Thursday, November 06, 2008

Annals of H.R.: How not to execute a big layoff

[Corporate: Gannett, USA Today headquarters, McLean, Va.]

When Gannett announced its big August layoff of 600 newspaper workers, some employees accused management of taking too long -- a full week -- to notify those getting axed. "The decision to announce the layoffs last week, and then drop the hammer this week, borders on inhumane,'" one employee said at the time. "It's definitely cruel and unusual."

Fast forward to today, and Corporate's doing it again. Only, this time it's taking even longer to decide which employees to let go -- five full weeks. That's five weeks of 30,000 newspaper division workers worrying they may be jobless in one of the worst economies in years. Productivity take a hit? Count on that.

I described all this to a friend -- I'll call him Steve -- who joined us for dinner tonight. Steve's worked in senior human resource management with big companies for probably 20 years. He's been through downsizings involving thousands of workers. He was surprised, and not uncritical of Gannett's approach.

First, he would never announce the layoff until management already had a list of targeted employees in hand. In other words, the layoff is announced and completed all in one day. Now, can someone tell me why Gannett isn't doing that?

How are you preparing for the 10% cut? Post replies in the comments section, below. E-mail gannettblog[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.

[Photo: Kohn Pedersen Fox]


  1. Why aren't we doing the layoff the same day it was announced?

    Maybe somebody in the Crystal Palace read the comments here six months ago about how inhumane it was to give people no notice that layoffs were coming so that they couldn't prepare at all.

    Look how we all fed the rumor mill here, trying to find where the cuts would be, how deep, who goes. Actually, comments here were more (unintentionally) inhumane in that the possibilities were so vague. At least corporate gave us a number and criteria for which jobs were going.

    Last year I had to eliminate a job in December. The person had to return all the Christmas gifts shortly before the holiday, and they had to deal with the surprise and sorrow of a job loss right at the holidays.

    I might be in this group of laid off. I'm glad that I was able to explain to my kids that we have to hold our breath for a few weeks, and tighten belts even further.

    If I am let go, I've not made any purchases I regret. I'm mentally prepared for it.

    I respect your friend Steve's opinion, and what has happened to productivity bears out what he says. But at the pointy end of the stick, I'm glad we got a warning.

  2. Steve is right, it spreads chaos. It may be cold but you have to just do it all in one day. To me it seems like we have been in one constant layoff for the last year. Lets just get it done, then if I am still here I can get back to work and if I am not I can just go find work. How does knowing 5 weeks in advance help me? I am in limbo. I may be here I may not. Who knows?

  3. C'mon journalists...[i]follow the money,[/i] remember?

    Perhaps because Gannett figured (and this has worked, apparently) that the news of impending cuts would pick share prices up off the bottom of the bottom.

    Layoff "news" isn't for the sheeple who work at the company - it's for Wall Street.

  4. The answer to your question Jim is YOU.

    That used to be the way it was. Then this blog came along (and I'm not saying that's bad) and folks starting leaking when layoffs were coming. Because the policy was to not announce anything until the day of the layoff nothing could be commented on or countered.

    Now the situation is that as soon as Gannett is sure about layoffs they announce it so that they can try to exert some control over the message.

    With this round, the publishers are telling the aboslute truth. We know most of what they know: that they have been told to cut 10% of their payroll. The mechanics of actually doing that you can't just shoot from the hip going "iny meeny miny mo out goes Y O U." You have to first make your choices on who to cut with an eye towards least operational impact and THEN you have to get the entire list approved.

    Now folks, you can't have it both ways. What's your vote on the way to do things? Or is there a third way? And if there is, pipe up or shut up. Jim why don't you pop up a survey?

  5. Was "Steve" able to fully grasp the concept that there's actually this huge corporation that planned a "transformation" a couple of years ago, but has neither shared that plan nor the specific staffing patterns that will support the goal?

  6. It's because of this blog, silly!

    They can't keep it secret anymore. We knew the August layoffs were gonig to happen. We knew the executive layoffs in September were going to happen. The December layoffs were rumored as soon as August's were done. Apparently you have some pretty high-ranking people feeding you plans.

    So Gannett is learning to be a bit more transparent, which is great.

    In August, they gave us 5 days, which was enough time to torture us, but not enough time for us to prepare.

    This time, I'm armed with a 5 week cushion. So I'm not starting my Christmas shopping until I know if I have a job after 12/3. We reworked a plan to travel to see family over the holidays, because we don't know if I'll be working.

    I think Steve's method falls between the torture of August and the preparedness of December.

