Friday, December 05, 2008


Layoffs and Transparency

Any thoughts on how to do the former while honoring the latter?

The last time I went through a round of layoffs, during the previous recession, I saw vividly the gap between what could be communicated at a given moment, and what people actually wanted to know. Now there's another round coming, and it's likely to be much worse than before.

There's some lead time, since the really catastrophic numbers apply to next fiscal year's budget (meaning the year that starts in July of 2009). We have a few months before anybody has to get the awful news. On the bright side, that means there's time to assemble and implement a reasonable strategy for communication, input, and brainstorming.

In the corporate world, layoffs are established practice, and transparency doesn't exist. But academia is different. Here there's a focus on process as a good in itself. That can sometimes become a maddening exercise in narcissism, admittedly, but the idea behind it is basically good. It's about respecting the stakeholders at the college as people with real value and real ideas.

With a storm of this magnitude approaching – and honestly, some sober and sane people around me who've been doing this for decades, and whose judgment I respect, are saying it's the worst they've ever seen – there's a real temptation to just lower your head, do what needs to be done, and be as unprovocative as possible in the interim. Given the way that some people react when given scary news, the temptation to keep them in the dark until the last possible moment is real.

But I can't help but believe that it's better to be as open as we can be. The catch, as I learned in the last go-round, is that 'as open as we can be' doesn't tell people what they actually want to know, until it suddenly and cruelly does.

Wise and worldly readers, I need any wisdom I can get. Have you seen layoffs handled with relative class? If so, how? Respond publicly, if you can, or privately to deandad (at) gmail (dot) com, if you'd rather not be public. There's a lot riding on this in the next few months, and not only here.

There's a difference between not saying anything until you have all the details worked out, and not saying anything until the last possible moment. You can even share your 'partial' plans if you trust your people enough, but that can go very badly very quickly.

There's no good excuse in withholding what you know. You know ed's toast at the end of the school year? Tell him now and let him prepare. Yes, there's a cost. But this approach will build a stronger organization over time.

Now telling ed that his names on the short list of people that might be let go? That's not such a good idea.

My advice is wait until you know what you're doing and have a plan. (e.g. Ed's gone, Mary and Beth get to split his work in half and add it to their own. Sorry Marry and Beth) and than publish it as soon as you can.

Don't announce that bad news about ed until you know what you're doing with his work.

Don't wait until his last Friday, walk him out and tell Marry and Beth on Monday.
I can share what *not* to do based on our last round of layoffs. Don't say they're not coming. I agree with joe above. The sooner you can tell people the better. The market sucks right now all the way around and it's going to take longer for people to line up jobs. Are you going to provide a decent severance package and/or job placement assistance? I'd be as specific as possible about that. Knowing there's a cushion makes people feel a little better. Believe it or not, especially in higher ed, there's a lot of people who've never ever been laid off. They have no idea what to expect. Making that clear is good.

Layoffs suck all the way around. We were blindsided by them because we were told that layoffs were not something the college would consider because "we're a family." In the end, it was the only option. When I asked recently whether layoffs were on the table, I was told a resounding "yes." Not what you want to hear, but at least we could go back to the staff and say, it's possible; don't be surprised.

I wish you luck and I hope you blog what you can about the process and how it went.
Not specific piece of advice, Dean Dad, but an example on how Wesleyan President is handling this crisis on a dedicated website: Securing the Future.

Hope this helps a bit. Good luck for what's next.
A little-off topic (and the opposite of a layoff), but I want to thank Dean Dad and his wise commentators. Before going to my first interview for a full-time TT job at very large CC in very large city, I scoured this blog since the beginning for interview tips and inside knowledge of CCs. I really benefited from all the advice given to job hunters. That I was able to get the job (in history) at my first interview was in part due to Dean Dad and his contributors. Thank you very much! You made a difference for this once former janitor and cab driver (and now full-time history instructor).
First, you MUST do what is best for the institution in the long term. That means the cutting of dog programs, which will increase morale overall rather than the across-the-board cuts most schools use.

