Web Informant #258, 21 August 2001:
Read this before you fire anyone
It may be summertime, but it seems like nuclear winter after a hearing from many of you lately. Many very experienced people I know have been fired over the past several months. You don't need me to tell you how bad things are out there: just read the pages of The Industry Standard. Oops, well you used to be able to read their pages, until the magazine folded last week.
This past week marks the twentieth anniversary of the introduction of the IBM PC. And I have seen plenty of boom and bust cycles in our industry come and go since then, although this does seem to be one of the worst. We all just have to hope that the bottom on this current one is near.
One piece of advice that I do have for you all is to be careful how you fire your IT staff, or other staffers who have more-than-average computer expertise and are in critical places within your organization. Do it badly, and you could find significant chunks of your corporate data or network infrastructure in disarray.
The NY Times earlier this month called this "layoff rage" but it is only the tip of the iceberg. They report on how corporate networks have virtually no protection from malicious or rogue employees, especially those employees that previously had pretty privileged positions within their computing infrastructure. And oftentimes, you don't realize the value of such employees until after he or she leaves in a huff (or is fired) and takes a part of your data along, or willingly destroys it.
There are two major problems, one concerning people and one concerning the computers themselves. The people problem is the more critical one, and the one more often overlooked. Most of the stories that I have heard about problems with fired IT staff have to do with the way that these layoffs were done and how insensitive management was in terms of delivering the message to the rest of the staff.
My own spotty career has a good case in point, back when I left the IT department of Transamerica to go work at PC Week. My managers weren't happy with my entrance into the fourth estate, and were uncomfortable with the information that I could collect and take with me to the weekly publication. As was their right, I didn't question their nervousness, they should have been wary. Luckily, most of the information that I needed to do my new job was in my head and had nothing to do with the actual systems that I worked on at the insurance company. And I was ethical enough not to report on the actual conditions at Transamerica in my stories, although I certainly used the experience I gained from being inside a corporate IT department to focus and shape my reporting.
The story has an amusing twist. I was escorted out of the building the same day I gave my two weeks' notice. However, I wanted to tell my wife about my fate. The complicating factor was that she worked at the time for another Transamerica company, coincidentally on the same floor of the large office building that I was just escorted from in downtown Los Angeles. Luckily, the company occupied a public building without any entrance security - which is why the whole affair is amusing. So after standing on the street for a few minutes contemplating my fate, I re-entered the building, took the elevator to my floor, and turned the other direction, nervously looking over my shoulder, to tell my wife that I was out of a job a few weeks' earlier than we had planned.
The Times article mentions how strong-arm tactics like sending for security guards can backfire, but I want to mention some other techniques that you might want to do now, before you have to fire anyone and still have some time to fix some of your internal security problems before things can get out of control. So I asked for some professional help from a friend of mine, Nancie Hickok, who has worked in executive development within the IT industry for a number of years. She suggests several things that should be obvious to managers, but are often ignored.
First off, a company should have some ground rules and set up policies that very clearly delineate what you can and can't use of the company's information and computer networks. The more you make clear to your staff, including the consequences of misuse, the better off you are.
Next, you should as a matter of course treat each worker on your staff with respect, dignity and as an adult. Consider that they are individuals, have added some value to your company and treat them accordingly. We are creating a culture of very angry people, she says, in the way that many firms expect people to work 80-hour weeks and then fire them with little notice or severance. If you have such a culture in your firm, you should stop expecting people to work such inordinate hours, keeping them away from their families. Set some reasonable business hours and insist that people respect their families as much as their workplaces. The 24/7 mentality isn't good, especially under the current business climate when cutbacks are everywhere. Techies are no different than anyone else, she says. They have just as much right to take some time away from the office and have a balanced life.
If things are going bad for the firm financially, the employees have a right to know. Plus, many of the potential solutions to turn things around will come from the employees that they are contemplating firing. If managers could be a little more open about the situation, they might be able to save their own jobs, she says.
Instead of wholesale layoffs, be creative and think about other temporary and voluntary situations, such as short reductions in pay, temporary shutdowns of different business units or reductions in work schedules. This is what the auto industry has done for years, there is no reason why the hi-tech industry can't learn from this and try to save people's jobs. Hickok says that management should consider other things besides offering early retirement -- most people would rather work half a week for half their pay to try to save the company than be out on the street without any job whatsoever.
If you do have to fire someone, make sure you act quickly and immediately cut off access to all systems as a standard operating procedure. This means that the fired employee can stick around and say goodbye to colleagues, as well as clean out their personal belongings with some semblance of dignity, without having a security guard escort them off premises. If they can't access any systems, what is the harm in letting them stay on site and have some closure? Realize that some venting by the fired employee is normal: the people that are still working for the firm would rather have a fired employee vent his or her frustrations than have this person disappear into a black hole without any explanation.
You should also offer some sort of outplacement services for every fired employee, even if the employee doesn't take advantage of the option. At least you should make some good faith effort to help them rebound and find a new job. If you treat someone well on the way out, they are more likely to come back (should you need them), and those that are left behind are going to feel more comfortable about the kind of company they are working for.
There is hardly any good way to let somebody go, but it is better for everyone if the person has more of the ability to control their fate and have more of an understanding of why it is happening and know that losing their job isn't their fault.
These are all good suggestions, and something to think about now, before you have to fire anyone. It is time we considered more balance in our work lives, and used the prominence of our industry to promote healthier working environments.