‘We have to lay one of you off; you decide who’

by on January 4, 2013 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Cafe
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Managers who’ve had to lay people off for non-performance reasons – slow sales, economic downturns, company consolidation, mergers, etc. – can be forgiven for not enjoying the process. It’s tough to look into the eyes of a 20-year veteran and tell the person that their days in the organization to which they’ve been consistently loyal are over.

But it’s a dirty job that managers have to do. Or do they?

At the Kansas City Star newspaper recently, managers reportedly decided to pass on making a layoff decision – and asked the two employees concerned to work it out among themselves.

According to media blogger Jim Romenesko, reporters Dawn Bormann and Karen Dillon were told that one of them had to go, and they should make the choice themselves. (Dillon was the senior employee of the two and, if push came to shove, could insist on retaining her job.)

Romenesko likened the situation to The Hunger Games, the book and movie about organized, televised fights to the death among teenagers chosen by lot. Other commentators said the Star’s approach was “cruel,” “inhumane,” and an example of “the powerful making their subordinates squirm, solely for their own enjoyment.”

The Star’s publisher said the Bormann-Dillon layoff (Ms. Bormann reportedly was the one to leave, in the end) came in the context of the newspaper’s plan to cut its workforce by 17 positions.

“These are always difficult decisions, so we will on occasion allow employees to volunteer for a severance package when we are reducing in areas where there are two or more of the same types of positions,” Parrish said. If there’s no volunteer, “then the person with the least amount of tenure is included in the severance program.”

That seems to make a certain amount of sense, at least in theory. It’s a way of balancing seniority concerns with the desire of some employees to get paid for leaving a job that isn’t fun anymore.

But you can also see the Star’s approach as an abdication of managerial responsibility. After all, aren’t tough personnel decisions one reason managers get paid the big (or at least bigger) bucks? And aren’t managers in the best position to decide which employees the organization can do without, and which it can’t?

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