    In light of the excellent job news, production, and advertising did in NJ with the World Series and Election coverage back to back, I'd also say we're working harder than ever.

    And I am not Tara.

  7. It's miserable, morale-busting and plain silly to have employees come to work for weeks waiting to find out if they will have a job at Christmasime. How cruel is that? But I also understand this 10 percent cut involves more than employees, as newspapers are being downsized and have to be redesigned and sections realigned. What is the tragedy is that if what I am hearing from advertising is correct, this will not be sufficient and there will be much more in the next year. We are losing major advertisers. Tweeter just shut down, and Circuit City is slimming down. Both are dumping their products on the market at fire sale prices, meaning business for healthier companies like Best Buy is drying up.
    Count the ads in Monday's paper if you want to see the new reality.

  8. Jim why is it OK for this blog to speculate and leak information about layoffs but not for the company to give employees advance notice of the layoffs? Each is hard on the employees. I think the company is being honest and up front and that is all anyone can ask.

  9. Gannett’s HR management system, in a word sucks. It’s disjointed and in many cases, the on-site management doesn’t have the expertise that a company of this scale should have.

    The function should have been at least consolidated under regional president’s years ago as it would have improved services and it would have gone a long way in controlling more than a few of Gannett’s “finer” senior managers.

    The HR VP at a former site, while nice, frankly lacked the broad expertise needed for a site that scale. Advice given on salary administration, layoffs and buyouts at OC meetings and elsewhere, often hurt more than helped. At one-time, we had a few layoffs planned during the year and instead of consolidating them to one event, they stayed spread out – great move for employee morale as they were always expecting the next one. And, to make this person’s credibility even more questionable, they in no way would address the very public abuses of staff by the publisher. Of course, others felt it was okay to behave the same as a result.

    Again, this company can afford to do far better.

  10. Here's another thought: Let out the news of a layoff six weeks early and hope that people will find another job before severance has to be paid.

  11. I agree with many of you -

    Folks bitch when it's kept secret and done in a day,

    Folks bitch when it's announced ahead of time so folks can prepare.

    Here's how I think GCI should do it:

    They should invent a magical machine that will let folks who want to know ahead of time automatically get that information and folks that don't will be blissfully ignorant. The machine will also prevent cancer, wash my car, and give Jim an income so that he can continue this blog.

    until that happens, SHUT UP already. Nothing any large company management does will please everyone.

    Grow up already and stop acting like little kids who want their oompa loompas NOW, Daddy!

    Disclaimer: I'm a former employee who was never in management.

  12. Some properties don't even have an HR director. I guess some stranger from "regional" will come in and do the dirty work. How nice.

  13. (T)here's actually this huge corporation that planned a "transformation" a couple of years ago, but has neither shared that plan nor the specific staffing patterns that will support the goal?

    YES! Can someone share the plan with me?

  14. 8:51 J.C. Penney says sales off 13 percent, and still declining.

  15. 9:15

    The problem is, people don't look for jobs when they get a several week notice. They are in shock at the possibility they might be unemployed in todays market. Half of them have not written a resume in 15 years and the other half will have to be retrained to get a job. By the time this dust settles it will be the first week in December when the hatchet falls.

    The few that are looking for jobs incase they are picked are finding that relocation is the only way to find new employment, but many families can't afford to do that.

  16. Boscov's, a big New Jersey advertiser, already in Chapter 11 and probably also heading to be shut down. That would be a HUGE hit for New Jersey papers since they used to take out many full page display ads

  17. 9:28 -

    So you are in the group that feels everything should be done in one day.


    I'm not on either side - I'm simply tired of folks bitching no matter what the company does.

    GCI is evil because they pre-annouce

    GCI is evil because they don't pre-annouce

    As to your specific comment about folks not looking for jobs or updating their resume.

    1) after all the rounds of layoffs, no one should be in shock that their job might be eliminated

    2) if folks aren't working on their resume, they are just sticking their heads in the sand.

    None of this should be a surprise anymore. People need to stop acting like it is.

  18. With the last round of layoffs, my workload increased so much that I find it extremely difficult to search and apply for jobs when I'm at work. I mean, what the hell? It's just un-American to have no time to job hunt on the job. This company sucks.

  19. I'm doing about 5-7 times more work than I was dong 4 years ago, and my paycheck only goes about 80% as far. If I get laid off, I feel sorry for those left that will have to do what I was doing. They'll be crushed, because the needle is already on red now.

    Oh well, I guess I'll sit at home, watch soap operas and wait for my guv'ment check that Obama will re-distribute to me!

