In north Texas, after the dot-com and telecommunications busts, the region's economy suffered badly. Thousands of highly trained professionals didn't have to imagine — they lived it.

Dan Ortman was one of them. He'd worked most of his life — 16 years — at a large financial services company.

Ortman describes himself as a "company man."

"I was the embodiment, I think, of my previous job, and [my] employer was very much a part of who I was," he says.

In October 2002, he had survived seven consecutive quarters of company layoffs. But the eighth and final round took his job. Ortman and his boss were close, but that didn't make it any easier.

"I felt like I had a good relationship with the person, and you wonder how come you don't know all that goes into the decision process because you're outside the loop of that decision process. You're there one day, and you're not the next," Ortman says.

If there is no good way to get laid off, there are better and worse ways to let employees go. Paul Harvey is a professor of management at the University of New Hampshire who studies workplace behaviors. Harvey says that for an executive laying off his or her employees, the most important thing is being respectful.

"A person deserves to have an explanation as to why they're being let go," he says.

Being respectful means "just giving those honest, rational explanations and treating them politely and with dignity, because it's an embarrassing thing to get fired," Harvey says. "If you can treat them with dignity, at least it takes the edge off of that."

Harvey says the biggest mistake managers make is to shut down emotionally. The situation's potential for raw emotion — the fired employee's anger and grief — is daunting. It's not unlike some doctors who suddenly turn cold when forced to deliver devastating medical diagnoses.

Harvey says this defensive behavior is understandable, but it often serves to make a bad situation worse.

"Some people, when they end any relationship, they switch into a kind of emotionless, robotic mode. And they just say, 'Sorry, you're out. Have a good life.' They kind of switch off their caring, sensitive side for the time being because they're threatened and they don't want to let emotions and things like that into the situation," Harvey says.

In the midst of a financial collapse, it would seem that the layoff process should be easier psychologically for both sides of the desk — sort of like a no-fault divorce. But mostly, that noble thought proves to be an illusion. After all, a lot of other employees at the company are keeping their jobs. How can it not be personal?

But in Dallas, Ortman has learned that it's healthier for people to have a strong sense of themselves outside of what they do for a living.

"Now I've got an entirely different view of employment and unemployment," he says. "And all you can do is all you can do. My approach is just to do the best job that you can inside any given day."

In America, the stigma of unemployment is strong, and Ortman is too embarrassed to say how long it took him to get another job. He does concede that it was quite a bit longer than a year.

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