This past week my cousin was laid-off by a well-known ministry where she had served for 32 years. She was one of 31 individuals who lost their job in an afternoon purge. One of these staff members had worked for the ministry 38 years.
To function, survive, and thrive corporations and organizations must make periodic financial adjustments. When revenues are significantly down it’s almost impossible to make such financial adjustments without laying-off personnel, particularly since personnel costs generally represent about two-thirds of an organization’s budget.
So the issue is not that corporations and organizations are doing something morally suspect when they lay-off staff, it’s more about how they go about laying-off staff.
During my 20 plus years of administrative experience in Christian higher education I had to make lay-off decisions. Professionally speaking, this experience was without question the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. The university where I served as president went through a period of financial realignment in which we had to lay-off several staff members, friends and long-time associates. While I wouldn’t suggest our process couldn’t have been improved, I would say we worked hard to inform, walk carefully through a planned process, treat people with respect, and do what had to be done with as much concern for all involved as possible.
What my cousin experienced, however, defies explanation. The ministry did not give people any forewarning, told employees they had to clear out their desks and be gone by day’s end, including three-decade staff like my cousin. The ministry gave these people, again including longtime staff, no financial considerations, no extension of benefits, and in general no assistance. Basically, the ministry threw a good portion of its staff members into the street.
My guess is someone read a manual on how corporations lay-off employees and decided it had to be done in a sort of Friday Afternoon Massacre. Apparently, at least the ministry leadership thought it had to be done this way. But it doesn’t.
Years ago, one of our friends, a pastor, was surprised by his deacon board with the precipitous news his services were no longer required. The deacons informed this young pastor, a father of three, that he and his family would have to vacate the parsonage by the end of the month. Like the ministry I mentioned above, after that month this church provided no financial consideration for the pastor's family. In other words, they threw a family of five into the streets. In my estimation what these deacons did was immoral. The later chapter of this story is that God took care of this family. Our friend and his wife were approached by a few families and asked to start a church, which they did, and that church today runs more than 800 people on Sunday mornings. The church that tossed them aside languishes with four or five families.
Again, the issue is not that organizations are wrong to lay-off personnel. This will happen in the life of virtually any and all organizations. The issue is how it is done.
There is no pleasant or easy way to inform someone he or she has lost a job, and there is certainly no pleasant or easy way to hear this news. But the process can be constructed in a manner that treats people, understandably upset, with dignity. This requires as much lead-time as possible, information, explanation, clear statement of financial and benefit considerations, and outplacement assistance as desired.
What incenses me about my friend’s church long ago and about the ministry for which my cousin worked is that they evidenced little or no care for their people’s transition. They sent them away with nothing, so these organizations not only created short-term financial hurt but likely, with at least a few, long-term bitterness.
Leadership is another form of stewardship and in my estimation these Christian organizations did not act “Christianly,” nor did they demonstrate good stewardship of their people, their reputation, or their mission. In this approach everyone loses.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011
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