Laid-Off Life

The Executioner's Tale

The Folks Swinging the Ax Aren't Immune From Pain

By Published on .

YORK, Pa. ( -- The flailing economy is taking a terrible toll on employees seeing their jobs cut, but it's also affecting the person wielding the hatchet: the boss. But that doesn't mean managers should start complaining publicly.

Managers often face a 'double whammy' over having to let go of staff.
Managers often face a 'double whammy' over having to let go of staff. Credit: Newscom
Already beset with worries over flagging income and burdensome expenses, those in the top roles face the unenviable task of letting staff go. And while the holidays may be a time of forgiveness and harmony, this year there will be little empathy for the person who just laid off hundreds or even thousands of employees.

"I've been involved in many, many layoffs and no one has ever asked me what it's like to be on the other side," said John Sullivan, professor of management at San Francisco State University and a human resources consultant. "It's 10 times worse to do it than to have it done to you. ... Surviving is not the best thing to happen after a layoff. There's plenty of actual research that shows their lives are miserable."

Double whammy
Survivor's guilt, coupled with the fact that you're the manager that did the firing, serves as a "double whammy," he said. And in many communities -- such as Detroit or Silicon Valley -- where workers live near each other, the outcome of layoffs is inescapable. Everyone's left wondering, even the managers doing the firing, if they'll be next.

And this time around, with mass layoffs, hiring freezes and new jobs especially hard to come by, it makes letting people go difficult for the even the most pragmatic bosses.

"I think there's a distinction in firings vs. layoffs. [In layoffs], for the most part you're telling good people who have done nothing wrong that they're no longer needed," said Michael VanDervort, a consultant and HR blogger. "Most managers are distraught about having to do it."

In the past, Mr. VanDervort said he might have told some of the employees being let go that while things seem bad now, it will get better soon. Or he might relate stories of past layoffs where the people he let go took it as a challenge and found better jobs or opportunities. But now, he said, "I would be a lot more hesitant to give that same speech."

While it's difficult to find executives who will speak publicly about how they feel about laying off people right now, Jason Calacanis, CEO of search-engine marketer Mahalo, did. He admitted his shortcomings publicly and received a very public backlash of wrath.

Mr. Calacanis posted on his blog in October that he had to lay off 10% his staff and wrote in part: "We're fairly certain that the advertising climate for the next two years will be severely depressed. To ignore this obvious fact would be irresponsible. ... I failed to realize how bad the situation would get. It's much worse than I thought it would be, and ignoring market conditions today would only mean deeper cuts down the road. It's my responsibility to make this hard decision and I don't take it lightly. To the people impacted I'm very sorry that I wasn't able to anticipate this better. It's my fault and I'm sorry that you've got to bear the burden of my inability to better prepare."

He did get some kudos for honesty, but he also got plenty of criticism from some whom criticized Mr. Calacanis' Web 2.0 social life and the Mahalo business plan itself.

Crying at the desk
It's enough to make a boss quit. And in fact, some do. Mr. Sullivan said his wife oversaw managers during several layoffs and it was not unusual for those doing the firing to "literally cry at her desk" over what they had to do.

But Peter Madden, president-CEO of AgileCat, a small agency in Philadelphia, cautioned against getting bogged down in the media and press negativity. While his agency is healthy and won't experience layoffs, he is feeling the layoff crunch through his wife. Her employer has been cutting back by the hundreds.

"To be truly creative, you need to have a pure, clean mind. And it's tough to achieve that when you're worried about your husband or wife or the neighbor down the street," he said. "It's up to the agency owner to set the tone, and focus the team to result in great work. ... It starts with me and my attitude."

Gerard Braud, president-CEO of Braud Communications, said he has been on both sides of the fence, and even began his own business the day after he was last laid off. He added that the pain at the top usually isn't just limited to the one day of layoffs.

"It's a pretty excruciating process leading up to it," he said. "And then once you've finally decided who to let go, the executives above you may change their minds five or six times. Say you were told to cut 10, now they'll come back and say, 'Oh no, you need to cut 12.' And it starts all over again."

It doesn't hurt the boss more
Ultimately, though, don't forget that as hard as it is for the "hatchet," it's still difficult on the other side of the desk.

As Guy Kawasaki's 2006 blog post, which is getting a lot of renewed circulation lately in the online world, "The Art of the Lay Off" advises, don't ask for pity. He wrote: "Sometimes managers go to great lengths to show the person they're laying off (or firing) how hard it is on them. This reminds me of the old definition of chutzpah: a boy murders his parents and then asks the court for leniency because he's an orphan. The person who suffers is the one being terminated, not the manager."

Mr. Braud said, "There's an episode of 'Cheers' where Norm Peterson has to layoff people and he has them come to the bar. He's so upset and cries when he's laying them off -- for the first 10 or 12 times. But then he can't cry anymore. The next guy comes in and Norm doesn't seem upset and he (the laid off employee) says 'Cold bastard.'"

"I've sat with executives [doing the lay offs] who are very upset. They're crying and talking about how crummy their day has been," he said. "But don't forget there are also families at home crying because they don't know where the next paycheck is coming from."

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