  20. It's true that productivity declines when notice is given, but there is a plus to knowing in advance.

    If you're a journalist or artist, you can use this time to gather clips and be more vigilant in preparing your portfolio.

    Sadly, the company has created an Us Vs. Them mentality, but it has actually done the right thing in this case. It must be emotionally draining, but you can figure out a way to use the advance knowledge to your advantage.

  21. There is no good way to get rid of people. The least evil ways are a matter of opinion. In an ideal world, employees would know everything that top management knows. It would be a partnership, truthful, honest and open. In a perfect world, those who lost their jobs would be the people who are least qualified and lacking in work ethics.

    However, this is America, and corporate transparency isn't ever going to happen until CEOs start going to jail for their crimes and abuses. And some lower level managers simply need to be thrown the hell out onto the streets for blatant incompetency and chonic white lies. Then maybe there will be some trust restored and workers will truly feel some ownership in their jobs. And when layoffs do occur, there wouldn't be the suspicion and sense of betrayal that currently poisons Gannett properties. Morale wouldn't take such a hit if the person let go was a totally ineffective loafer who abused every benefit from sick days to lunch breaks.

    It's not just a matter of timing, it's an issue involving total trust that can make or break a company during bad times. Layoffs can actually pull people together, or it can tear them apart. From what I see at USA Today and my proximity to corporate, Gannett is groping in the dark for effective damage control methods and failing much the way McCain's campaigned got stuck in old mindsets that led to disjointed messages.

    So CD takes a $200K voluntary pay cut, and we're all suppose to feel energized? The fact that he can take that kind of hit proves how out of line pay and perks are at the top. It's a drop in the bucket. Does nothing for my morale. Does nothing for preventing further layoffs either. And I guarantee you that CD will make up the money in some other way, through bonuses or a new company Mercedes or something. There are few leaders left who REALLY will take a hit for the good of the troops.

    The layoffs will continue because in corporate America, layoffs are a simple solution to a complex problem. They could be avoided if there was smarter and more prudent hiring, if expenses were controlled (have you seen the Crystal Palace?) and there was true and inspirational leadership at all levels, from the CEO to the mid-managers. The way most people get moved into leadership positions is so faulty that we now have an army of unqualified managers all over Gannett. Then all these managers have to go off to management training to acquire some of the skills they should have naturally possessed to begin with. Corporate America seems to think it can create leaders. In my opinion, you are either a leader or you aren't. It's not a book-learned skill. And Gannett has too many who aren't, who don't have control of their own departments. This, more than anything, has led to the demise of Gannett and to the layoffs. This is what we should be talking about.

    It makes little sense to me to labor over when layoffs should be announced or how they should be implemented. Solve the root of the problem and we won't have to debate this.

    But what really irks me is when a top editor proclaims his blind optimism about there not being any cutbacks on the horizon, and therefore implies that the rest of us shouldn't worry, when in fact there are enough red flags to justify that anxiety. I feel that the editor's optimism is false and makes me wonder whether he's just trying to get some more work out of us before the cutbacks are announced. His optimism has an air of manipulation which in turn leads to some people feeling used. Manipuation is another common toxin within Gannett, and hopefully one day it will stop and we'll be treated more professionally.

    Sorry for the rambling post. Guess I had a bunch of things on my mind and see the current layoff debate as a symptom more than a cause.

  22. They shoot horses, don't they?

  23. Our EE stood in the newsroom during the cutbacks 3 months ago or so and proudly proclaimed that we would be fine for the next year or two.
    Seems to me he should be first to go, for deceiving us all. With the upcoming round, he will lose what little credibility he has left, or so my colleagues are saying.

  24. Your EE is just dumb, not deceptive. For two years we've been telling folks that based upon how the economy does, we may or may not require further cuts down the line.

    Anybody who's been in the business knows while this is cyclical, this is also the worst it's been in a long time. To make such an announcement is asking to be proven wrong, though the EE may have thought his department was safe. After all, we were told last time to protect content and revenue areas. Not so this time.

  25. I don't understand something. The grumblings after the very FIRST round of layoffs was that they didn't give any notice and were cruel. Now when they've given us notice they're cruel. I would rather know that something truly is on its way and that I need to get things in order.

    Perhaps what you want them to do is say You will be laid off, but we'll do it at the first of the year. Yeah right! Would you really care about how good a job you do? I don't think so.

