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“You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13)

There were so many excellent responses from readers to the last issue that I decided to add a Part II to this Commandment composed of some of these reflections. The theme was ‘killing the spirit’ through termination of one’s job, especially through downsizing and layoffs.

“Over the years, as a counselor and employment assistance practitioner, I have seen first hand the carnage many people experience as a result of job loss. The best organizations are sensitive to what this means, not just to the employee but also to his or her family. Oftentimes, spouses have the feeling that they have been fired too. There is a sense of betrayal – that the years of dedication to the company has seemingly not mattered a jot. The best organizations include the following when having to let go an employee:

  • Lots of upfront discussions regarding the potential for staff reductions and the reasons why it is likely to be necessary;
  • Engage employees in the process by asking them, “if the worst were to happen and your position at the company was terminated, how would you like to be told and by whom”?
  • Be sensitive that the moment of notification is one that is often characterized by a sense of disbelief – employees may need a while for the news to sink in. Because of this, allow the employee to choose whether or not they go and say good bye to co-workers then, or offer them the opportunity to return and do so at a later date.
  • Provide on site outplacement services the day the notification is to be given;
  • Provide a reasonable amount of severance in addition to outplacement counseling;
  • If the employee is already engaged in counseling through an Employment Assistance Program, allow him or her to finish it;

Coach the employees who remain to stay in touch with co-workers whose positions have been terminated. Often we feel uneasy and don’t know what to say, which is normal. However, it is a mistake to cease relationships with people we have worked shoulder to shoulder with for, often, many years.” — Jim, Registered clinical social worker and counselor

“Downsizing and layoffs affect not only the person immediately affected but their family, the employees who remain, and the morale of the entire company. Everyone suffers…A lot of harm (and unforeseen costs) caused by these actions could be avoided, or lessened, through the active demonstration of compassion and meaningful, heart-felt, communication by those in charge. But what I think happens is that executive management members who are responsible for these actions have a strong need to separate themselves from, and feel superior to those in their charge…What may be lacking is a form of ‘shepherd leadership’ in which leaders are encouraged to relate to and actively work with those in their charge. A shepherd is responsible for tending the flock. Shepherds live side by side with the animals, weathering the same storms and sharing the same fortunes and misfortunes with them. This form of leadership needs to be taught in business schools as an integral part of the curriculum.” — Murray, Accountant

“My own experience was being fired from a finance firm by a person who was one of the most conniving, vindictive people I have ever met. What I have discovered from this is that the after-effects of such an action stay with a person for the rest of his or her life. For me, it was good to leave this ‘den of evil’ where my boss absolutely sought to kill my spirit, but I still find myself lamenting at the injustice of it all and the manner and basis for which I was let go. I have long ago forgiven my ex-boss – but not forgotten. I learned a lot from this experience in how not to treat others.” — Paul, Banker

“I have had two separate conversations occasioned by your reflections on the fifth commandment. What you wrote goes to the heart of my own disquiet with business. I went to Mass the afternoon I read this and prayed for a better society, one that does not ‘kill’ in the cavalier fashion that many people in the business world call ‘downsizing.’ The survival of a company may be an issue, but at the core is treating business as a form of stewardship where peoples’ lives are valued and respected.” – Len, Architect

“We celebrated 100 years in a family business last year and I can tell you that we would not still be in business if we had a reputation of mistreating our employees or being cold calculating dictators who demand excellence from employees without regard for their soul and well-being.

We have had to close some businesses and it has been gut-wrenching to tell an employee that we can no longer use their services, especially after long years of employment… At the church that I and my family attend we have been requested to read the book, “In His Steps,” by Charles Sheldon. In the book, Sheldon takes the reader through the transformation of a town in which the way the townsfolk think about the decisions they make is changed. For every important decision, they ask the question, “What would Jesus do in this circumstance?” Reflecting back on our company’s history, I can honestly say that our decisions to start or close a business have always been made after much deliberation and with the employees’ welfare in mind.” – Gary, Family business owner

“I think your reflections on the fifth commandment are indeed concerned with a life issue. The spiritual effects of being down-sized are serious and life-changing. Everyone who has experienced the loss of a job or a career knows how it undermines everything in their life: family, relationships, emotional and physical health…I am concerned as you are about the often injustice surrounding down-sizing and layoffs. It even happens at universities. It is a kind of reverse process of subsidiarity. (the investment of authority at the lowest possible level of an institutional hierarchy).” – Ernie, University professor of philosophy and ethics

(March/April 2010 Newsletter)

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Discernment and Leadership: A Jesuit contribution to the Church

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