I have just laid off four people.
That makes 14 from a staff of 19 in a little over a year. It doesn't feel any better to blame it on Reaganomics or other forces beyond my control. I have made the decisions and I have signed the papers.
At first, cutbacks were eased by attrition or finessed with encouraged retirements and self-liquidating contracts. Then things started to get more desperate. The issues had to be faced squarely of whom we wanted to save and how to justify it. One person is involved in a project that is timely and crucial; another is such a competent and reliable worker. One depends on the job heavily for physical and mental survival; another has produced and endured over the years. One has put out effort and grown in the job; another relates well to others and to the community.
If the decision is agonizing, explaining it is torture. I debate whether to tell first thing in the morning and get it over with, or just before closing so I can quickly escape their presence. It is hard to look them fully in the eyes. I reach for words. There are long gaps of silence. I struggle to avoid the basic question: why is it him or her and not someone else. I find myself always suggesting that the layoff may be temporary and mentioning possibilities that may turn things around. They come out sounding more convincing that they should.
After laying off nine of the 14, I encountered the idea of "anaclitic depression" in one of Dr. Jerry Harvey's management courses at GW. It is a theory that layoffs should be avoided at any cost because they create separation anxiety and continuous depression, not only in those who leave, but also in those who stay, resulting in a demoralized and non- productive work force.
I objected. It isn't realistic, especially for my organization, a small Community Action agency. There is simply no money to pay them. We're not General Motors with millions of dollars of reserves. He smiled and said, "Alright, food is getting short on the life-boat. Go ahead and throw them off. They won't survive, but neither will your organization."
The seed fell on fertile ground. It was what I wanted to hear. Instead of laying people off, we would all go on furlough. The staff responded enthusiastically. By planning our time off carefully, we could even draw unemployment and minimize our losses. It was like discovering a new funding source to hold us together.
The furlough idea was not so easy to sell to the agency director. To counter Harvey's life- boat symbol, he used the Olympics. When you compete for the gold medal, you go with your best. And this is not just a contest of sport, but a struggle for survival of a movement.
In spite of his misgivings he let me try it, if for no other reason, to salve my own anaclitic depression. We compromised, though, by agreeing that some would have more furlough than others: 20 percent, 40 percent, and 80 percent.
Morale was high. Some staff voluntarily worked on their days off. The unemployment system worked and and everyone was hanging in and making it.
By the end of March, though, unexpected expenses had put the budget in the red again. I explained the worsening situation at a staff meeting. Everyone offered to accept additional cuts. I worked on a revised budget, but this time the lifeboat mentality prevailed. I was trying to protect the "essential" people. They, including myself, would be on furlough 25 percent of the time. The others ended up with only one day of work per week.
It was no easier to tell people they were on one day a week than to tell them they were laid off. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the substance of togetherness had been broken. I was now playing games with people's lives. I would "bite the bullet" and lay them off.
"Bite the bullet" -- I recalled that Harvey had unmasked the self-serving use of that expression. It originally applied to people who were wounded and were given a lead ball to clench between their teeth so they could bear the pain. Its use here is to create sympathy for the person who inflicts the pain.
Well, it is done now. When I think of the 14 team members I have divorced, I think of people who were loyal and dedicated, who want to work and be productive, who are perhaps short on credentials but long on commitment, of people who need jobs to survive. Their spirit may be best symbolized by one who began her termination interview by saying: "I have tried to think of something to say to make this esier for you."
Although some have retired, I know of only one of the 14 who has found full-time work.
If justice is giving to each person what is his or her due, our society cries out for justice. There has to be a better way. I read recently that statistics are people without tears. Well, the tears are out here, and some of them are mine.