Second, start talking about it as quickly as possible. Not in specifics, because you probably don't know those yet. But let everyone know that times are bad (duh) and that means us too (what?). When the axe eventually falls, it won't come as a bolt of lightning from the "Evil Ivory Power Tower" i.e. Administration.

Third, when defining "dog program", work hard to use as much data as possible. Objective and subjective are fine, just use it and make sure it is diverse. The University of TN tried to cut an Audiology program until the Administration "discovered" that children came from all across the state to benefit from the facilities and faculty. There were no substitute agencies for these services. Surprisingly (sarcasm intended), those data didn't show up in profit/loss statements or FTE reports.
I agree with the previous posters; if you know someone has to go, the only decent thing is to give him/her a few months to job hunt and pre-emptively scale down spending. Layoffs in academia really are rare, so you may be dealing with people who haven't job-hunted in 15 years or more--they're going to need time. And help.

If there's going to be a lot of bloodletting, I think I'd also try to figure out a way to make the financial calculations explicit. Your faculty and staff might very well be able to make useful suggestions that would help save a couple of jobs. (Of course, they might also use it as an excuse to deny reality, but that's a chance you have to take.)
Are layoffs the only option or can you offer any buyouts or early retirement packages?

If the plane is overbooked, can you ask for volunteers to be bumped before you start bumping people?

If you start asking now, even if you don't get enough takers to make up the difference dollar wise, everyone who does get laid off will know, at least, that you really were trying everything in your power to avoid that.

In fact, I'd say try to be as public as possible about all your cost-cutting measures. Just make it clear that you're cutting everything else you can cut first. (The city of Chicago is laying people off right now, but they're also buying a new bus fleet and a bunch of SUVs for the police department. That makes people feel like they're less valuable than a car.)

The more you make it seem like you really don't want to have to lose these people, the less unvalued they will feel. And that's important because even in a tough economy, losing your job can feel like an official declaration that you're worthless.
Agree with the "ask for volunteer" approach (wiht one caveat).

During the massive cuts in the DoD during the 90s, "voluntary termination incentive packages" were offered for folks in targeted positions. "Ed" would get a notice from HR ahead of time that went something like this:

1. You are vulnerable for termination
2. If you choose to quit now, we can offer you XX, YY, ZZ
3. If you choose not to leave voluntarily, you are on the short list for termination and you will recieve aa, bb, cc

Fair, equitable, pre-emptive, let the individuals decide based on the most compete information we could give them.

Caveat: those people with the highest market value left; those with fewer options stayed. This was not necessarily a Good Thing long term . . .
Call 'em layoffs. There's an ugly habit in some industries that "don't do layoffs" to call them merit firings to avoid the backlash of having laid people off. That SUCKS.

I also agree with YACP that if you let people know they're coming, you may have a few who were thinking of moving jobs anyway and may be willing to "volunteer." But they will generally be the people with the most marketable skills. Whether that creates a significant brain-drain in (all sectors of) academia is a different question: we just saw someone leave sociology in order to do non-profit management consulting -- lots of folks in social sciences, I've noticed, tend to have experience in areas unrelated to what they teach, so when those with marketable skills leave, it's not necessarily the best in their teaching field.
Sorry, DD, but I can't resist.

Imagine you had a button that would disappear whole groups of people. What would be the short- and long-term consequences:

If all administrators were to disappear? Short-term: Absolutely nothing. The school would run just fine for a while. Long-term: There'd be stumbles and bumps in the road, and everyone would have to work a lot harder, but things would probably continue to work somehow.

If all classified staff were to disappear? Short-term: No one would unlock the doors in the morning. No one would answer the phones. There'd be nothing to eat in the cafeteria. Things would begin to get dirty very quickly. Long-term: School would stop within one month because nobody would get paid.

If all faculty members were to disappear: Everything would stop immediately.

I see high paying jobs posted on popular job sites - (professional networking) (keyword job search) (matches jobs based on skills)

I think the media is trying to scare the US workforce.
I agree that it is important to be as transparent as possible. Let people know it is likely to happen, and on what basis decisions will be made. And tell them once it is known so they can start job searching sooner rather than later.

