14 Jan 2014

Outplacement

"The hardest part was being escorted out of the building", said the friend who recently found herself in the unenviable position. She was, as her employer put it, "let go" - a cynical euphemism that evokes an image of a boss reluctantly but gallantly giving in to a worker's forlorn wish to finally be freed.

That's not exactly how it was. My friend, with over 25 years of service, had no desire to leave her workplace. And she had done nothing wrong - she was simply the victim of yet another corporate reorganization. The occupant of a box which looked expendable on an org-chart somewhere. How did George Clooney's professional terminator put it in Up in the Air? "The reason we're having this conversation today is your position is no longer available."

Staff reductions happen, and although unfortunate, they are a natural part of business life. It can happen to me tomorrow. What shocked me, however, is the way in which my friend's employer (and many others, from what I've been told) handles such situations. The unlucky employee is called into a meeting, told of the news, and then immediately escorted out of the building. No chance to return to the desk where the majority of the last years' waking hours had been spent. No way to say good-bye to colleagues. Personal belongings to be collected after hours.

In the work culture I am accustomed to, this treatment is reserved for crooks, caught red-handed embezzling money, and for people who have just announced that they've signed with the competition. In North America, it appears to be the norm, sweetened by a severance package and an appointment with an outplacement agency (another euphemism!). 

To the European observer, that feels not only undignified, but also unwise, for it virtually ensures that all the employee's know-how is irretrievably lost. No time to document important processes, teach others the tricks of the trade, ensure a smooth continuation of affairs. Instead, team mates are left to pick up the pieces.

For better or worse, attitudes seem to differ. I remember my own company being amazed when I told them, prior to moving to Canada, that I'd have to give my last Swiss employer 3 months of notice, and stick around to pass on my knowledge. Even with voluntary departures, notice periods in North America are much shorter, and people are frequently released immediately.

At least I now know not to take it personally, should I ever make the experience. And in this part of the world, getting sacked isn't as much of a blemish as it is in Europe. Or, in the ever-so-eloquent words of Up in the Air's pro: "Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it's because they sat there that they were able to do it." The End.

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