Layoffs don't have to be ruthless

Jim Saltvold is a veteran of layoffs. He saw many staff reductions in his more than 40 years as an engineer. He argues the process does not have to be quick and brutal.

Ushering people out the door is bad for employees and for business

With many in Calgary losing their jobs in the energy sector, one former engineer takes offence to the way layoffs are handled. (Tim Boyle/Bloomberg)

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Jim Saltvold writes about his experiences of staff reductions. He laments the way some employees are marched out the door when they get laid off. He argues there's better value in letting them stay and finish their work.

Hearing the stories of layoffs in Calgary reminds me of the day my 40-plus years working as an engineer came to an abrupt and unexpected end.

I was 68-years-old and had worked for three years for a large engineering consulting firm. There was a shortage of work and the company was justified in cutting staff. However, the way my termination was handled was discourteous. 

Told to pack up and leave

I was called to the office of my boss's boss and advised that my services were no longer needed. I was instructed to pack up my personal belongings and leave as soon as possible. There was no opportunity to pass unfinished work in an orderly manner to others, or even to say goodbye to my boss and my co-workers.

When I came across a former colleague over a year later, I learned that my co-workers had not been told anything. They had to ask where I had gone. 

Although I was given fair severance pay in lieu of a notice of termination, I would have much rather stayed on for the period covered by the pay to complete some work and say goodbye.

'That's the way it's done' 

A few days after my layoff, I had a telephone conversation with someone in the personnel department at the head office in Edmonton regarding my pension plan or some other details. During the conversation, I stated that I did not like the way I had been treated. The response was simple: that's the way it's done.

The abrupt way the consulting firm terminated my employment could be considered bullying. Although I was not hurt nearly as badly as some who have suffered other forms of bullying, this common method of letting employees go should not be condoned.

The aftermath cost the company and a customer

I estimate that a sewage plant upgrade the company was working on cost the town an extra 40 hours of consulting time due to my work not being passed on to others in an orderly manner.   

Only a couple of hours would have been required to show someone else how to use it and rebuild it from the backup files.- Jim Saltvold on his abrupt lay off from an engineering firm

My former company also lost out due to not being able to continue using a convenient program for preparing instrumentation specifications that only I knew how to use. Only a couple of hours would have been required to show someone else how to use it and rebuild it from the backup files.

My former co-worker told me that the only working copy, which was on my computer, was lost when the computer was reconfigured. My reply was "glad to hear that."

Another way to handle layoffs

During my career, I have also worked for two crown corporations that went through downsizing.

In the first case, a federal crown corporation gave me a choice of a layoff package or a transfer to another site. I chose the transfer, which resulted in some hardship for my family. The corporation did not pressure me into making a quick decision, and even let me explore other options during work hours. I was given over a month to close out work in progress and to put files in order before moving to the other site. This gave me a lot of satisfaction.

In the second case, I was employed at an Ontario crown corporation at a time when staff reductions were required. Again, they gave me two weeks to close out work in progress and to put files in order. 

Both corporations treated employees with respect. They were allowed to pass work on to others in an orderly manner, tidy up files, and have a dignified departure. This is how layoffs should and can be done. 

Employees should be trusted

There is no excuse for the common practice of immediately ushering an employee off site.

The companies likely reason that employees who are going to lose their jobs in two weeks cannot be trusted and that having them around is demoralizing for the remaining employees. 

If this reasoning is true, the company needs to improve the training of employees and change its culture.

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Jim Saltvold is a retired engineer who now lives in Red Deer.


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