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Take a deep breath Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2010

Unless you’re a completely cold and heartless boss who really does spend your evenings counting your nickels and dimes, the act of laying off someone can be a traumatic experience.

Kevin Moore had to lay off five people more than a year ago from employment at The Cleveland Play House.

“You’re talking about people who are heading out into that economy to find work,” says Moore, managing director at the nonprofit theater company. “That’s probably the most painful part of it all.”

So how do you get through it?

“A lot of deep breaths,” Moore says before taking one himself. “It’s really vital to keep your head and keep calm. Other people are looking to you to maintain a sense of calm, which is not always easy to do. When you’re faced with chronic cash difficulties as we were in some of the darkest days, it’s not easy to keep calm.”

The recession hit a lot of people and businesses hard and the Play House was not spared. Five people were let go, leaving the full-time staff at 45 employees.

When the time comes to deliver the bad news, it never hurts to rehearse what you’re going to say.

“I rehearse it and try to anticipate what kind of response it might be from across the table,” Moore says. “I really do sort of close my office door and just take a yellow legal pad and rehearse it. I have a habit of when I have to communicate something, my most comfortable form of communication is writing.

“So sometimes I’ll just sit down and write it all out. That works for me. The other thing is don’t ever have that conversation by yourself. Always have a trusted colleague in the room with you.”

You should also consult an attorney to make sure you’re not forgetting anything that could get you in trouble down the road.

“In the actual conversation, any attorney I’ve ever talked to has said it’s a not a long conversation,” Moore says. “It needs to be succinct and direct and compassionate.”

If you’re making the decision to lay off someone, there’s a good chance the person saw it coming, even though it’s still a shock to the system. So try to listen more than you talk.

“There’s not a lot to talk about,” Moore says. “Unfortunately, when you’re doing a work force reduction, it has everything to do with them individually and nothing to do with them individually.

“The everything is the part where you care, but none of those choices were made by performance. They were made because the organization is swimming in red ink.”

You need to reassure yourself that you’re making the right decision.

“Trust yourself, and trust that the decision is sound,” Moore says. “Test the decision with people that you trust. Resist the urge to let it all fall on you by yourself. Because they are horrible decisions, absolutely painful. Sometimes, you have to set back and say, ‘Why am I here? Why did I take this job? Why is this organization important to me?’ Ultimately, what you’re doing is finding a way for the organization to survive.”

You should never be afraid to ask for help or for counsel when pondering a difficult decision.

“I made sure that I had really high-quality advice as we were going through it,” Moore says. “You have a responsibility to the organization, and I feel a very personal responsibility to the people who choose to do theater for a living.”

How to reach: The Cleveland Play House, (216) 795-7000 or www.clevelandplayhouse.com

Deal with the aftermath

While it’s all over for the person or people you’re laying off once you deliver the news, you still have other people to think about: the people who are still working for you and wondering who might be next.

“The best thing is to address that head on,” says Kevin Moore, managing director at The Cleveland Play House. “We told the staff that we don’t anticipate any further reductions, but it would be a lie to say we’re not in a very difficult situation. We asked everybody to band together.”

Many companies choose to have an all-company meeting after a layoff to begin the healing process. If you do this, make sure you prepare for it.

“Take a little bit of time to take a yellow legal pad and write down the things you need to accomplish so you don’t leave anything out,” Moore says. “The thing that is hardest to do is actually creating any kind of dialogue.”

If you show that you’re open and interested in hearing from your people, that will make it a little easier for people to feel that they can speak up.

One thing you need to be sure of is that when the meeting is over, leadership needs to speak with one voice. Otherwise, you could end up with mixed messages and rumors among your staff.

“Every place that we stumbled has been in how well we communicated it,” Moore says. “It’s relentless. Things get going pretty fast and you’re moving from one thing to the next and you can’t skip that step. You’ve got to be in sync and try to be relentless about sending a positive message about what you’re trying to accomplish and why.” <<