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Sending people home is not a badge of honour

Oct 20, 2019 Management, Sunday Nation

You give your employer the best years of your life. You work hard, you follow instructions, you are loyal, you wait patiently for promotions. You make your job your life, and don’t wish to work anywhere else. Then, a new CEO arrives, full of new ideas. This leader looks at you and other long-standing employees with disdain. You are the old guard, the old-school types who are dinosaurs now. Within a few months your letter arrives. You’re out. Bye.

You have set up the local unit of a blue-chip multinational firm. You’ve hustled for clients, you’ve met the company’s global standards in service and quality. You’ve nurtured a great team of professionals, aligning them with the firm’s mission and values. Things are looking good. A letter arrives, telling you to close the office down completely because of a change in global strategy. Your country is no longer a priority. Bye.

It would be nice to think I have just described the exceptions of corporate life, that this stuff happens rarely, and only to a few unfortunates. But that’s not true. It’s the norm. It’s par for the course. Few people who work for large enterprises have escaped the curse of layoffs – as bystanders if not as victims.

Isn’t that the game we all sign up for, though? No company can sustain you if it can no longer afford your upkeep, after all. When markets shrink or technology arrives or competitors outplay you or skillsets become obsolete – what else can an honest company do other than send folks home?

That’s not the issue that concern me. I am bothered by two things that seem to escape the axe-wielding senior executive: hypocrisy and callousness.

If the game is that brutal, then why pretend when times are good that it is not? The same CEOs who arrive with a list of names to be terminated are the ones who, only a few months prior, were giving people high fives, telling them how they work for a company that truly cares about them, talking about comradeship and belonging. Ahem. And it is never just the employees’ fault when things go wrong; strategic missteps or failures to adapt are as much to blame, and those mistakes are made in much higher pay grades.

Also, the way people are let go is often just offensive. You may have shown utmost loyalty to your employer, but few employers protect your dignity when you are deemed surplus to requirements. Your dismissal will be quick and brutal. No one wants to see your long face moping around.

This is why I tell my clients to refrain from talking about ‘family’ values at work. It’s rarely true that you are part of a family in your place of employment. It’s an inappropriate metaphor. Those family values disappear rapidly when the wage bill is deemed too high. The culture we need is a ‘team’ culture – teams try to keep winning, even as team members come and go.

This hypocrisy is not actually a necessary evil; it is an unnecessary practice. You need a powerful culture of engagement in order to be any sort of worthwhile enterprise. As the late Herb Kelleher, iconic founder of Southwest Airlines, was fond of saying, ‘Nothing kills your company’s culture like layoffs.’

This is because if you have spent years pretending your people are your most valuable asset, blah blah, your hypocrisy is exposed in the moment you mention ‘rightsizing.’ And the problem is not just that with the people who depart; it is with those who stay. Layoffs cast a long shadow. They instil fear; they reveal the truth about the psychological contract; they create disengagement. Studies repeatedly show: disengaged employees who stay are more likely to abuse staff, bend the rules and commit fraud.

There are, of course, many legitimate reasons for letting go of staff. That does not make it a desirable practice. Firing people repeatedly is a failure – in strategy and in leadership. Let no one turn that failure into a piece of chest-thumping machismo.

Is it not possible to say what you mean and mean what you say as an employer? To hire carefully, and fire reluctantly? To not make promises you can’t keep? To accept blame when necessary? To be as open, consistent and honest as you can be about the reality of the workplace? I think it is. Over to you.

(Sunday Nation, 20 October 2019)

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