I think the business world's way is cruel, unnecessary and ridiculous. Why do things like this suddenly turn those in power into jerks? Suddenly it's okay to instantly fire people with no warning and for unconvincing reasons because of a "budget crisis"?
Try the Dilbert method.

Boss: "Knock knock."

Employee: "Who's there?"

Boss: "Not you anymore."
When I was a new hire, more than twenty years ago now, I was on RIF lists 4.5 times (I'll explain the .5) in a moment.

My field is not one where I ever expected to be able to find another job, so if RIFed it was either back to school or back to the bad old job I had just recently escaped from.

Administration was clear and fair: they told all of us who might be shitcanned who we were, what would happen, and when the decisions would be made (basically, after the legislature had done its budget work.)

They offered us nothing in the way of help, and the contract at that time had no severance pay provisions. (When I got on the negotiating team the following year, you can bet we inserted new severance language, the system poormouthing and whining all the way....)

But offering us nothing was not really a problem, not for me. I was so scared, so poleaxed, so numb that not much got through to me. Any help would probably have been met with same blankness as no help.

I was on RIF lists 4 of my first 6 years at WayUpNorthCC. I didn't take it personally; I could see our department was overstaffed. Although I didn't take it personally, I have never since choked up when various dumb administrators blathered on about how we were a family and all that other administrator thank-you-for-all-you-do crap.

What I did take personally was being kept on the RIF list after everyone else on the RIF list was removed. I was past probationary period, but the school still saw how dropping my position could save money. (In those days, we had four full-timers in teh department and two or three adjuncts at satellites; we still have four full-timers but now 30 or more adjuncts everywhere....)

Yes, those extra few weeks did piss me off considerably and still do.
I think it's best that if you know you're going to be laying someone off early enough that they could begin looking for other jobs, you tell them. Sure, they might put in a little less effort during the last semester, but if they've been good to you for so many years, you can be as good to them as possible.

I also like the volunteer idea. Sure, some of your better faculty members may leave in this situation, but hopefully you've only hired well-qualified people in the past and things will still be okay afterward. And plus, if some faculty members with a higher salary choose to leave voluntarily, you'll have to get rid of fewer people, which would mean less of a load increase for everybody else.

Just my thoughts as a part-time instructor.
You need to look at the entire budget, and make it clear to the entire college what the cash flow situation is now, and likely will be in the future. The entire budget has to be on the table, and any criteria for program reductions needs to be defensible.

Did you screw up and spend a lot on new computers or smart classrooms that you would not have spent if you had guessed this was coming? Can you push that budget across into next year, planning drastic cuts in some expenditures that can be used to buffer this year's budget?

PS - My word verification today was "mickyb". Visions of a Bee with rodent ears....
As a two-time recipient of layoffs in Calif CCs, I wish every dean and administrator could experience first-hand the stress, both financial and emotional, that comes with being the "recipient" of the process. Those laid off experience extreme loss in earning potential (you start near the bottom of the salary ladder on any successive job), experience far too much unnecessary stress (most of those who "participate" in a layoff are doing so for the very first time), and, in my case, become isolated from other faculty (faculty who are spared their jobs avoid any contact, in my experience, with those who are being laid off. Perhaps they think it's infectious...). And there will always be a suspicion, especially in future job interviews, that these layoffs are somehow justified. That suspicion is often all it takes to separate competitive candidates for a position.

My suggestions: 1. Determine what the union's role will be. Some colleges faced with RIF will re-negotiate contracts (i.e., lower salaries) so that jobs are not lost. 2. Form a support group for those facing this process, and include people who've experienced this before. It is truly one of the worst experiences that I've endured in my 20+ year professional teaching career.

The rationale given by administrators and board members is often wrong or incomplete. My experience is that most of those involved on that side are motivated more to make a decision than to spend more time making a thoughtful decision. Finally, my experience is that those who are RIF'd are those with the least political clout, the softest targets. I've never seen a full-time English or Math professor remotely considered for a RIF--it's usually the small, often unique, departments.
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