Decisions, decisions. The truly ghastly task of coming up with the lay-off list.
Last week, I read an article in The Times on how tough it is for the management team in small companies to decide who gets the pink slip, and the "emotional toll" the decisions, and the lay-offs themselves, can exact. After all, in a small company, you're apt to know everyone personally, and to know their personal story.
There is no denying that, unless you an unusually hard-hearted, misanthropic jerk, deciding who goes and who stays, and relaying the news to them, is exceedingly difficult.
In my career, I've known only one person who seemed to actually relish the task. The hard-hearted, misanthropic jerk I have in mind informed an employee that he was being let go while that employee was in a neo-natal ICU, hoping that his newborn son would make it. This was when I worked for a company that specialized in piecemeal, under-the-radar lay-offs, hoping that if they didn't do anything fell swoop, the information wouldn't leak out that they were doing lay-offs. So there was nothing that all- fired important about making sure that this guy was laid off on any particular day. This could have waited.
But management has to make tough decisions all the time, don't they?
What made this one so odious was that, after the manager got off the phone with the stunned employee, he smirked and told a friend of mine, "I really enjoyed doing that."
I've known a couple of managers who seemed to have a rather steely indifference to the act of picking, choosing, and informing, but that may have been a protection mechanism.
No, the only person I can think of who expressed actual joy in the task is the one guy I've mentioned here.
But I think that the "emotional toll" has nothing to do with whether you're in a large or small company. It's exacted on whoever it is that is involved in the actual naming of names. Because, when it comes right down to it, there's little or no difference between sitting in a 50 person company and deciding who's dispensable, and sitting in a 50 person group in a 5,000 person company and doing the same.
Just like the folks at Ram Tool, the Wisconsin company profiled in The Times article, you're making decisions about the lives and livelihoods of people you know, some of whom you care for deeply, and many of whom you know way too many personal details about.
At Ram Tool, the management team:
...debated each name and weighed issues like seniority and skills. Could they do multiple jobs? What was their attendance record?
Well, that's been pretty much the process when I've been involved in lay-off decisions, small company/big company. The only difference is that, in a big company, you've likely been handed a number - an expense and/or headcount figure that has to be met. So you go through your lists and figure out how to meet it.
You tell each other that personal issues shouldn't enter into things, that you have to do what's "right" for the company, but how do you make the decision when there's a tie?
Do you let G go because he's single, and save L because her husband just lost his job? Do you lay-off N, who's just announced she's pregnant and who you're pretty sure from things she's said, plans on quitting once her maternity leave is up? What about S? He's good, but everyone knows his wife has a big fat job. What they may not know, and you may not want to mention because it was told to you in confidence, is that S and his wife are supporting his parents, who just got wiped out financially.
Some lay-off decisions are easy to make. Let's face it, if you had a hunch that lay-offs are coming, you've probably sand-bagged a couple of performance problems you should have taken care of. Those decisions are easy - even though the can still be nastily difficult. Sure, P deserves to go, but he'll lose his visa. And M is in over her head, that's for sure, but she's a good kid who works hard and she just bought a condo....
God, I do not envy anyone who's making the lay-off decisions.
One thing to be sitting at the top, pronouncing off with their heads, when you don't actually know any of the folks in the tumbrels. Quite another thing when it's someone you work with every day, have lunch with, know and like.
I've put people I really cared about on lay-off lists and, for all the difference it made to the eventual outcome for the company (i.e., the death spiral continued), I sometimes think I should have hung on to the people I liked and sacrificed the higher performers who I wasn't quite so chummy with.
Making those decisions is hard; letting people know is even harder.
Ram Tool's Shelly Polum put on her "'stone-cold face'", went onto the shop floor, and told the folks who were losing their jobs that they were done.
When it was over, trying to maintain her composure, she rushed back to her office and shut the door quickly.
Then she sank to the floor and burst into tears.
“It was a rush of emotions,” Mrs. Polum said later. “I think what really hit me was, I wanted this to be the last time. Is this enough? Is this the end? I guess I hoped this was the last time I have to do this.”
I know exactly how Shelly Polum feels, and I, too, hope that this is the last time she has to do this. One of the best things about free-lancing is that I know for a fact that I'll never have to do it again. Just another one of the joyous bennies of working for yourself.