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Happy Labor Day. You’re Fired!

By Sander Biehn | Sep 9, 2014

This is the exact message over a thousand employees at a local Atlanta media company are getting this first Tuesday of September. Last Tuesday, the paper first reported it would be 600 souls getting the pink slip, but the numbers escalated as the week wore on. On Friday, I found myself over-hearing one of the survivors relaying the tale of execution day to another dad at my son’s soccer practice. This guy looked totally exhausted. His phone kept beeping, but he acted as if he couldn’t hear it.

Acting out the drama, he bitterly recounted a week of swirling rumors, followed by leaked organizational charts that had some names missing, only to be followed-up with new charts that included everyone in the department again. It all culminated, he continued, in hasty meetings and one-on-one discussions letting each employee know whether he or she would be around for this year’s holiday party.

His overall prognosis: It could have been handled with more grace. Perhaps they could have hired a firm that specialized in these kind of deep cuts to do a more professional job?

I listened intently because I had been through this many times at my old employer. In fact, I even spent one memorable Labor Day unemployed after a massive end or August layoff.

What struck me this time though was the human toll the layoff at this company had left not on the people who were let go, but rather on the survivors. My fellow soccer dad hardly seemed ready to pick up the ball with a new, leaner organization and light the world on fire. He looked defeated. He seemed resolved to the confusion that would follow on Tuesday morning as the survivors picked up the pieces, took on the additional workloads and tried to make sense of what just happened.

All too often executive teams who ‘make difficult choices’ and plan a layoff to help meet earning expectations on Wall Street, have destined themselves to a dreadful next quarter as disenfranchised survivors take on mountains of extra work in an environment of fear and uncertainty.

In this regard, management’s short-sighted decision creates the pervasive attitude of mistrust that follows every layoff that I have ever been a part of. Note to the top deck: you cannot manage your way out of dismal morale. But this is just the beginning. Many survivors realize that if they weren’t cut, they are probably safe for the near-term, regardless of performance, and mock their employer by not doing their best in the coming months. This is hardly going to help turn the ship as employees attempt to get even with their employer. It may seem irrational, but I have seen play out many times in my 20+ years in corporate America.  Mistrust breeds visceral response.

As times goes on, survivors tuck away their fear and mistrust and begin planning for the next layoff. The dismal results that follow the positive blip in cost savings are never lost on the survivors who are watching the stock ticker closer than ever. Their plans quickly turn to survival.  This means propping up their own results at the expense of others.

Layoffs drive home the notion for survivors that employment at this corporation is a zero sum game.

Workers rationalize that every year the employer will need less of us. Therefore, my co-workers are the competition. If I can look better than them, I will remain and they will be laid off next time. I have been part of an organization where this happened, and I can tell you that this attitude is real and it isn’t pretty.

Never mind the jealousy and sabotage that take over office politics; never mind the paranoia; the organization cannot succeed under such duress.

Certainly, executives have their reasons for putting up the white flag and calling for a layoff. I sadly shake my head at their lack of creativity and their short-sightedness. If you are going to treat the workforce as ‘human capital’, you need to understand that this capital can easily spoil if not properly stored.

But this is Labor Day! So I would like to end by offering the following advice for my fellow soccer dad who needs to walk into work on Monday:

Hold your head high and know that your true self-worth never has and never will be tied to the destiny of your employer. In fact, that equation is upside down. It’s the other way around. Your employer will only succeed if they can find a way to harness your potential. Your only job is to deliver the gifts you have without fear that it won’t be good enough. The day after a layoff is not occasion for everyone to ‘row harder’, it is a call to ‘row smarter’. Because it is incumbent on the organization, not you, to find the way out of this red ink. Your unique gifts and intelligence will benefit you regardless of what happens in the short term. It isn’t time to stress unless, of course, you are the author of this layoff.


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