The Language of Corporate Layoffs

Here is a small collection of quotations from media reports and academic papers, demonstrating the language people use to discuss layoffs. Judge for yourself whether the corporate tactic gets fair play. Send me your favorite quote on the subject.

“We will have fewer kids, so therefore we will have fewer teachers. In addition, since we do have to balance the budget, we may have to affect some other programs and services.”

Waterloo Catholic District School Board Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Shesh Maharaj, March 26, 2015.

“I believe that we are in for much greater volatility in oil prices for the foreseeable future. That’s why you’ve seen Cenovus preserve cash by moderating our growth and reducing our work force.”

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Brian Ferguson, February 2015.

“This is a difficult day for the Target team, but we continue to believe that the steps we are taking are the right ones for the company.”

Target spokeswoman, February 2015.

“We have had job losses in recent years because of the state of the newspaper industry. To accommodate the expense reductions I had to deliver, it would have required me to make personnel cuts that I think really would have been damaging, not only to the newspaper but also to the community.”

New Bedford’s Standard-Times editor Bob Unger, 63, upon his early retirement, December 09, 2014

“We have completed the restructuring notification process, and the work force reduction that began three years ago is now behind us. I am confident that we have the right organization in place to execute our business strategy. Many employees were let go, many others left by their own choice, while those who stayed often were uncertain about the company, its future and their future. I know it can be very difficult to maintain a high level of focus and commitment during a time of turmoil and uncertainty. I ask for your help more than ever to focus on execution at every level. There is no margin for error to complete BlackBerry’s turnaround to success.”

BlackBerry CEO John Chen, August 05, 2014

“Overall, the company is trying to prudently manage their cash and their liquidity position, while they have the pressure of two major aerospace programs on the go that are both going to see material delays. They’ve only got so much capital, and they really do have to preserve that.”

Stonecap Securities equity analyst Scott Rattee, on Bombardier’s decision to lay off 1700 workers from the Aerospace division, January 21, 2014

“Forced layoffs have become an oft‐used strategy for companies wanting to regain a competitive edge. First used during the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, the approach has become a common method for companies to make sharp cost reductions, at least for a short period of time. The financial logic of the process is to incur a onetime cost to gain subsequent annual recurring savings. However, in several studies conducted since the practice became mainstream, and cited in the articles by F. Gandolfi and W.F. Cascio, companies often experience higher costs as the result of their forced layoffs.”

Research Briefing, BC HRMA Research Group, The Impact of Forced Layoffs: How to Avoid the Negative Consequences of Laying Off Staff, 2012

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Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Bank economists emulating that jocular newsroom adage is a startling example of life imitating art.

Yet here we have another one of Canada’s Big Banks doing just that, generating headlines with TD Economics’ Special Report, Precarious Employment in Canada: Does the Evidence Square with the Anecdotes?

The ‘good story’ the economists are pursuing here is the comfort food of mathematical constructs that gloss over the cold, harsh facts about individual pain and suffering caused by corporate layoffs.

The report doesn’t discuss the downsizing trend gripping the financial services industry, instead it reads like a positioning statement, preparing the banks for an onslaught of bad news stories about continuing layoffs.

“Without the assurance of the income security that comes along with stable employment and hours, and the matching wages and benefits, consumers lack the confidence to spend,” according to the Special Report.

“Consequently, profits remain below where they could be, reducing the confidence of investors to invest. Further, tax revenues are lower and government expenditures are higher to support those that find themselves frequently without employment or the ability to make ends meet. The stress of this insecurity can have the unfortunate result of spilling over into the home, often with negative consequences.”

Comforting words, I’m sure, for people who were recently laid off, retired, fired or otherwise vanished by Corporate Canada.

“That said, while it is unfortunate that some Canadians find themselves in a situation where their employment is precarious, we should not confuse anecdotes with evidence.”

The economists go on to say that while precarious job levels are high, the trend is toward a slowly diminishing number in that category.

Apparently the reference to “anecdotes” was only incidental. It makes for a great headline, but there are no stories or case studies about individual Canadians in the special report, only a negative after-taste about the people who may someday dare to discuss their precarious-ness.

