Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Children Are Watching

Looking back on my own career of 30 some-odd years, I would say that the single most important event in my professional life didn’t even happen to me. It happened to my dad. He got laid off just five months before I graduated from college.

I’ve mentioned him before in this column, but in case you’re new here, let me give you a little detail. Well, as much detail as I know myself, which isn’t much. See, he was a covert case officer for the CIA. In street lingo, that means he was a spy. But technically speaking he wasn’t. His job was to recruit spies. We were stationed in places, oh, like Miami, Berlin, Mexico City, Madrid, Munich, Vienna, and, of course, he was in Saigon for a while where he wore a flak jacket over his nerdy 1968 business suit. Students of the Cold War would see this list of cities and go, “check, check, check.” And then rightly conclude: “Wasn’t home much, was he?” Nope. He went on a lot of “business trips.”

Anyway, I’m telling you all this not to brag (well, maybe just a little bit) but to set the stage for why I’m so passionate about the topic of children and work. I learned two things by watching my father through the years. It’s completely unacceptable to do anything you’re not totally passionate about. And, then finally, there is no security in job security. I think the only reason why I’ve never been laid off myself is because I laid my own self off the moment I heard that my dad lost his job – via a callous pink slip that was handed to him while he was on assignment in Mexico City, right in front of a classroom full of baby spies he was teaching that day.

Children of divorced parents, who then see their standard of living plummet when the parents split, learn very early that poverty is just one decision away. And children of laid-off parents learn the same thing. No matter how passionate, brilliant and dedicated you are to your profession, unemployment is one decision away.

And just as children of divorced parents grow up reluctant to throw heart, body and soul into an intimate, romantic relationship, children of laid-off parents get very early that you can’t really trust what your employer says about job security.

In my heart of hearts, I’ve always been “self-employed” because of that hard understanding that there’s no such thing as job security. And while this might be a moderately healthy attitude for an individual to take, it’s really too bad for employers who might have benefited from my talents, skills and dedication to their organization’s mission.

During this time of laying people off, we’re almost in an anorexic thrall. The compulsion to trim and slim seems to have taken on a life of its own – or at least a momentum that is going to be extremely hard to stop. But it will stop one of these days, and you’re going to need to start hiring again.

Where will you get your talent? If this current economic situation lasts as long as the doomsayers predict, you may be drawing your most new hires from the generation that is today’s kids – those kids who are right at this very moment finding out that mom and/or dad are suddenly – and through no fault of their own – without a job.

Assuming you’re still in HR when that time comes, you may look back on this time and think, “Oo, maybe we should have given more thought to the kids.” Remember, it was only 10 months ago or so when we were obsessing about the impending hiring crisis as Baby Boomers retire and their replacements fall short of both numbers and knowledge. That crisis is still coming toward us (even though maybe some of the Baby Boomers won’t be retiring quite so soon).

So how can HR keep the faith with future generations of workers when so many companies (not yours certainly) are breaking faith with their current employees? Here are some ideas, and I sure would welcome more as they occur to you:

Assume the leadership that is rightfully HR’s to govern the lay-off process in your organization. Make your process absolutely top-notch, humane and as generous as you can and drive it from the top. Don’t passively allow individual departments, divisions, businesses, leaders decide who they’ll run it as independent fiefdoms. That’s when stupid management tricks begin to take over.

Make humane the guiding principle of all your lay-off procedures and practices. Tell people what to expect as soon as you know. Maybe some essential talent will ditch the ship before you want them to, but you’re also going to see that the bulk of your people will stick around and help you turn off the lights – if that is indeed your new mission.

Give your people every reason to go home and say good things about your company. Offer them lavish advance notice that their jobs will be eliminated; give them the flexibility they need to search for new jobs while on their current job; pay for training that they need; offer them developmental assignments that will give them essential experience that they can talk about in upcoming interviews. If you have to furlough them only temporarily and you really want them to still be available to you, pay them a reduced salary if they dedicate their free time to community volunteer work. If you have to lay them off completely, remember that you still need to get their work done. So implement new contract-worker programs to keep them onboard as freelancers.

Make sure that coaches and child/family therapists are available to your employees as a resource. Your people may be so thrown by the shock of losing their jobs that they don’t realize how what they say at home will affect the motivation and dreams their children will have about the future. Families in the throes of this stress, shock and even despair shouldn’t be surprised to see school performance suffer and grades plummet during this time. No parent wants to see their children fail, either now in school or later in life. So this is a crucial time in their own children’s development. Help them out with this.

There are all sorts of basic, human decency reasons why employers should support the entire family through a lay-off crisis. But this is business, right? So here’s the business reason to remember that children are watching: One of these days you’re going to want to turn the lights back on again. There’s a whole generation out there who you’re going to count on to throw the switch. Whether they will or won’t tomorrow depends completely on how you treat their parents today.

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