Offboarding or Offdumping: Passé Practices of Employee Layoffs and How to Change Them
Companies have their onboarding processes figured out. Or at least it appears that way, not necessarily because it is true but because onboarding, as a set of events, shares space with the exciting moments of starting a new job. A lot is happening on the first few days, and onboarding formalities often fall into the just-get-them-over-with category. New employees tend to eagerly engage in their new position, next to which, volunteering unsolicited critical assessment of their onboarding experience would likely be counterproductive. For that reason, the onboarding process may be either awesome or unremarkable, or anything in between, whatever each company may deem sufficient for their own purpose.
The quality of the offboarding process, however, is a different story, especially if it is due to layoffs. Even though companies part with employees for good, the way the process is carried out makes a lasting impression not only in the life and general attitude of laid-off employees but on society at large.
Layoffs, the events of reduction-in-force (RIF), are sometimes necessary, and most everybody can understand why a company might resort to such a radical action. However, the methods used to conduct the layoff process leave a lot to be desired. How employees are selected for layoff is questionable at best, due to the apparent lack of communication between HR and the home-departments of affected individuals. But even more of an ill-conceived method is how HR personnel curate and conduct that unfortunate final day in the lives of marked-off employees. These are employees for whose work, the leadership of the company has enormous appreciation and respect. At least, that is what company reps tend to claim all the way to the moment of carrying out their cold, calculated, and indifferent separation scheme.
Recently, I heard Dorie Clark, a highly sought-after marketing consultation expert, talking about her experience of being laid-off, some 10 years ago, from a job she absolutely loved. Interestingly, the severance methods Dorie cites from over a decade ago are identical to the ones still broadly used today.
The "Can you come to see me?" method of layoff invitation, mentioned by severed employees, has a shock-and-awe undertone. In the morning hours of scheduled group-layoff, the affected persons are collected into a room rapidly but one at a time. They are instructed to have a seat and wait patiently. No other information is shared. The robotic HR reps sitting in the room bury their faces into their laptop screens, so as to avoid eye contact with the puzzled audience. Their body language clearly indicates that they are not willing to engage with the attendees on any level.
When the rest of the group-layoff candidates finally arrive, an HR rep utters a few canned sentences:
The company is experiencing financial challenges.
We had to make the very difficult decision of terminating your employment, effective immediately.
You are not permitted to return to your desk anymore.
Your personal belongings will be delivered to you shortly.
You have done nothing wrong.
Here are the legal documents to sign.
Your last paycheck is in the folder in front of you.
Don't forget to take care of your 401k transfer within 90 days.
We are sorry.
Good luck to you.
And that's it.
Some people cry. Some ask questions. Some try to articulate why this decision must have been a mistake. Some might try to negotiate. Some are red-hot angry. Some ponder out-loud that they were just promoted last week. And still, some others, sit in frozen silence, in debilitating disbelief. Now what?
AND REALLY! WHAT NOW?
Is this the best we can do when decrease-in-force is necessary? How is this layoff technique, commonly used by countless organizations in the U.S., an acceptable method of cutting ties with employees suddenly and unexpectedly? How this crude and cruel off-dumping method came to be seen by employers as THE most effective and humane way to conduct layoffs? How is it OK to send a group of well-meaning, innocent people out to the world as abruptly and humiliatingly as possible, to figure out how to fend for themselves and their families from this moment on?
Couldn't the final phase of layoff be made into something more considerate and helpful? Something that recognizes the life-changing magnitude of the event, and tries as it might, to alleviate angst from the lives of suddenly uprooted employees? How about helping them to prepare for their next career move?
There is nothing wrong with a company's upholding of established strategies to meet targeted financial goals. To that effect, layoffs are often unavoidable, and they are here to stay. That is not the problem. Besides, aren't we all learn that sometimes the most viable option we have is to cut our losses and move on? Sure thing. But in some situations, when working for a company is directly tied to one's month-to-month livelihood, cutting one's losses is easier said than done. Striking down unsuspected employees both emotionally and financially at once does not seem to be a responsible corporate solution to workforce-reduction.
Many companies realize today that developing effective employee engagement systems helps to ensure high productivity at the workplace. An unending process of team-building-style onboarding, coaching style management, and career coaching opportunities play a key role in that. But to be effective, these events have to focus on empowering employees, as opposed to draining their energy.
HRs run all sorts of (sometimes frivolous), non-essential programs for employees. The surface idea of those is to convey how much the organization "cares" about its people. Yet, these enforced gestures don't necessarily transmit anything of value to employees. Nor are they welcome, mostly due to participation demand. HR departments could revise their misguided expressions of care to exponentially more positive effect.
OFFBOARDING WITH SOFT-LANDING
How about canceling non-essential programs and extending meaningful care, compassion, and benevolence into an area where it really matters? Severed "forces" could use and appreciate the attention in the form of receiving a few weeks long, pre-paid career coaching. It wouldn't cost much for the company, and laid-off employees would gain a sense of peace and confidence, having actionable professional guidance to help them navigate the challenging times ahead. Wouldn't that be a more palatable final phase of layoff to offer to employees in transition? It would certainly reframe social attitudes toward sudden layoffs. Lightening the weight of involuntary career change by thoughtfully injecting a dose of corporate philanthropy into the process seems to be a manageable and forward-looking layoff method. If only we would recognize the need for change, we could offer soft-landing to the laid-off workforce. Wouldn't it be a better way?
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