“However, there are a number of gaps in the discussion that need to be filled,” the Special Report continues. “First, a common definition of precarious employment is needed. Second, any debate should be based on verifiable facts and data, where available.

“Anecdotes alone are not enough to warrant action being taken on such an important issue.

“With these considerations in mind, this report proposes a definition of precarious employment and explores its trends. We develop a precari­ous employment index and provide an outlook for employment stability in Canada.”

A precarious employment index: how handy. That and a copy of the CIBC Employment Quality Index won’t even buy you a cup of coffee.

Oh Man, I’m Really Buzzed …

Today, I am very motivated, even passionate about getting the creative juices flowing, to demonstrate the extent to which I am driven, yes driven to share my extensive experience, and ensure that my blog posts reflect a responsible, strategic approach, complementing my track record as an organizational expert. Tah-dum-dumm.

Blame that horrible sentence on Catherine Fisher’s report on LinkedIn’s Top 10 Global Buzz Words. I clumsily crammed all of them into my lead paragraph. She calls these words ” … the most overused, underwhelming buzzwords and phrases in LinkedIn profiles of 2014 across the world.”

I share this with you now because I continue to be shocked by the number of people who practically boast about not embracing social media, or fully utilizing this social networking service in particular.

That kind of thinking is so five minutes ago. LinkedIn is not just a nice-to-have. It’s a must-have for serious job hunters in today’s dynamic economy.

There are now more than three million active job listings on LinkedIn and the last time Wikipedia was counting, LinkedIn membership was growing at a rate of about two new members every second. That’s about 130 new members since you started reading this blog post.

LinkedIn membership is approaching 350 million people in over 200 countries and territories. That’s nearly one-half of the world’s professionals and students. Canada has about nine million users, an estimated 25.8 per cent penetration rate.

So it’s no surprise that more than 90 per cent of hiring managers search for recruits on LinkedIn, according to a 2013 Jobvite survey.

It has never been more important to ensure your LinkedIn profile is registering with all the right people, including headhunters. LinkedIn’s online social network is unsurpassed at simulating the real-life process of professional relationship building.

Start sprucing up your LinkedIn profile now. Dump the buzzwords and instead, upload some work samples. Illustrate how well you collaborate with co-workers, how you drove business results, how you can manage a team, or how you helped champion a program.

Get rid of your high school photo. Post an image that is looks more professional. You are 14 times more likely to have your profile viewed if you include a photo appropriate to your profession.

Write a catchy headline for your LinkedIn profile and if you’re actively job hunting, say so in that headline.

Present a three-dimensional image of yourself, with some insights into your non-professional life. For example, name your favorite sporting pastime, or identify a not-for-profit organization that you support. Forty one per cent of professionals surveyed by LinkedIn in the U.S. say they consider candidates’ volunteer work to be as valuable as paid experience.

Providing a list of your skills makes you 13 times more likely to be viewed by a prospective employer, according to LinkedIn. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, let others vouch for you by asking them to post their recommendations on your profile.

Don’t get fooled into thinking social media is kids’ stuff. LinkedIn may make the introduction that will set your career back on track.

Get Some Sweet Revenge BEFORE You Are Laid Off

You may have dodged a bullet, but in the aftermath of corporate layoffs, survivors may have a lot more in common with their fallen colleagues than first imagined.

Depression and anxiety also strikes those who are left behind, with fatigue, headaches and muscle tension, as well as racing thoughts, insomnia and a sense of impending doom.

Remaining employees will be worried and unhappy. Low morale not only makes productivity drop at a time when the business needs it to improve, but it also confounds employees when demands on them are at a peak.

However, before survivors’ guilt takes up permanent residence in your nightmares, it’s important to embrace your new reality and make some time to defend your brand.

Stop stewing. In the lexicon of the Godfather movie, it’s time to go to the mattresses. Get some sweet revenge before you are invited to join your firing managers in that remote boardroom that awaits all victims of layoffs.

