Ethical Ways to Layoff

An ethical approach to layoffs can help relieve tensions.
An ethical approach to layoffs can help relieve tensions. (Image: Images)

Being handed a pink slip can be an emotional and financial blow. The letdown and feelings of inadequacy and failure many people feel after being laid off may leave them at a low point at a time when they need to be energized and ready to compete for the next opportunity. Not all employers are sensitive to the way they handle layoffs, some resorting to such unethical practices as locking their layoff victims out of the building or getting them to leave under false pretenses; but there are better, more ethical ways to handle this sensitive issue.

The Ethics of Downsizing

According to Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D., in an article written for Bloomberg Businessweek in April 2008, any time that we face a decision that can affect the rights and well-being of another, then we are dealing with an ethical issue. Weinstein says that no matter the justification, laying people off can be economically and psychologically damaging. He suggests that layoffs should be done privately, in person, while giving the person your full attention. Be honest, Weinstein says, but not to the point of cruelty. Finally, he says, do not rush through the process. Take your time and be compassionate.

What You Can Do When a Company Is Unethically Downsizing

Weinstein recognizes that sometimes downsizing is based on an unethical premise. If it is all about the bottom line, and loyal employees lose their jobs due to overseas outsourcing, managers tasked with executing layoffs are often caught in the middle. This type of situation can put managers in an ethical squeeze, where they may feel their jobs are on the line if they speak up. But Dr. Weinstein points out that it is easier for managers to change unethical practices from within a company than to force the employer's hand and lose their jobs. As a manger, reconciling the pursuit of profit and ethical behavior should always be your goal.

Involving Workers in the Decision Making Process

Company management may shudder at the thought of their workers playing a role in managing the budget, but in an article appearing on, writer Gayle White of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution cites measures taken by the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 50,000 workers at 26 airlines. The union has played an active role in helping airlines cut expenses through voluntary furloughs. Dawn Deeks, media coordinator for the union, calls it "a collective process." Yet both the union and the airlines recognize that if voluntary measures do not reduce costs, it is still up to management to make the hard decisions.

Criteria for Successfuly Laying People Off

According to Joshua Margolis, professor in the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard Business School, there are three criteria to successfully handling layoffs. First, says Margolis, be sure the layoff is actually accomplished. The person being laid off should fully understand what has happened. Second, the person being laid off must feel as though she is being treated respectfully. Give the person encouragement so she rebounds in a positive way. Finally, the feelings of the manager handling the layoff are often overlooked. It can be hard for a manger to let a faithful worker go. The company should allow layoffs to be handled so the manager can feel it was ethically handled.

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