Say cheese, then wave goodbye

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August 4, 2003 // UPDATED 11:01 am - April 30, 2007
By: Elana Centor
Elana Centor

How not to lay off an employee

When the new supervisor took over the department, he handed everyone, including Natasha, a copy of Spencer Johnson's bestseller, "Who Moved My Cheese?".

It's a corporate favorite among organizations facing major change. (And who isn't?) A quick read, the book is a parable about two mice, two little people, and their ability to accept and adapt to change when the Big Cheese that has always been in their maze suddenly disappears.

Natasha, a Russian-born computer programmer for a Downtown real estate company, always saw herself as one of the mice -- the characters who were able to sniff out change early and then scurry into action to adjust.

When her boss came over to her office in late February, tapped her on the shoulder, and asked her to join him in a meeting with the HR consultant, she was dumbfounded.

"They moved my cheese," she lamented, "and I never saw it coming."

"Most companies don't do a good job of informing people about layoffs," said Ken Buck, consulting managing director in the Minneapolis office of RSM McGladrey, a business-consulting firm. "It's the kind of thing that no one wants to do often enough to become a pro at."

Is there a right way to tell someone he or she is out of a job?

According to McGland, there definitely is. "The company needs to establish a criteria for the layoffs. It might be length of service, or it could be performance-based. The key is to have a very clear reason, so the person being laid off doesn't feel discriminated [against]."

Natasha feels wronged.

"They simply told me they had reorganized the department and my job had been eliminated. I had worked there five years. It couldn't have been my performance because my boss always told me I was one of his top performers. They never told me why I was the only one that had to leave."

I got the impression that Natasha thought it had something to do with the fact that she's Russian.

"I think it might be a factor, but I don't know," she said.

Also according to Buck, the proper day to layoff someone is Monday or Tuesday. "If the company does it early in the week, the employee has time to make an appointment with the unemployment office and start getting things going for their job search. If a person is laid off late in the week, they have nothing to do but go home and feel sorry for themselves."

Natasha was laid off on a Thursday.

During her meeting with HR, they informed her that she would receive a month's severance, that they didn't object to her applying for unemployment and that her company-provided health insurance would run out in 36 hours. She could sign up for the insurance through the COBRA program, but at $800 a month Natasha couldn't afford it. Then they gave her $25 to take a cab home.

The first thing Natasha did when she walked into her house was call the dentist. Her 17-year-old son needed some dental work and given that she had 36 more hours of health insurance coverage, she wanted to make sure that was taken care of. The dentist saw her son that day.

Recently, Natasha heard that the department hired a new programmer with experience in Visual Basic, software in which Natasha is not proficient. What she doesn't understand was why her boss didn't challenge her to learn a program Natasha says she could've learned in two months.

"That's what I don't get. I was willing to change. I was willing to learn new products. They never asked me," said Natasha. They just moved my cheese and then didn't give me an opportunity to find it."

If you have a good workplace dilemma or just a good story to tell, please contact Elana Centor at ecentor@mn.rr.com, or leave her a message at 825-9205 (then hit 102 for her voicemail). You can remain confidential, as can your company.