Personal and professional success should be your weapon of choice for revenge.  When your employer publicly expresses doubt in your abilities and wrenches power from your grasp, minimize the agony by eliminating the element of surprise, empowering your recovery and moving on with dignity.

In case there will be another round of layoffs, develop an emergency plan. Arm yourself for the battle of your life. Start reconnecting with your network. Get your resume and cover letter in fighting shape. Build an elevator story. Pull together some other messages about your successes. If you’ve been complacent about these types of activities in the past, revisit my earlier posts for some other helpful tips.

Contrary to your employer’s counsel, talk about what’s going on. Do so quietly at first, to ensure you do not hasten your departure, but for goodness sake, get this off your chest.

Strengthen your reputation and stature by bringing your friends and colleagues up to speed.

Start defining what the new you will look like. Remain positive. Smile. Don’t be bashful about saying you love your work. For goodness sake, you don’t want to look like the broken down person that layoffs generally create.

Be aggressive. Plan your revenge. Start writing a new chapter in your life story.

The queue for career opportunities in Canada is getting longer by the minute. If you are unprepared, you will be desperate and lonely at the very rear of the line.

When is a Story like a Dagger Through Your Heart?

Story telling can be a blessing or a curse, so if you haven’t been job hunting for a while, it’s a good idea to prepare for the imminent interviews and practice, practice, practice.

Choose your words well and keep it simple sweetheart. Answer the questions one at a time, relate them to your background and, or the job description, then stop talking. Don’t feel compelled to fill the silence as you wait for the next question. Clarity and brevity are key.

If there’s even the slightest indication that you may be venturing off message, stop immediately, carefully retrace your footsteps and clarify if necessary. Leave nothing to chance.

My friend Peggy (not her real name) is a poster child for the dangers of going off message. She interviewed recently for a position in the oil and gas industry and spent some 60 minutes waiting for “The Question.”

Peggy knew there would be an inquiry about pipelines, given the nature of the industry and the tone of media coverage over the years. She spent an exorbitant amount of time researching and rehearsing her story.

When the question wasn’t tabled during the interview, Peggy used her wrap-up statement to cover the subject. Weeks later, after learning that she had lost that competition, Peggy bravely arranged a networking meeting with the hiring manager, searching for feedback. She was stunned when the hiring manager suggested she had failed to adequately prepare.

Struggling to maintain her calm, Peggy probed further and learned that “The Question” had been pre-empted by one of the off-the-cuff stories she had told early in the interview.

In an effort to regale the hiring panel with her command of the English language, Peggy told a story about her parents’ introduction to gas heating. They lived in a rural community and had a large propane tank installed on their property.

Natural gas pipelines were rare “back in the day,” so when one of the panelists asked why her parents hadn’t piped gas to the house, Peggy was a bit stunned, but repeated her parents’ story: natural gas wasn’t available.

You guessed it. Apparently natural gas was available and the panel members’ raised eyebrows weren’t an expression of their interest in Peggy’s story-telling skills.

It was a blunder of extraordinary proportions and it had slipped through Peggy’s fingers with little notice. She had walked away that day with a good feeling, confident she had connected with each and every member of the panel. The reality was the panel was killing time, chatting until the next candidate arrived.

Damage control may not have been an option here. Perhaps Peggy could have gently prodded the panel to identify the misunderstanding and maybe, just maybe, she could have clarified the matter. Who knows?

Hiring managers and their panels can be very temperamental. Most are easily spooked. Who can blame them? New employees are a risky investment and it’s up to job candidates to make the most of the opportunities presented in an interview.

Be alert. Be flexible. Get your story straight.

Life After Receiving Your Record of Employment

The first time I was laid off was also memorable because my wife and I had just purchased our first house.

It was 12 years ago and I remember walking home from the GO station, catching the gaze of my gorgeous wife, all smiles and waiting for me at the front door. She had prepared a picnic in the backyard of our new home.

It was a sunny, lazy spring day in the suburbs, but the emotions were pressing against my chest as I blurted out the bad news.

As unwelcome as layoffs are, life has a peculiar way of moving on. Somehow we managed our mortgage payments on one salary. I secured a few freelance gigs. There was still time for my sailboat that summer. We made it work. The theme for my job hunting campaign was “leave no stone unturned,” and after a 12-month hiatus, I got another full time job.

