businessman aiming at target with bow and arrowLast year’s The Hunger Games was not only a New York Times best-selling novel, but a mega multimillion dollar grossing movie. Both adults and children were captivated by its gruesome plot and unbelievable demands of not only children, but people in general. I think what truly made the book and film so irresistible was its fantasy and the belief that those types of “games” could take place in the invented Panem, but surely not in modern day America.

Well, last month, in what resembled a real-life version of The Hunger Games, The Kansas City Star newspaper forced two of its writers, Karen Dillon and Dawn Bormann, to decide their own fate on which one of the two would be laid off, and which writer would keep his/her job.

One of the newspaper’s employee’s was recorded saying this type of layoff technique, which is routinely used at the paper, was viewed as “pretty cruel.”

According to a, Dillon had seniority, meaning she had the option of taking the layoff or not. So, who ended up as the lone woman standing? Unfortunately, unlike the book and film, there weren’t two victors at The Star, and Bormann was laid off.

After hearing about this practice, sat down with Dr. Cassi Fields, president and CEO of Limited Exposure Theory Corporation, to discuss the damaging effects layoff techniques such as this can have on employee morale. Just like (and probably everyone else outside of The Star) Fields had never witnessed this style of laying off workers. Read on to see what she had to say:

Dr. Cassi Fields

Dr. Cassi Fields

  1. Why do you think the newspaper would resort to this type of method for laying off workers?

This is a two-part answer: First, this type of layoff demonstrates cowardice. It takes courage to manage and lead, and a decision to layoff an employee is very difficult. Frequently, in the process of being told they are being let go, employees challenge a leader or become emotional (angry or upset). This type of situation is very upsetting to both parties and it takes strength to handle it.

Second, it is possible that in a very twisted way the employer finds this method “kind.” For example, I think management might perceive that it is better to let the poor employees make the decision that is best for both of them, rather than forcing their hand. While this method is clearly unkind, I have found that managers who have to make hard decisions often make poor decisions when they are defensive, and this would be a defensive strategy to make them feel less responsible.

  1. How can this practice affect a company’s culture? Employees?

Employees often fool themselves. They often write poor management decisions and practices off as “one-time” actions. Once poor decisions and practices are public and consistent, employees will feel anxious. They will likely separate from the company before management can fire them.  They will likely lose any sense of loyalty to the firm or the employers. This practice hurts relationships and diminishes trust between people at every level of the organization.

  1. How would this technique affect retention rates?

Similar to my previous response, I would hope employees would leave understanding that they would not be insulated from a policy like this.  However, I think employees tend to hold on to hope that management will do the right thing longer than they should. Ultimately, they recognize that actions such as these tend to be systemic. Therefore, they will usually begin searching for a job and separating as quickly as possible.

  1. In what ways do you think the newspaper could have better handled the situation? Alternative solutions?

It is best practice to have a layoff policy that is enforced consistently. An employee who is being laid off generally prefers to know the rules they are subjected to, rather than being, in this case, tormented.

  1. Are there any pros and cons of allowing employees to make these types of upper-level decisions?

No, not in this case. A manager might be told that he or she must lay off a certain number of employees based upon the economics of the employee. The manager might implement a consistent policy, but not determine a new policy for each unique situation. Further, managers should surely participate in creating policy at all levels of an organization.

  1. How important is it for employers to maintain a stable environment in the workplace?

It is extremely important, because employees who do not know the future, in the near or far term, operate with high anxiety. Anxiety creates a feeling of flight or fight.  Both options, at high levels, are debilitating to productivity.

  1. What can other companies learn from the newspaper’s technique?

I have mentioned having consistent policies, but I would add hiring and developing courageous leaders who can carry out well-thought out policies in a caring and equitable, but firm manner.

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