  26. Rather than remain totally at the mercy of a corporation that could fire you any day, you should take the initial step of declaring free agency. Start looking at other jobs, whatever they might be, and get other employers interested in you. This is what people at the management level do, only they're sometimes lucky enough to have a headhunter do the matchmaking for them. You are not bound to work for Gannett and you are free to cut the best deal possible elsewhere. You will receive severance from Gannett and will be able to roll your pension and 401k penalty-free into an IRA of your choice. Best of all, you will likely be joining an organization that is growing, optimistic and appreciative of your talents, while leaving a company that is declining, depressing and devoid of managerial competence.

  27. I lost a job in a round of cutbacks a few years back, but I couldn't complain about how the company handled it. First they told us, a couple of months ahead of time, that there would be cutbacks. Then they outlined buyouts that were available. Then we were told that displaced employees would get first shot at any transfer opportunities that came up. Last, we were told what the criteria were for who was getting cut. This way, we all knew exactly where we stood, and if anyone wanted out they had the chance. Being lowest on the ladder since I was newest, I ended up getting cut, but I knew well ahead of time and had ample time to find other work. As unhappy as I was about losing my job, I can't say the company wasn't fair about it. That's a good way to handle impending layoffs.

  28. Jim, you are right that productivity will take a hit. Who can work when they feel like puking? As for the person who champions "free agency," in this job market you will have to be both lucky and good to get a decent job that actually offers benefits and an acceptable atmosphere. I think it's ludicrous to spin sweeping layoffs like these as anything but a tragedy for those affected.

  29. I am/have been preparing for Lay-Offs and a brutal -1930s-like economy for more than a year.

    I am selling my home in the northeast & moving to a foreclosure/distressed rural property in the southeast. I've saved as much as I can and I've s-like Options that have increased over 300% in value during the last 3 months.

    I am reconfiguring my family's financial structure to survive a LONG PERIOD (2-to-4 years) of Under/Unemployemnt - essentially I am putting myself into an short-term Economic-Financial Coma which will enable me to ultimately thrive in the future.

    I wish all of you and your families Good Luck

  30. 12:11--He's probably not dumb. He's probably like most GCI managers. You're confusing ego and arrogance with ignorance.
    Look at the Lehman guy, Fuld. He's not dumb, but his company still ended up in BK.

  31. 12:17 p.m.

    A year ago, or even 9 mos. ago, I would have agreed with you completely. But in this economy, losing a job with benefits is a tragedy. That might change again in a year (please...) but for now, getting cast out into the job market is very frightening.

  32. It's also angering ... I'm waiting for Gannett to get some guts and do the right thing. Oh, that's right. Gannett Corporate doesn't have the guts of a sand flea. Oh, they talk a great story. Can't wait for the next webinar about all the new things we should be doing in our papers and on our web sites, without enough people to do what we're trying to do now.

    The financial coma idea is good. Unfortunately, I have a wife and kids, and I don't think they should have to go into a coma along with me.

  33. This is a way for Corporate to avoid paying unemployment - get everyone in a panic, people scurry for new jobs, less unemployment to pay out.

    The most recent trick is the new "voluntary" lay-off form going around - AKA signers forfeit their right to unemployment.

    It's a very dirty way of doing things.

    Heard second-hand, Human Resources isn't admitting that this "voluntary" lay-off will affect unemployment payments - but once a name is signed to paper, that sure seems like "quitting" to me. And I imagine whatever state/fed workers who file unemployment claims will feel exactly the same way.

  34. The next round of "lay-offs" (read....firings) is scheduled for the first week in December. Just in time for the holidays. It's a shame that the "lay-offs" don't reach high enough to capture the real reasons Gannett is sinking into the toilet.

  35. 6 weeks is an excruciatingly long time to wait to hear about the fate of your job. 1 day is cruel and unusual. i personally think it should be handled in a week. announce on monday, lay off on friday.

  36. Good point about the unemployment benefits. Everyone -- DON'T VOLUNTEER!!

    Someone said it's too bad the layoffs don't go high enough in the company. For sure. Starting with Craig Dubois. He's taking a voluntary pay cut of 17%, and that's $200K. So that means before the cut, he was making what, $1.1 million? That was such a weird, self-congratulating email. But what would you expect from a TV guy. Spare us, puhhhlease.

    I would like to know when the publishers are going to step up as a group and give the middle finger to corporate. Publishers have always had great power in this industry, but they've been neutered. They've become the enablers of the corporate greedheads.

    Why don't the stockholders in this company (us) rise up and demand change?


Jim says: "Proceed with caution; this is a free-for-all comment zone. I try to correct or clarify incorrect information. But I can't catch everything. Please keep your posts focused on Gannett and media-related subjects. Note that I occasionally review comments in advance, to reject inappropriate ones. And I ignore hostile posters, and recommend you do, too."

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