This time around was a little less dramatic. After being surprised by the layoff news at an early morning meeting about a corporate reorganization, my return home before lunch blended quickly into my wife’s work-at-home schedule that day.

There were a few expletives in the air, for sure, but the overall sentiment was that of being let down by my employer after 10 years of service.

What was different this time was sharing the news with a seven-year-old daughter. It took a while for the ramifications to be understood. Ultimately she loved having daddy at her beck and call.

She can leave home a little later in the morning, and gets home a lot earlier in the afternoon. Her father can join her on field trips and volunteer to help out at the annual book fair.

Need extra support to prepare for your choir’s recital, no problem. Running late with your family heritage project, let’s roll up our sleeves.

Our Australian Shepherds are also living large. Long lingering walks along Lake Ontario at Bluffers Park, treks through the woods at Glen Rouge Park, and tangling with other yappy mutts at the Cherry Beach dog park.

My wife is also a grateful benefactor. Live-at-home-hubby also does floors, cooks meals and loads the dishwasher.

Life goes on.

A person can keep his or her nose to the grind stone, looking for work as I’ve discussed in earlier posts,  but life does not end when presented with a Record of Employment.

Stop Tossing and Turning in Your Sleep: Yes, You Were Laid Off Because You’re Older. What Are You Going to do About It?

Face it, most everything that you imagined your corporate colleagues were saying about your age may be true.

Yes, they will probably find you dead at your keyboard. With maturity comes loyalty. You’re satisfied, you will stay longer. Employers need not make such a large investment in the screening, hiring and training of new employees, particularly when juniors want to leave quickly for greener pastures.

Yes, you’ve occupied a coveted cubicle forever. Research shows that most older workers are still employed because they want to be, not because they need the money. You know your capabilities and you can focus on getting tasks done.  You are not relentlessly searching for the next opportunity.

Yes, you can be a know it all. Maturity makes you a good leader. Your age grants you advanced communications and people skills. In fact, you would be a terrific mentor for your juniors. You are willing to work harder. Being ethical is more important too. Your professional and client networks will take juniors’ breath away.

And yes, old-timers do run in packs. By 2020, about 25 per cent of the workforce will be age 55 years or more.

All these points make a solid case for hiring older people, yet long-term employees are still being targeted for cost-saving layoffs. Between 2009 and 2012, more Canadians over the age of 55 years were permanently laid off than retired, according to a Statistics Canada’s labour force survey.

AlterNet writer Lynn Stuart Parramore puts age discrimination into perspective with her story 50 is the new 65. She also dispels the myth that older people are taking jobs from juniors.

“Workers as young as 50 are shocked to find themselves suddenly tossed onto the employment rubbish heap, just when they felt on top of their game,” states Stuart Parramore. “They’re feeling stressed, angry and betrayed by a society that has benefited greatly from their contributions.

“As the global population grows older, age discrimination is on the rise. It could be headed for you, much sooner than you think.”

Statistics Canada research comparing layoffs in three previous recessions – from 1981 to 1983, 1990 to 1992 and 2008 to 2009 – shows layoffs were more targeted than some employers may like to admit.

“Workers laid-off in 2008-to-2011 differed from their counterparts laid-off in the early 1980s and early 1990s in several ways: the former group was older and better educated and had more years of seniority in the job,” according to the 2011 Statistics Canada report, Workers Laid-off During the Last Three Recessions: Who Were They, and How Did They Fare?

“Almost 40 per cent of workers laid-off during the most recent (2008 to 2009) downturn were aged 45 years or older, twice the rate of 19 per cent observed in the early 1980s. Meanwhile, the share of laid-off workers who were aged 15 to 24 declined from 35 per cent to 19 per cent.”

Recent media reports suggest that trend continues today.

Canadians seem resigned to accepting corporate layoff strategies and their bias toward disrupting the lives of older people.

Our silence implies consent.

