Ms. Prim, head of Prim’s School for HR Professionals, walked around the classroom in measured steps, her wooden pointer clicking against the wooden floor just as loudly as her severe shoes. Smiling was not permitted in her classroom, but she did smile inwardly at her current class. With one exception, this group of aspiring HR professionals had acquitted themselves well in their studies. They would soon be ready to enter their respective Human Resources departments secure in the knowledge that they were to do everything to protect the company and very little to serve the employees of those companies.
She knew the latest lesson would be one of the most difficult. Layoffs. Prim thought of this with a scowl on her face. She didn’t like the subject because it dealt with…ugh…emotions. Prim firmly believed that emotions had no place within an HR organization. Her graduates were there to do the HR functions swiftly and efficiently. Having empathy for a candidate or employee was something no HR professional should demonstrate. They were there to ‘administer’ the agenda of the company forward, nothing else.
This was the message she conveyed to her class. A good HR professional talked about when the employee would be separated from the company, what severance benefits would be given to the employee, what the employee was expected to do in return for those benefits, that all equipment needed to be returned or there would be penalties, and a warning to the employee that they should read the concise 37 page separation agreement and come back with any pertinent questions. All should be talked about in as monotone a voice as possible. If the employee started crying or falling apart, the HR representative should pause in a judgmental silence and wait for the employee to compose themselves, and then proceed as if the unseemly incident did not happen.
A student raised his hand. Prim let out a little sigh. It was Jenkins. He was her problem student, always asking about the ‘human’ side of Human Resources, about getting to know employees, and treating them with empathy and understanding. He was true to form today.
“Ms. Prim, why shouldn’t we at least say we are sorry to hear that the employee was laid off? After all, they are losing their income, their livelihood, and possibly being disassociated from many of the friends they made in the workplace. Why can’t we acknowledge that and express some sympathy?”
With an audible eye roll, Prim removed her Pince Nez glasses and massaged the bridge of her nose. With a barely concealed annoyance, she addressed the question. “Mr. Jenkins, we as HR professionals are here for the benefit of…class?” The class dutifully responded, “The company.” Prim continued. “When they conduct layoffs it is to protect shareholder value and to ensure they keep their executives happy with bonuses so they do not leave the company. Besides, if the employee were worth keeping, the company would do so, wouldn’t it?”
Jenkins made a motion to interject, but Prim rolled over him. Tapping her pointer to emphasize her point, she said, “If the employee cannot have the decorum to sit and be laid off without any undue emotion, it is not our issue. We have a duty to fulfill, and it should be done efficiently and expeditiously. Otherwise, we might find ourselves laid off as not adding value to the organization.” Her withering look towards Jenkins informed him the subject was closed.
Prim looked at the clock in the room and made a motion to dismiss the class. “Tomorrow class, we will discuss discouraging employees from seeking a promotion. Read chapters 17 and 18 and be prepared to discuss how we can facilitate this discouragement.”
The class filed out and Prim sat at her desk. She pulled out a small hot water heater and treated herself to a cup of tea. She worried about Jenkins. HR professionals who cared about people being laid off. What was next? Counseling? Coaching? He would not go far, Prim predicted. Not with those silly emotions spilling out everywhere.
An employee being laid off is suddenly faced with the loss of income, livelihood, and the possibility of financial ruin. At least, that is what is going through their mind. While the HR person does not have to go out for a beer with the person, he or she can show some sympathy and kindness. Even an, “I’m sorry this has happened to you” would help ease the burden a bit. Yes, it may be the professional’s 10th conversation of the day laying off someone, but they owe it to each and every person to be empathetic.
The HR professional must never forget they are also there for the employee. Otherwise, they wind up like Ms. Prim, or risk being outsourced themselves. After all, if all the company wants is efficiency, what stops them from outsourcing HR functions to a vendor? And if that happens, will you as an HR professional want someone reading from a script or someone who acts brazenly human?
Acting brazenly human. What a concept!