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They Lay Off HR Too, Don’t They?

They Lay Off HR Too, Don’t They?

I’m sure you’ve heard at least one story of the hapless HR person who, after having plowed through a stack of lay-off packages and sending employees tearfully on their way, is told, “You have one more package to prepare.”  What’s worse?  The feeling of betrayal?  Or the self-recrimination that you should have seen it coming? Actually, does it really matter? Either way, it sucks.

As far as your HR career is concerned, there is little but downside to the lay-off process.  You know more than you want to know about your co-workers.  If the company is big enough, or your community small enough, you know more about the future of your entire region than you want to know.  You start to feel like the grim reaper just going to the supermarket to replenish your Tums. You can’t help the feeling that you’re walking among ghosts unawares.

You’re the one who has to deliver the news and take the first blast of blame on behalf of the company.  And the fact that you have terminated 5 or 1,700 employees is not exactly anything to crow about on your resume.  (And wouldn’t it be a red flag if a prospective employer was especially excited about that particular aspect of your experience?)  And the loneliness that comes from being part of this process? Well, you know.

So how much are you really expected to know about your own fate, when everyone else is taken by surprise? And when do you wise up and realize that your name might also be on the list?  How about right now?  How you handle the possibility that you will have “one more package to do” might be the ultimate test of your professionalism.

Here are seven considerations to fold into the way you redesign your own career as your company sorts itself out:

Be alert.  Don’t interpret this sudden spate of busy-ness as you’re assigned to participate in developing new org charts or assembling lay-off packages as a sign that you’ve been tapped to stay.  You could have just been handed your last assignment. Do you know why the company is going through a round of layoffs?  Is it an organization-wide experience?  Or just one business unit or department – like, say, yours?  If you’re tied to a division that’s shrinking, the instant you realize it is the time to start putting out feelers throughout the expanding divisions of your company or outside the company altogether.

Be discreet. Keeping your own counsel is one of the core competencies of HR (even if it’s not an official SHRM competency, you and I both know this is true).  Blabbing is a sure-fire way to get fired, as opposed to laid off.  This is going to be a lonely time for you. And if your company is a major employer in town, you’re going to be even more isolated.  You probably can’t even talk to your spouse about the very things that will affect you both.  You’re going to need to find someone to trust, who will keep mouth shut while giving you the advice you need to move forward. Your therapist? Your minister? Priest? Rabbi? Lawyer? Choose wisely.

Be open-minded. While you’re closed-mouthed, you must be open-minded. Now is a really good time to take a 35,000 ft. view of your own career path.  If you’re seeing a growing number of empty cubicles and whole sections of your floor dimmed by shut-down lights, rise above who you are now and what your immediate task load is.  And consider:  What’s my next step in building my career over time?  This could be your perfect opportunity to build experience in another aspect of HR or your business or your industry or your community to keep your own career path moving forward.

Be flexible.  You know better than anyone else in your company does:  Just because the job is shut down, that doesn’t mean that the work just stops.  Someone has to do it. What not a consultant?  Why not you?  As a consultant, you’re less expensive to your organization than you are as an FTE.  You have all the necessary relationships in place to get the work done efficiently.  And it will keep income coming in while you look for a new position, ride out this time of contraction, or discover that you like working in your pjs anyway, so what the heck? (No hate mail from consultants please, I’m one too. It’s 4:07 am right now, and so I’m wearing pjs. Deal.)  If you can successfully propose this alternative scenario before you’re handed the tower of lay-off packages to distribute, so much the better.  You’re outtathere, with trust and relationships intact.

Be friendly. Your day is constantly fractured with calls from vendors, headhunters and wannabe candidates.  Who wouldn’t feel a little superior (or stand-offish) when their day is interrupted with contacts from people who want a piece of you and who are calling “just to touch base?”  It’s time to remember to be receptive to interruptions from the outside.  Those headhunters who threatened to poach your organization yesterday could be helpful in rescuing your own career tomorrow.  Vendors might need someone just like you and your experience (I know someone who leapt from lay-off-ville directly into a fantastic role with his main consultant, it happens).

Be kind.  If you’re knee deep in layoff packages, you’ll be tempted to shut down a piece of your humanity, just to save your sanity.  Who can blame you?  But keep all human parts open, especially your heart, even if it hurts. Let me just tell you this quick story:  A friend of mine, Susan, started a new job. Less than a month later, her new boss, Marilee, was summarily terminated. Appalled by their manager’s cold behavior, Susan chose to do the emotionally difficult thing and keep Marilee company as she packed up her office.  Susan helped her with the boxes and then stood with her in the parking lot until Marilee was composed enough to get safely behind the wheel.  Fast forward a couple of months later, Susan was also terminated.   Upshot:  Susan is working with Marilee again, because the newly employed Marilee never forgot Susan’s kindness and reached out to her the minute she heard.

Be prepared with Dream B. Yes, have your financials in order and preferably enough money socked away to see you through some months of uncertainty.  But equally important: Have some back-up dreams that excite you.  Just last week I was catching up with a wonderful, dear HR leader – one of those people you fall in love with after only 20 minutes of knowing each other.  We hadn’t spoken in at least two years (probably longer) but it didn’t matter.  He was telling me of how the HR departments of his company was shutting down one by one like organs in a dying body. So many unanswered questions about the coworkers he loves, and, to be honest, his own life. So sad to see such loss.

“So, Don,” I say, “What’s your back-up dream in case your work at this company comes to an end?”

To my astonishment, he was ready with the answer!  (Very ready with an answer, if you ask me.) The next 20 minutes were devoted to the story of a little restaurant that’s for sale in a little piece of paradise.  The weather in his spirit shifted instantly as he spins out this dream that he and his partner have obviously been incubating on the sly. And now I’m thinking, “Hmmm, I’m hearing the makings of Dream A here.”

Take heart. There is life after lay-off. Even for HR. And the time to start dreaming is now.

Question:  What's your Dream B?  We'd really like to know! Finish this sentence:  "If I were laid off tomorrow, I'd finally have the chance to  __________"

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Martha I. Finney is the author of The Truth About Getting the Best From People, and a consultant specializing in employee engagement. For a free consultation on how you can build a vacation-friendly workplace culture, email Martha at Martha@marthafinney.com.

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One Comment


  1. This article really hit home for me as an HR Professional associated with a company that is greatly affected by the current economy and downturn in the Real Estate market. Our company has gone through lay offs recently and I have also wondered about my own longevity with the company. I have also given alot of thought as to what I would do if I were laid off after 25 years with the same company. I brushed off my resume and started sending it out just to test the waters. I received alot of positive feedback and responses. This gave me a boost towards the future and change that may be coming. If I were laid off tomorrow I would finally have a chance to pursue something I had a passion for. Something I feel personally connected to, not just a job. Its been a good ride but I am ready for a change should it happen. After preparing myself I just may make it happen instead of waiting for someone else to decide my future. Thanks for the article!

    Patricia Cecchino
    Director of HR