My Come-Uppance for Daring to Write about Corporate Layoffs

I’m still waiting for my come-uppance. Former colleagues are clucking in the shadows about the negative tone of this blog, but after seven posts, no one has stepped forward with a business case supporting layoffs.

A Google search of the term ” the business case for corporate layoffs” returns an apologetic Government of Alberta publication, from the AlbertaWorks HR Series for Employers, Thinking About Layoffs.

“Of more than 1,000 businesses surveyed, 89 per cent of those downsizing their workplace reported expense reduction as their primary goal. Only 42 per cent actually reduced expenses.”

I wonder if any of Alberta’s oil patch companies read this document before the current wave of layoffs swept through the province. One section of Thinking About Layoffs warns efficiency may suffer, another suggests a range of other cost-cutting initiatives that can be tried before layoffs.

Critics may say oil patch companies should be forgiven for layoffs due to extraordinary global economic forces at play in Canada and other oil producing countries.

However a Newsweek article The Case Against Layoffs: They Often Backfire presents a worse scenario, yet still lives up to the story’s headline.

Newsweek describes uncertainty in the U.S. airlines industry following the 9/11 tragedy. As recession gripped the U.S., tens of thousands of people were laid off by all the airlines, except one, Southwest. Nearly 10 years later, Southwest had grown to become America’s largest domestic airline, with a larger market capitalization than any of its domestic competitors. Southwest had gone some 40 years with no involuntary layoffs.

Newsweek cites University of Colorado professor Wayne Cascio’s list of direct and indirect layoffs costs: severance pay; paying out accrued vacation and sick leave; outplacement costs; higher unemployment insurance taxes; the cost of rehiring employees when business improves; low morale and risk averse survivors; potential lawsuits, sabotage or workplace violence from aggrieved employees or former employees; loss of institutional memory and knowledge; diminished trust in management; and reduced productivity.

“Much of the conventional wisdom about downsizing – like the fact that it automatically drives a company’s stock price higher, or increases profitability – turns out to be wrong,”

The Newsweek article also opines on a “growing body of academic research” that shows layoffs don’t work:

  • Labor productivity growth is greater in economies that enforce prohibitions of layoffs;
  • Companies announcing layoffs experience negative stock returns, with larger permanent layoffs leading to greater negative effects;
  • Shareholder returns are negatively impacted;
  • Downsizing reduced subsequent profitability; and
  • S&P 500 companies that downsized remained less profitable than those that did not.

The spirit of the Newsweek article was to prevent future generations from experiencing the same pain and suffering endured in the layoffs of the early 2000s. Regrettably, history has taught nothing to business leaders. That may explain why layoff victims today seem a bit negative.

Storytelling to Distinguish Yourself from the Masses

The fun part of job hunting is that it’s all about you. You have to get your story straight. You need to look your best. You have to get your ducks in a row quickly.

Your job now is to distinguish yourself from the hundreds or thousands of people flooding HR offices with resumes.

Don’t be discouraged, but you are being watched through a magnifying glass. Every word and move you make may be blown to such proportions that even a typo, a weak handshake, or a smudge on your shoe may transform a leading contender into an also ran.

Loving your job now means loving yourself. As ominous as the challenge presents itself, you’ll be needing your smile and a sparkle in your eye as you tell people how great a person you are.

Potential employers need to believe you when you tell them about your impressive credentials and all the projects you’ve worked on.

It’s a buyers’ market and first impressions can make or break you. Self promotion, personal marketing, bragging, are central to your rebirth on the job market.

The way you dress, grooming, facial expressions, even the way you walk into a room or shake hands, are all items on the checklists of most savvy hiring managers.

Facial hair may be an issue. Visible tattoos, excessive jewelry, cologne, funky hair and body piercings may also be your enemy. Unless told otherwise, dressing professionally is your best bet.

How important is your physical appearance? Some employers consider whether your shoes are polished as an indication of how much attention you pay to details.

The same is true when employers consider what you have to say about yourself. A catchy cover letter and a punchy resume will take you a long way, but you still need several good case studies to help seal the deal. Preparation and practice will make these stories second nature.

