Saving Face

When it's time to cut staff, Yvonne Larose feels delicacy is necessary to preserve goodwill, morale, and public image for both the company and the person being removed.

Many feel that the concept of "saving face" is exclusively Eastern. Actually, it's universal and always has been. Let's face it. Not many people want to be publicly humiliated. Nor do many want to have the distinction of being fired or asked to step down from a position of leadership. The first thing that comes to anyone's mind, given either scenario, is there was some type of shortcoming or failure. This is damaged goods, therefore not as marketable as others because the long-term profit opportunities just won't be there. If proof of these statements is necessary, consider the current public opinions of Kenneth Lay, former CEO of Enron, or any of the other "C" players who have been removed from office amid boiling publicity.

There are two distinct instances when saving face is especially important. Concomitant with that concern is preserving company goodwill and future referral opportunities - the intangibles that accompany attention to these times. One is when you´re doing layoffs among your staff -- the people you may want to rehire at a later time when conditions are more lucrative and you are in need of those talents again. The other is when not only the CEO or other high profile executive is asked to step down or move on but also when a manager of any level is asked to do so.

In the current climate of massive, global layoffs, some degree of tact and delicacy is needed in making cuts. Many times the reason for the cut is not because of poor performance or judgment on the part of the employee nor egregious gaps in ethics. Instead the issue is a matter of dollars and cents when looking at the number of people doing few tasks compared with the efficiencies that can be realized when combining responsibilities. Even when the person is a poor performer, for whatever reason, the budget just won't justify keeping them on for the additional training or retraining that employee needs while keeping the company in the black and still delivering quality product.

Saving Goodwill and Morale

It isn't just a matter of saving "face" to make these exits as positive as can be under the circumstances. It's also a matter of preserving morale. The survivors want to feel that they are survivors with a purpose and that those who have left the ranks are not expendables. Nor do the survivors want to believe that their former associates or leaders were the causes of the current down times.

It will serve the company's goodwill with customers and remaining staff alike to be able to say that those who left went on to better situations and new opportunities for growth or development in more promising situations.

Prefacing the Severance

In the case of large layoffs, it's best to make a general announcement to the group that downsizing has become a necessity. Continue by explaining that the decisions will be based on metrics that have revealed where certain redundancies and cost overruns are occurring. The cuts are being made in order to contain costs and are not a reflection on an individual. In this way, and considering that people have already been feeling pressures from overwork and the rumor mill, no one will feel as though they´re being singled out for punitive or retaliatory treatment.

Open the meeting to questions and answers. Keep the meeting as long as is necessary to attend to the major, group concerns. A half hour to an hour is usually sufficient for the entire meeting. Close by recommending that anyone who has additional concerns or questions make an appointment with the Human Resources personnel or their manager in order to get clarification.

Next have private meetings with those who will be terminated. Discuss any further unresolved concerns. By this time, your employee assistance personnel should have had some debriefing and counseling sessions with the candidates so that they have some outsourcing and alternative path resources. Come to an understanding about what type of reference they may expect from the company and their manager and who will be responsible for providing the reference check. If the matter is handled in an amicable fashion, layoff rage should not become an issue. Still, it may be a good idea to have a general contact, instead of a specific person, where general reference check confirmations are conducted.

Dealing with Executives

When it comes to cutting your management and executive staff, the need for delicacy increases with a different dynamic. This is not the level where a group announcement is made. In all likelihood, these people have been reading their and the company reports and are astute enough to know that management cuts will have to be made; it's only a question of which are the most critical and cannot be sacrificed.

Where the cut is with upper management, in most cases there will be more publicity as it has more impact on how the balance sheet and stock price will behave. The cut will also affect public opinion of the company.

In this instance, there are three scenarios but they come to the same treatment. In one instance, you have a leader who needs to be removed because of balance sheet issues or because of malfeasance. In another situation, the removal is because of ill health, external difficulties that are impairing performance and judgment, or inability to do the job in the corporate setting. The third is in a nonprofit organization where the leader has the same challenges.

Corporate laws set forth the legal way of dealing with these situations and indicate when the leader would be advised to step down. It also provides the mechanisms for their doing so or their removal by the body of members or the board. However, it is quite embarrassing when a leader is asked to step down in front of the entire body or it's publicized that their removal is set and they haven´t been counseled beforehand nor discussed the matter privately. Leaders want to save face and maintain a standing in which they can move themselves to a new situation without tarnish.

Private Meeting

So its a good idea to schedule a meeting with the leader and discuss the situation with them, either privately or with one other person. Allow the leader to open up and discuss the issues that are impacting their performance. Allow them the room to make the decision to leave or take a hiatus.

If, after the person has had an opportunity to see the facts for what they are for themselves and still resist, the suggestion will need to be made in a subtle way. It''s best that it be couched in terms of giving them time to heal and recuperate or get things under control -- whatever wording is appropriate to the circumstances. If the person volunteers their resignation or leave of absence without inducement, don''t resist it. To resist accepting the resignation will give the appearance that things are still okay and will force them to remain in office. That´s counter-productive to the original goal of the meeting.

In Unequivocal Terms

Should the leader either not understand the invitation or resist it, the matter should be stated in clearer terms during the same meeting. If the resistance persists and the situation is compelling, there is no alternative but to tell them it will be necessary to present their removal to the body and tell them why. Most people will want to resign on their own initiative, especially after this type of candid discussion. Then it´s only a matter of working out the details of timing, exit packages, and other concerns.

East Meets West

While saving face is usually thought of as an Eastern concept, no matter whether the person is in the East or West, and no matter where they are in the organization, saving face is an important matter when it's necessary for them to leave. Making allowance for that, making the exit as gracious and painless as possible, will create much more goodwill and good relations in the long run.


An Additional Resource:
"Violence in the Workplace: A Prevention and Management Guide for Businesses"
Author: S. Anthony Baron, Ph.D, Psy.D

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