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Ho Ho Hold The Downsizing Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Workopolis.com Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit www.CareerActivist.com.

If You Absolutely Have To Layoff In December, Try To Do It Humanely

Two solitudes: In one window, common folk beginning to dream of festive holiday dinners and time spent away from the hue and cry of work; in another, executives sitting in dimly lit offices diligently planning terminations.

You were hoping maybe for Santa Claus? Hardly. Grinch employers are making a list and checking it twice, to find out who's been naughty or nice. Pink slip season's coming around.

Don't ask me why companies choose to ax staff in December. Guess nothing says 'happy holidays' like booting a fired colleague into the cold.

This does, however, raise a valid question: How do you ditch your loyal workers in a way that preserves as much of their dignity as possible, given the time of year?'

Not a simple conundrum, so I called a couple of experts on corporate ousting. First is Marge Watters, one of the founders of KWA Partners, a leading Canadian outplacement firm. Her point of view? 'Except when absolutely necessary, if you can possibly put off dismissals until the new year, do so.'

Watters, who holds a Masters degree in divinity, knows a thing or two about compassionate de-hiring. She notes that financial pressures tend to be more acute these days, due to mega-spending on gifts and vacations. Not to mention the stress of being jobless during family gatherings. Bad enough dealing with loved ones. Having to tell long lost uncles and cousins you're 'in transition' can be devastatingly embarrassing.

On top of this, 'People are wondering 'Will I ever find work again?' and 'Will I be able to afford things?'' says Irene Zimmerman, Vice President at Jones Tollefson International, another major career transition firm. She points out that feelings of anxiety and dejection may be amplified when everyone around you is readying to celebrate. Plus hiring screeches to a halt in the last two weeks of December, which can aggravate hopelessness.

So if you're a Scrooge with a twitchy trigger finger, here are some tips on how to downsize humanely.

First, you're better of to use a professional transition firm to help plan and--dare I say it?--'execute' the restructuring. Having worked as an outplacement counsellor myself for six years, I can tell you it makes a huge difference to bring in people who understand the logistics and sensitivities.

While you're at it, ask potential transition firms how they've treated their own staff when they've let them go. Insist on speaking to someone they've fired. Then watch closely to see if the firm sweats, because some just may.

Next, says Zimmerman, if you truly have to do the dirty deed now, do it as soon as possible. 'You want to give the candidate time to get their finances in order, to work through the sense of loss, and begin to move forward in their search for new employment.' It's also good to have a career consultant on-site for the actual sacking, so the candidate can vent or grieve, prepare a message they can share with those close to them, ask questions, and, finally, depart the premises with composure.

Also, 'Provide taxi chits so the person doesn't have to drive home that day should they not feel up to it; have the consultant call the client that day or next to make sure they're o.k.; and let the candidate leave unescorted unless there's a genuine security issue,' adds Zimmerman. Additionally, you may want to increase the severance or outplacement offering to compensate for the slow job hunt season.

A few more hints. Conduct the dismissal either first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon, in a discreet part of the office, so the candidate doesn't have to lose face in front of his or her peers. Let the person schedule a time to come back after hours if they need to collect their belongings. And always fire at the beginning of the week so the candidate can contact necessary resources (never on a Friday afternoon, else you deserve to be hung up with the Christmas lights).

Don't forget the employees you leave behind, either. Watters, author of 'It's Your Move' (Harper Collins), reminds us that everyone will be watching how you handle the termination. There but for the grace of senior management go I, and all that. So 'Be prepared to answer honestly when remaining staff ask 'Did you really have to do the layoff now?'' If you have an acceptable business rationale, people will do their best to understand. If not, don't be shocked if morale plunges.

Watters suggests holding town hall meetings to let your retained workers express concerns or pose questions. It might be wise as well to train your managers in replying to their employees' queries. You might even want to hold 'survivor' workshops, led by outplacement or Employee Assistance Program (EAP) facilitators.

Ultimately, you'll be remembered both for why you chose to fire staff so close to the holidays, as well as how you managed the overall process. And if you're vacillating on whether to wait or not, follow Zimmerman's counsel: 'Put yourself in the employee's shoes, then do what you feel is right.'

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