To get your creative juices flowing, start thinking about the best of times and the worst of times in your professional past. Make a list.

If you’re not a friend of a friend who can get you a job with little effort, you must continue to dig a little deeper. Make another list, this time drafting the questions you fear most from potential employers. Without preparation, behavioral questions may be your undoing.

Now, roll up your sleeves and belly up to the keyboard to tackle each item on your lists, one at a time, using the S.O.A.R. Answer Model. Keep your stories tight, but address the Situation, Obstacles, Action and Results (S.O.A.R.). Of course, be factual and base all your stories on your real-life experiences.

Once completed, not only can you use these stories during job interviews, but you can also rewrite and reuse them for the all-important follow-up note you send to employers after interviews. Just saying thank you isn’t enough. Use your new stockpile of stories to elaborate on parts of your background that you skimmed over too quickly in the interview.

Reinforce your capabilities with practical examples of how you used your unique skills set to complete a task. If your employer asks whether you are familiar with social media, use your stories to demonstrate your competency, while also relating your experience to the new job description.

If you’re not working this hard for a new job opportunity, you’re not going to distinguish your application.

Take Names and Burn no Bridges

Nobody wants to dwell on the subject. Friends tread carefully. Your former employer prohibits discussing its terms. Family members are supportive and respectful, but also eager to change the channel.

Yet you need to talk about your layoff. It’s good for your soul. It is also important to get your career story straight early in the game.

“I was part of a broad layoff and will pursue freelance opportunities until I secure another full-time corporate position.”

Send that message to everyone you know as soon as you can. It’s succinct and leaves the door wide open for followups. As I said in an earlier post, start job hunting right away. You can’t afford to wait.

Don’t forget anyone. Job hunting should leave no stone unturned.  Pull together a list of absolutely everyone you know: friends, family, former colleagues, old and new school chums, acquaintances and third party suppliers.

Identify some companies as your potential employers of choice. Also define influencers within your chosen career field. While you’re at it, pull the names of a few key head hunters off the Internet.

Use Microsoft Excel or another spreadsheet application to record your contacts’ names, business addresses, email addresses and business telephone and cell phone numbers. Also create a field for notes.

Make sure you connect with everyone on your contact list via social media channels, including Google Plus, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest. Share your story with them. Perhaps start blogging to create a new soundtrack for your life.

Ask all trusted former business colleagues to provide a LinkedIn “endorsement.” Suggest also writing a short LinkedIn “recommendation.”

What? You don’t have a LinkedIn profile, don’t think you need that newfangled technology thingy. Wrong-oh!

Most head hunters and corporate HR people start their searches on LinkedIn. Endorsements and recommendations figure prominently in the algorithm used to move your profile closer to the top of their stacks of applications LinkedIn also has a helpful search function that will help you locate people.

Use your new contact list as a starting point for “information meetings.” As a cautionary note, some people feel intimidated by “networking meetings” because that name apparently suggests a more permanent obligation or commitment to some.

Send them an email, or reach out over the telephone and invite them to catch up over coffee or lunch.

Just do it and trust me. You’ll be surprised by the leads you’ll generate. What you’re looking for in these meetings are the names of companies that are hiring, people who can help you transition to a new career field, and people who can help you get back into the field you’ve just exited.

I prefer casual settings and loose agendas. The purpose of your meeting is better indirectly stated. People already understand that you’re looking for work and most would like to help. But don’t pressure them with a pushy self-marketing script. You’ll get more bees using honey. When the opportunity presents itself, ask politely and you will receive: leads, contact names, and search strategies. Push and people may resist.

Having said that, use your judgement and speed things up if you’re dealing with an executive with a busy schedule. In this case, be concise, cheerful and direct.

Your objective should be to “connect” with your contact. Be alert at your meeting and actively watch for a subject to break the ice. Slip in gently and leave a lasting, favorable impression.

Take notes and don’t miss any opportunity to continue building your list. You should start planning on at least five information meetings a week.

Between following up on leads from your contacts list, and firing off resumes at every advertised job opportunity you find, this tactic promises to keep you very busy and perhaps create a buzz around your personal brand.