When Management’s Cowardice Underlies a Layoff Decision

    We all probably have an outrageous layoff story or two we could tell, but I can pretty much guarantee you that one that played out in Kansas City last week tops anything you’ve ever seen or heard about on the outrageousness scale.

    According to two investigative websites, and, management at the Kansas City Star newspaper left it up to two reporters, Karen Dillon and Dawn Bormann, to decide between themselves which one would go. Beat that. You can follow those links for the background and the spin that the publisher is trying to sell. But as one employee put it, “It’s like putting a racing stripe on a turd. At the end of the day, it’s still a turd.”

    I had the opportunity to discuss this case on Friday with Dr. Cassi Fields, a psychologist and workplace consultant based in McLean, Va. “Whoever heard of such cowardly leadership? This is the definition of a lack of courage,” Fields said. “And courage is central to leadership.”

    I asked Fields if resorting to this technique of laying people off stemmed from nothing more than a lack of courage, or if there was something more to it than that. She said we could speculate all day long, but it’s “sheer cowardice,” no matter what the reason:

    I think in a very twisted world, you might think this was a kind thing to do—if you’re really twisted. Because you’re saying to two employees, “Look, we’re going to have to let one of you go. You make the decision, because I don’t want to fire one of you.” I think a twisted person might believe that’s kind. There’s no way 99 out of 100 people are going to think that. … Let’s go through a list of things that could be going on with these two employees. One’s a great performer, one’s a poor performer; both are fabulous performers; both are terrible performers; one is liked, one is disliked; both are loved; both are hated—you can come up with any combination of traits, characteristics, job skills. At the end of the day, that does not justify having them make the decision, because that is a management/leadership decision. … If you think about it—and I’ve been thinking about it non-stop because it’s just so offensive—if you have a rule about who will be laid off, it’s a much easier pill to swallow—at least there’s a rule. People get it, they follow it, they understand somewhere deep in their soul that there’s not enough money to pay them, and there has to be a process in the organization. So you can live with it. It’s not pleasant, but if there’s a rule, it’s digestible. When the rule is so ridiculous, and people don’t have the courage of their convictions, there are almost no words to explain it.

    On the question of whether there’s ever any value at all in giving employees the option of making that decision, Fields said there is not, at least not in the case of two employees who are in the same position:

    If one of the people is a manager, I can see the manager making this decision—that would be a management decision. If a manager is told, “You have the option of laying off one of your employees or quitting yourself,” that’s a different conversation, because that’s a management decision. The manager could make the decision to quit, if he or she were that selfless. But that would presumably happen behind closed doors. In another situation, a manager could be told, “You have two reporters, you have to choose between the two of them,” for any number of performance-based reasons. That, too, would be OK. But delegating it all the way down to two people who are in the same job—there’s no way. … What does the rest of the workforce think at this point? They must have lost all respect. A lot of employees have the “It ain’t gonna happen to me” belief. But I think you would be fooling yourself. Because once a CEO or management team would make such an extreme, drastic decision, I would expect that they would be capable of making another extreme or drastic decision.

    Fields said that ideally, there should be a policy for laying people off that covers any layoff situation:

    And as far as I’m concerned, it should be formal—it should be a written policy. It doesn’t always go that way, but that’s what’s ideal. What I have found in organizations is it’s usually kept very close to the vest until almost the moment of the layoff, because it hurts morale so badly, and I think that’s a good idea. I agree with that. You gently tell people that there are going to be layoffs, and if people know the basis upon which the layoffs are going to happen, then they can mentally prepare. … I would sum up this conversation with the need for rules. People really like boundaries, consistency, and rules that are fair, that make sense, and that are tried and tested. Without rules, the unknown creates an even more fearful environment than we already live in.

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