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.