Whether you work for a major airline that merges and casts off 10,000 employees or are one of two part-time people staffing the local gay men’s chorus, it’s no fun to get laid off.
Too often grace and consideration are not a huge part of the equation. We asked Blue Avocado readers to tell us how you found out you had gotten laid off. Your experiences ran the gamut from insane to perfectly smooth and respectful. Here’s what seven readers shared. (We’ve changed their names to protect their privacy.)
Lessons learned: I was a summer intern at a nonprofit in Chicago that was having financial trouble and laid off much of the staff. As an unpaid intern, I was not laid off. So there were two or three interns and some senior staff left. It was kind of eerie and I doubted the organization would survive. However, more than a decade later, they restructured, grew, and are running smoothly. I certainly learned lessons in grants management and employee morale that I apply now.
— Melissa, development director
Why doesn’t my building access card work today? It happened to my predecessors at a Florida nonprofit. They showed up to work, and when they tried to swipe their access card, it would not work. They then spoke to the guard who knew each of them and would normally open the door if they happened to have forgotten their card. Instead of letting them in, the guard had a box of their personal possessions that senior management had gathered the night before from their workspace, along with a letter discharging them. Appalling!
Unanimous vote: I was asked to meet with the board president the morning after [a contentious board meeting] and was told that they had voted unanimously to let me go. It was almost as hard for her to say it as it was for me to hear it. I think my deepest emotion that morning was extreme sadness. But in the long run, I was actually okay. I just kept counting off all the positives and telling my family and friends that I was refusing to feel bad. This was a fresh start! That’s my story and it’s fresh, so I can’t tell you how it ended. But I’m a firm believer in “things happen for a reason,” so I’m sure the ending will be the right one, whatever it is.
— Jackie, operations director
30 seconds: I had a meeting scheduled with my boss to discuss my fundraising plan for the new fiscal year. I was feeling energized and walked in feeling confident. That positive attitude quickly evaporated when I saw that the managing director would also take part in the meeting. Having been laid off more than once in my prior corporate career, it took me about 30 seconds to figure out what was coming. I was told that my position was being eliminated in the new fiscal year budget and that I was being laid off. I was assured that this decision was financially driven and not a reflection of the quality of my work. I was also offered a reasonable severance package. The next shocker came when I was asked to continue working another three weeks. This seemed unusual to me…When I have been laid off from corporate jobs the departure was essentially immediate. Since I was very committed to the organization and because it was seemingly a condition for getting the severance, I agreed. It was a very uncomfortable few weeks. I tried to make the best of a difficult situation and used the time to contact the donors and key prospects I had worked with during my three-plus year tenure. These relationships have proven to be quite helpful to me as part of my search for something new.
— Dana, development director
A positive layoff story: I worked at a nonprofit that decided to phase out my program. They had a nine-month timeline, and the layoffs occurred in three phases. Outreach staff members were laid off immediately. Half of the program staff, including me, were told that we would be laid off in four months, with a severance of about a little over a month’s salary. The managers explained what was happening and reiterated my importance to the organization. A month later, I was invited to stay longer to help close out the projects. The severance took some of the bite out of being laid off, and I was personally ready to move on anyways, so I was very happy with how it played out. I appreciated that management made us feel needed, and everyone approached the situation with a positive attitude. The whole experience was very positive for me.
From a manager: When we had to lay off four people I learned a lot from the different ways they reacted. One person was furious, and she went around saying angry things to everyone, even trying to get some people to threaten to quit if her layoff wasn’t called off. She ended up alienating everyone, even the people who had been her friends. Another person made a point of going around and talking to everyone, asking them to help her find a new job, thanking people for kindnesses they had shown her, etc. I wonder which one we would be more likely to re-hire, and which one will get help finding a new job!
Sad goodbyes: My position with a national nonprofit was recently eliminated. The national office called me and told me this would be my last day. They were apologetic and proceeded to explain in great detail about my severance package. I was told to file for unemployment insurance. I guess if you have to be laid off, this certainly softens the blow. It was a very sad day. The volunteers have truly become my friends. There were many emails and messages on Facebook from the volunteers who were as surprised as I was. They were all very complimentary and with much sorrow and regret for what the national office had done without the knowledge of the local lay leaders. They actually felt that it showed disrespect to the local leadership not to be informed or consulted. On to the next chapter… updating my resume.
One of the most cruel ways of dealing the finances of a re-structuring is to give the employee a difficult decision of becoming a contractor in order to get to that severance pay or make them take a termination instead. When they become a contractor, they must pay the taxes themselves on the salary, vacation and benefits, now calculated as severance pay- they would have earned as an employee. If they elect the termination, their records then show just that, they were terminated by the company, and have no access to unemployment benefits, or insurances.
Years ago, mid-1980’s – I received a layoff notice at home via FedEx – pretty shabby!
It was a state university and the director of the department was a jerk and did not want to have to deal with the emotions that might come up when folks learned they were unemployed!
9 staff in total received their notification in that way.
The real punch line – the layoffs were "recinded" three weeks later as they discovered they could manage it financially after all.
Thank you for not including my real name …. "Bethany"
Here’s a word from a NFP Human Resources Director as well . . . I’ve spent 30 years in NFP’s, laid off more people than I care to add up in between public sector, healthcare and higher education. I myself was laid off from a public sector job many years ago. It isn’t easy from either side of the desk, and no matter how many people I lead through the process, it never gets easier.
One thing I learned early on is that kindness and respect are key in layoffs. I always remember that I’m impacting a person’s life and livelihood. Treat that person with kindness and respect helps them through the process with their dignity intact.
My advice to employers engaging in the layoff process is to remember the person, the individual who is being impacted. Meet with each one individually and privately. Have the information for them on paper – they’re going to be in shock, they’ll need something to read afterward to know what their benefits are, what their severance is (if any), and just what happened. Treat them with kindness. Let them vent, or cry, or stare at you in angry silence during the meeting, don’t argue with them, don’t tell them it will all be OK, just listen. Treat them with dignity, don’t have two security guards walk them out the door, let them exit with respect.
Terri Hoehne SPHR, Director of Human Resources
Aurora University, Aurora IL 60506