In the Wake of Layoffs

I got a call Friday from a friend who said she'd just been laid off. This is, what?, the fourth or fifth friend in the past month who's called with that dismal news. And I know several others who have been laid off during the past year or so. Layoffs – the hallmark of our time.

As the number of my friends and acquaintances who have lost jobs has increased, I've found myself thinking about their reactions and the way they've handled the bad news. Each is a little different.

One friend, who was laid off about a month ago, immediately sent out e-mails announcing her situation and asking for contacts, help, advice, whatever. In short, she turned the announcement into her first networking move. Less than 24 hours later, she'd announced her new freelance business on LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. And then she REALLY started networking. She also looked at other options – franchises and such that would have taken her life in a whole new direction. Then, last week, she got interviews with three or four companies. I expect to hear momentarily that she's fielding multiple job offers.

Another, who was laid off about the same time, does not appear to be doing so well. She actually delivered her news to a mutual friend who told me. I called, but couldn't reach her, so I sent an e-mail offering sympathy, support and whatever help I might be able to give. I heard – nothing. Not for two weeks. Then I got an e-mail from her that was incoherent, rambling and made little sense. I noticed she'd written it around 2:00 a.m. I'm worried about her.

Then there's the friend who called on Friday. She's decided to go on vacation for a week. When she comes back, she plans to get her real estate license (another secure job in this economy) and make up her mind then about any other plans.

What none of them did was become violent, unlike angry workers last month in New Delhi, India, who used iron rods to beat to death the HR manager after he laid off 42 employees at an auto-parts company. That was not the first case of layoff rage. Last year, a mob of laid-off workers beat the CEO of an Italian company to death. Late last year, the CEO of a natural health food supplier in Canada was killed during a company Christmas party by a man who had lost his job the day before. And last November, the CEO of a California semiconductor company was killed when a laid-off employee returned with a gun.

It's stories like these that cause managers and HR officials to suffer nervous twitches when it comes time to be the bad guy who tells someone he or she has to go. The fear of violence has contributed to procedures that see long-term employees banned from going back to their desks to pick up their purses, or car keys, or personal belongings. Those identical procedures see those same, formerly trusted workers ushered to the door by uniformed guards or an HR rep. A tough, painful situation becomes instantly humiliating. Pile this humiliation on top of anger and fear and you have a tinder box waiting for a spark of violence.

What can HR do to help avoid a violent reaction to a layoff? Well, remember to treat people with respect. Warning the workforce in advance of the possibility of layoffs may help prepare people. For larger companies planning mass layoffs, you need to make sure you've complied with the Workers Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or WARN, which requires 60 days' notice in certain circumstances. You also don't want to lay people off en masse. Talking to folks one at a time, explaining the why of the decision, explaining any layoff package or other benefits the employee might receive and being respectful and thankful for the work they've put in also help soften the blow. And give people time. Rushing them through the process may be more comfortable for you, but it's going to make the employee feel even worse.

As for avoiding violence, unless there's a good, concrete reason – past threats, for example – it's probably not wise to have a uniformed guard standing nearby or escorting someone out. But you should immediately cut off access to company computers and collect laptops, keys to the building, cell phones and whatever other company property is in the employee's possession.

And amongst all the drama and hardship, don't forget the survivors – those employees who are left after the layoff. They're feeling scared, stressed and a bit guilty over the fact that they managed to duck the axe. Let them know what's going on. Do what you can to help them avoid burning out from the new responsibilities they'll have to take over. Do what you can to boost their morale. And watch what the company does next. Awarding the CEO a big bonus would not be a good idea. Bringing in a bunch of new hires would also be a mistake. The same goes for that wunderkind you've been courting, especially if he/she costs a lot of money.

But maybe the best thing is to hope, pray, chant mantras, and cross your fingers and toes that the economy turns around soon.