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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Mar 3, 2010, 9:17 am

Axed in a Flash: Surviving Life After Layoffs

BY Stephen Franklin

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Members of United Steelworkers of America Local Union 1190 listen during a union meeting in May 2009 in Steubenville, Ohio. Of more than 1,500 working members, all but around 200 have been laid off from the Severstal Wheeling Steel Mill.   (Photo by Rick Gershon/Getty Images)

A friend got axed the other day, whacked after more than a dozen years on the job.  

Years of working with his head to the grindstone. No time to answer phone calls or e-mails. And with every cutback, he picked up more of the slack because he was the boss.

But when folks talked about him getting axed, they didn’t talk so much about how hard he had worked. They talked instead about how when the company let him go, it didn’t even give him time to say goodbye to his workers. He was out in a flash, they said.

"Can you imagine that?", they asked, "after all those years?" Trouble is, I can imagine it, and bet you can too. As the Great Recession sits stuck atop the U.S. economy, there are no signs that corporate America has either called a halt to layoffs, or taken up the human resources mantra that there should be a humane way to shove workers out the door.

It’s not a new mantra at all. For decades now, folks who study the way companies work have told us that poorly thought-out layoffs leave the surviving workers demoralized, frozen with fears for their own futures, and send workplace quality and performance ratings plummeting.

And that’s why I was surprised somewhat by a recent Newsweek cover story. Called “Lay Off the Layoffs,” it recited the not-so-new wisdom that layoffs hurt often more than they help, especially cold-blooded whackings that leave an indelible stain on company morale.

“The facts seem clear. Layoffs are mostly bad for companies, harmful for the economy and devastating for employees” concluded the article by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford University business school professor.

What made this business school sermon creepy was that it appeared in a magazine that itself has trimmed its ranks and reduced its product during this recession.

If Corporate America doesn’t heed the message after all the years of advice and countless studies, here is my proposal for workers and their colleagues who face the reality of being whacked or being left behind: Don’t go silently into the night. Walk out with all of your dignity. You have the right to mourn the end of a workplace life.

This is not a matter of feel good advice. It’s a basic understanding about what a job means to a worker.

Quite a few people who run businesses would fervently disagree, saying workers own nothing more than their paycheck. So, too, unfortunately, would a number of workers. And that’s why folks like my friend get hustled out the door, their backs suddenly turned on the workplaces lives they once led.

Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor's Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]

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