“Compassionate Downsizing”: You’re Fired! Want a Hug?

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Apparently, there are good ways and bad ways to fire people. From the company’s perspective, layoffs go well if no one sues. From the employee’s perspective, there are really just bad ways and worse ways to handle layoffs. But if you are laid off, don’t simply accept whatever papers are pushed in front of you to sign. Even though you don’t have a job, you might still have some bargaining power.

Over the last year or so, many companies have had a lot of practice laying off employees. When delivering the bad news, most companies follow a carefully worded script: They avoid small talk, and keep the meeting to under 15 minutes.

For outplacement firms and downsizing specialists who are hired to handle the layoffs, letting people go is an art form. Depending on your perspective, they are merciful executioners, or mercenary drones hired to do the dirty work and help a company avoid lawsuits and “scenes.” The Washington Post did a fascinating profile of one such downsizing specialist named Kim Hall, who handles layoffs for companies ranging from lawsuits to zoos. She always dresses in black (“somber, like a funeral”), and always remains positive, no matter what awful news she is passing along.

Hall coaches businesses on how to execute mass downsizings and often visits companies on the designated day to help coordinate a layoff. Then she speaks to the newly unemployed within 30 minutes of their dismissal and offers tips on how to begin a job search. She comforts those who cry and commiserates with those who vent. She does this, sometimes, with 20 despondent people each day. It is a misery so numbingly constant that it no longer feels miserable. It is her job.

And lately, it is a profitable one.

Frankly, I’m fascinated by the self-help stuff these people are instructed to say right after they drop the bomb, informing a bunch of employees that their jobs, benefits, and sense of security are goners. They say things like:

“George, you’ve been a trooper. I’m sorry that this organization has moved in a different direction.”

“George, you have made many good friends here. We hope those friendships will continue.”

“George, we realize that loss of employment is undoubtedly a difficult experience.”

“George, you have made considerable and long-lasting contributions and they are acknowledged and appreciated.”

Not appreciated enough to save your job, George, but you know how it goes …

Unfortunately, as the WSJ reports, as unemployed numbers continue to grow, severance packages are getting smaller. Employees can’t expect things like continued health benefits any longer—though outplacement services, which come pretty cheaply (and which I found totally useless after being laid off), should be available for some time to come.

Still, there are things that a newly axed employee can do to get a little more out of the employer:

In the past, a rank-and-file employee could expect employers to be open to negotiating higher severance pay, extended health benefits or compensation for unused vacation days. “An employer would be open to trying to make it a palatable and amiable exit,” Ms. Lazar says.

But now, she says, “a lot of companies are taking a hard line.” They say, “this is the package — take it or leave it.”

Still, negotiating isn’t a complete waste of time. If you are leaving a senior-level post, you could have some leeway, especially if you’re asked, as a condition of the package, to sign a noncompetition agreement or nondisparagement clause.

By signing such an agreement, “you are giving the company something of value,” says Mr. Hill. That means you may be able to squeeze out something of value for yourself in return.

As for lower-level employees, they should think of things that can be of value to them, says David Cashdan, an employment lawyer and vice president of public policy for the National Employment Lawyers Association.

Some examples: flexibility in choosing an outplacement services firm, assurance that a person will be placed on a rehire list, a letter of recommendation and assurance that nothing negative will be said about the person to a prospective employer.