In the Sensitive Office, Laying Off Is Hard to Do

The New York Times
Wednesday, December 19, 2001

By Melinda Ligos

Anna Marie Teague thought somebody would start crying when the vice president of a media relations firm in Dallas summoned her and three co-workers to a meeting last April and dismissed them.

What she did not anticipate was that it would be her boss who shed the tears. "It was bizarre," said Ms. Teague, who was an account manager at the firm. "First, she began whimpering and telling us it wasn't her fault. Then, she just started sobbing uncontrollably."

As her colleagues gaped, Ms. Teague put her arm around her supervisor's shoulders. "I said: 'We're going to be O.K. Don't be upset,'" Ms. Teague said. But the vice president could not be consoled. "She even tried to hug us as we walked out the door," Ms. Teague said.

Such displays of emotion by a manager during a layoff used to be unheard-of. But, in today's slackening economy, they are becoming more commonplace, career experts say. In an effort to appear more compassionate, many managers are taking a kinder, gentler approach, displaying emotions that range from empathetic to simply pathetic.

"Layoffs today have a different one," said Maury Hanigan, chief executive of Hanigan Consulting Group, a human-relations consulting firm in New York that urges managers to tell employees how bad they feel about dismissing them. "One of the things the labor shortage of the 1990's taught us is that employees are viable resources. The people you're laying off today are the same people you may have to rehire when the business cycle picks back up, so you've got to show some concern when you let them go."

The desire to maintain good relations with laid-off workers is what has driven Jay Moses, president and chief executive of UGO Networks, an online entertainment company in New York, to deliver the news gently. In the last year and a half, Mr. Moses has undertaken three waves of layoffs that have shrunk his company to 37 employees from 180. Each time, he said, he has tried "to establish an emotional connection with them."

"I've been moved to tears more than a few times," Mr. Moses said, noting that he has had to lay off friends whom he recruited away from other companies. "I'll hug people and spend as much time with them as they need."

Not only that, he invites all of his employees -- both those who are leaving and those who are not -- to a bar for drinks. And he writes personal notes to departing employees, thanking them for their hard work and commenting on how their efforts have helped the company.

"What's really been nice is that I've been able to retain my personal friendships with these people," Mr. Moses said.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, too, have increased the need for managers to appear more sympathetic, said Andrew Birol, president of Pacer Associates, an executive-coaching company in Cleveland. "Managers are feeling guilty about letting people go, and they're doing their best to soften the blow," he said.

One company that says it made a concerted effort to be more empathetic during layoff announcements is Delta Air Lines, which after the attacks announced that it would have to let go at least 13,000 employees.

But affected workers did not receive the news through a company memo or a human-resources lackey. Instead, Delta deployed 35 executives to company offices, hangars, break rooms and other meeting spots throughout the country to explain the situation to workers and lay out their options, including a voluntary leave program, according to Bob Colman, Delta's executive vice president for human resources.

Each executive received intensive training on how to anticipate employee reactions, like anger, and handle them with compassion, Mr. Colman says. Surprisingly, most workers took the news in stride. "A lot of people came up to the executives afterwards and actually comforted them," he said.

Of course, managers who abandon the traditional tone of detachment for a more caring demeanor should take care not to overstep the boundaries of decorum, specialists say. Otherwise, they risk appearing maudlin or just plain ridiculous.

Mr. Birol of Pacer Associates recalls attending a layoff meeting at a telecommunications company that had hired him as a consultant. In an apparent effort to lighten the mood, the manager breaking the bad news belted out a few bars of "Smile Though Your Heart Is Aching" in the middle of his speech.

"Everyone had these really perplexed looks on their faces, and he's sashaying around the room with a grin on his face singing, 'There are clouds in the sky, you'll get by,' Mr. Birol said. "Some people didn't even realize at that point they were getting fired."

An even bigger danger than looking foolish is coming across as insincere -- a common enough risk for managers who are forced to deliver pink slips.

Brian Flynn, president and chief operating officer of RLM Public Relations in Manhattan, remembers sitting through a layoff meeting at his former company, Citibank, in 1999 and listening to a senior manager's expressions of contrition. "Somebody next to me whispered, 'Listen, dude, you're making $300,000 a year, and you've still got your job -- I bet you're real sorry,' "Mr. Flynn recalled.

Since the, Mr. Flynn has vowed to handle layoffs the old-fashioned way: unemotional and to the point. Most recently, he used that approach when he laid off 10 members of his staff in August.

"I said, 'We've lost a significant number of clients this month, we're making significantly less money, and so it should come as no surprise to anyone that we have to lay some of you off,' "he said. "The meeting took no longer than 10 minutes."

Many workplace specialists prefer the traditional terseness to the newfound sensitivity. "Once a manager gets into apologizing, or talking on a personal level, it muddies the water for a departing employee," said Sherry Cadorette, president of Drake Beam Morin, an outplacement firm based in New York.

But Mr. Moses, the chief executive who hugs employees he is laying off and then goes out drinking with them, begs to differ. At the latest drinking session in October, he says, several departing employees came up to him and "said remarkably good things about the company."

"They didn't feel like they had been messed around with," he said. "I have no doubt that some of these people will work for me again some day."

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