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Transition management Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2001
One of the most difficult tasks a business owner faces is that of dissolving a business relationship with employees, whether through layoffs, firings or corporate reorganization.

To the employee, the value of his or her job reaches beyond the paycheck. So, too, does the effect of the job loss.

But losing a job doesn't have to be synonymous with losing dignity and self-esteem, says Dennis Lekan, president of Ratliff, Taylor and Lekan Inc. When done properly, he says the process can be a smooth one that causes little or no disruption in the workplace. Employing the proper methods can also result in a less volatile situation with the ex-employee, who will be ready to tackle the task of finding a new job.

In 1995, Lekan founded Lekan and Associates. Earlier this year, he merged with Ratliff and Taylor and established corporate headquarters in Independence, with offices in Rocky River, Fairlawn, Hudson and Willoughby Hills. Twenty associates serve the Greater Cleveland area with executive retain searches, outplacement and organizational development counseling.

Lekan built his company around understanding human nature while individualizing services to meet the needs of the job seeker and work provider. He has 20 years experience in staffing and earned his doctorate from Columbia University, where his dissertation was on people's reactions to job loss and how they cope with and develop from it.

In his study, Lekan concludes that reactions are much better if employees feel they have some control, are treated with dignity and respect, and management provides reasons for the termination.

The transition in a job loss situation, however, lies mainly with the balance the employee has in his or her life. Some have the unhealthy attitude that the job is their identity, and their entire ego hangs on their work.

''Think of any transition,'' Lekan says. ''No matter how tragic, the ones that cope with job loss the best are the healthiest ones.''

Leave the ego at the door
While professions are important and provide a sense of accomplishment, intellectual stimulation and personal growth, Lekan says one's ego should not be solely dependent upon one's job.

But when it is, and the company severs ties, the terminating manager can benefit by understanding the employee's balance and being prepared.

Few managers avoid involvement in some type of termination process in the course of their careers. But limited practice at it results in anxiety, nervousness and errors. Lekan stresses the importance of training programs that teach safeguards against actions harmful to the company as a result of statements made during the process.

Business leaders and human resources professionals dealing with layoffs, downsizing and terminations know the stress created on a business as well as on the individual when displacement occurs. To help minimize environmental disruptions with other employees, as well as make the task as painless as possible for the employee, the terminating manager needs to keep in mind that each situation is unique because the problems each individual has are unique.

For example, has there been a recent death in the family or a divorce? Is the employee the mother of small children or the sole provider?

Lekan explains the importance of being cognizant of what is occurring in the employee's life so help can be made available if other burdens make him or her overly sensitive or overly stressed. Being prepared with phone numbers for the Employee Assistance Program or even a specific social worker is helpful. And, he says, be ready with the name and number of the outplacement agency if one is provided. In some instances, managers may request an outplacement counselor be on site to deal with initial reactions and issues.

''You need to handle it with the greatest dignity and care that you can,'' says Lekan.

When planned well, management shows respect for the individual's privacy, helps minimize adverse reactions and diminishes the possibility of severe anger and depression on the part of the employee. It also reduces the chance of lawsuits.

Even if the work dissolution is the result of poor performance, termination day is not time for management to get even. Lekan says it is paramount to proceed in a dignified fashion and make sure the process does not become a show for the amusement of co-workers.

Productivity can take a nosedive when an employee walks out the door. Left unchecked, the rumor mill will spread creative versions of the event. Lekan says managers must take control of communication, get with related departments quickly, convey the action that occurred and deal with the facts only on a need-to-know basis.

Then discuss the workload of the now-open position and the backup system to ease concerns about being overburdened.

Co-workers will be even more concerned if the loss involves several people at once. Multiple terminations require greater logistics to be sure people are not waiting in line during the process. And an organizationwide meeting serves best to communicate changes to the remaining employees.

Keeping it smooth
Lekan offers several other suggestions for smooth terminations:

  • Have a neutral third party on hand to escort the employee back to his or her office.

  • Give the employee the option of clearing his or her office at a later time.

  • Set up a time when the employee can return to say goodbye to co-workers.

  • Be prepared with names and phone numbers of support systems.

  • Do not use armed guards to escort the employee out the door.

  • Avoid small talk and niceties.

  • Do not defend yourself, the decision or the company. And, do not debate the reasons.

  • Communicate the decision clearly and listen empathetically.

  • This is not the time for a performance review. Schedule a follow-up meeting if the employee requests one.

Life changes are inevitable, and Lekan suggests everyone should constantly reassess priorities, reflect on values and learn to incorporate balance between life and work. When a manager is involved in an unplanned transition, either by initiation or on the receiving end, reactions will be less adverse if that person's life is holistically balanced.

Explains Lekan, ''Constant reflection and making new meaning out of your life is the way we adjust to change.''

How to reach: Ratliff, Taylor and Lekan, (216) 328-9494