Downsizing to hire

By PATRICIA KNAPP, Ceyba--The employee you furlough today could be the one you're looking to hire next month. Act accordingly.

The employee you furlough today could be the one you're looking to hire next month. Act accordingly.

Patricia Knapp

It is rare to find someone working in the human resource department of a high-tech company who hasn't been involved in downsizing activities over the last two years. Our jobs went from never having enough talent to figuring out how to restructure the talent pool so that the organization could remain successful within the financial constraints of the new telecom reality. This has meant lay-offs -- never fun and never rewarding. But what I've learned over the last couple of years is that companies that don't consider the long-term implications of how they lay off their work force today will face an uphill battle when the market turns around.

It is only a matter of time before we will need to recruit again. The employee you lay off today will either be someone you will want to recruit in the future -- or, in the small world of high tech, they'll know the person you want to recruit. And don't forget, those whom you want to stay are watching and will note how you treat their friends and colleagues. After all, they were all part of one big team that just a short time ago you deemed "your most valuable asset."

Everyone has heard termination horror stories. Like the guy who went to work one day to find his badge didn't work and his IT access was shut down, or the director who was called into a meeting room, notified, and then immediately escorted out by a security guard in front of the rest of her department. Then there's my favorite: the colleague who received a phone call terminating her employment while she waited to board an airplane.

What I can guarantee is that none of these individuals will ever work for their previous company again and that anyone considering a job at that company will be sure to hear about how they value their employees when times are tough. And trust me, those who witnessed the terminations wondered if they'd be next and noted how they'd be treated. What is amazing is that having talked with the individuals from the examples above, their bitterness is not directed towards the fact that they were let go. They realize that tough business decisions go hand in hand with tough markets. Their bitterness is directed at how they were let go.

So, for those HR folks and business leaders reading this column I thought I'd put together a few tips to keep in mind should you ever be required to make the tough decision to downsize.

    1. If you trusted these employees yesterday, trust them today, and trust them tomorrow: You know that old cliché about what goes around comes around? Well it's true. If you treat people with respect and trust during a termination exercise, they'll treat the company with respect and trust during the exit process. Employees who are going to take something already have. They did it weeks or even months ago when the rumors first started. 99% of the population will behave in a professional manner and there is no need to escort them out of the building. If past actions make you concerned about potential abusive behaviour or theft, have an exception policy in place. But don't treat the 99% like the 1% whom you have true justification to suspect.
    2. Give the employee the option of cleaning out their own desk or having personal items shipped to their home: Offices are filled with personal items: pictures of family, souvenirs from trips, music CDs, etc. Some people really don't like the thought of someone going through their things and packing up their personal items. Other's don't care -- they hate the thought of having to go back to their desk and just want to get out of the building as quickly as possible. So give the option and let people decide what works for them. By scheduling office clean-up times outside of normal work hours or when those left behind won't be around, you can minimize disruption.
    3. Be smart with security but don't go overboard: Every time I've done a mass termination I've asked our IT department to make a backup of the IT system, had them disable any mass email lists, and ensured that we had someone watching critical assets (in our case, the equipment in our labs). Then we've left access to impacted employees. That's right. We didn't walk them out, we didn't turn off their IT access the moment they received notification, and we let them go back to their desk. The key is to be prepared for that one bad apple, but don't build your process so that it assumes everyone is that one bad apple. I'm happy to say that so far I've never had to use that IT backup or had anyone require assistance as they watched over the lab.
    4. Cooperate with the employees after the event: Don't forget that many of these people will be the first ones on your list to hire when things turn around! They know your environment, have already proven they have the skills, and will need limited ramp-up time. Don't send them off to an HR blackhole. Be proactive. Call or email them a couple days after the event to see if they have any questions. If you haven't used an outplacement service, offer help with resume preparation and job search advice. Return their calls quickly and ask them to keep in touch. You'll want that contact information later!

No one wants to let go of good people, but unfortunately the current market conditions have made that a reality for most of us. Just remember that if you act with respect and professionalism throughout the process you stand a good chance of creating a winning talent pool for the future.

Patricia Knapp is director of human resources at Ceyba (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada).

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