Downsize If You Must, But Don’t Dehumanize Workers

It’s common courtesy to affirm the worth of departing employees generously and genuinely and common sense from a business standpoint.

Companies often soft pedal massive layoffs to the media and investors, describing cutbacks as “downsizing,” “rightsizing” or (my favorite) “de-recruiting.” By contrast, they seldom pull their punches with the shell-shocked employees who get the ax. More disturbing, some employers let workers go in ways so disrespectful of their dignity and intelligence that they feel subjected to a humiliating public shaming.

Case in point: Northwest Airlines. The world’s fifth-largest air carrier is emerging from bankruptcy soon with fewer planes, fewer routes and 1,000 fewer service agents and baggage handlers. Last summer, some received a lay-off handbook that advises stretching their unemployment checks by dumpster diving, borrowing clothing from friends, shopping at pawnbrokers and cadging free drug samples from their doctors.

Northwest has since apologized to its outraged personnel. Nonetheless, the airline’s executives have nothing to be proud of; except, perhaps, that their thoughtlessness to employees stands as a classic of the genre.

Is it the turmoil of restructuring that causes some stressed managers to send employees out the door with the equivalent of a poke in the eye with a sharp stick? Or is it habitual blindness to every worker’s need to feel valued and to be told “thank you” in meaningful ways?

Sadly, I’m inclined to say it’s the latter. In nearly two decades of corporate counseling on employee relations and organizational change, I’ve found that many managers honestly believe that employees take vague and superficial praise such as “great work” or “terrific report” for sincere and serious expressions of respect and support.

Far from it: appreciation by autopilot is patronizing, and managers who dispense it also tend to dehumanize employees with an equally impersonal way of handing out pink slips, such as notifying workers by email. Worse, these offenders often include an expression of gratitude in their message that is as perfunctory as any their staffers received while on the payroll.

Companies that conduct hamhanded layoffs risk demoralizing remaining workers and discouraging potential new hires by giving the lie to such claims as, “our employees are our greatest assets.” Many corporations declare just that on their web sites and in their annual reports and recruiting literature. If workers are truly so valuable, they should be treated with elementary consideration and genuine recognition when they are forced to depart-and even more important, when they are still employed.

Research consistently underlines that employees hunger for recognition and praise and that satisfying this need can yield significant competitive advantages.

In national surveys every decade since 1946, Americans have rated a sincere word of appreciation from the boss as one of the top five payoffs of employment. Think about it: leaving aside pay and benefits, for 60 years simple recognition has stoked employee satisfaction more powerfully than having adequate equipment, a safe place to work or a crack at promotion.

Other studies have repeatedly shown the supercharging effect that timely and deserved appreciation has on employee productivity, loyalty and quality of work and customer service.

Companies attuned to the “human” in human resources are documented to be 44 percent more profitable and 50 percent more productive than the average, with a 50 percent higher level of customer loyalty. They include the “Forbes 100 Best Companies to Work For,” which in the last six years have posted shareholder gains of 176 percent, compared to only 39 percent for the Standard & Poor 500.

Maximizing the morale and profit-boosting impact of employee recognition requires showing workers what I call “specific appreciation.” This is “thank you” on steroids: prompt, detailed and authentic acknowledgment that anyone can give at any time. It highlights exactly what it is that someone is doing right, where their contribution fits in and its practical importance to the enterprise. Moreover, it motivates them to do more of the same:

Thank you for getting that market research to me a day early . . . . now I won’t be so rushed working up slides and an executive summary for the CEO to use to brief the Board next week . . . . with a strategic roadmap based on your work, their decisionmaking will be sounder . . . .

Aircraft and landing rights, inventory and stores do not grow demoralized when ignored or devalued. Good managers know that workers do (including soon-to-be ex-employees), and that their sense of justice, self-respect and dignity must be honored. It is only by affirming peoples’ worth that they can be inspired—whether to stick diligently to mundane tasks or to excel beyond expectations.