Conducting a RIF? Use diplomatic language

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in Firing,Human Resources

In these difficult economic times, many organizations—including some that have never had to do so before—are conducting reductions in force.

If this is your first RIF, think carefully about how you select those who will be terminated, especially if you anticipate bringing some workers back when the financial picture improves.

For example, don’t tell employees they were picked for layoffs because their work was substandard. Use a gentler approach.

You can rank employees based on how much work they do, how they get along with others and other characteristics. That still produces a list that ranks employees from stellar performer to worst, but no one has to say the obvious. That approach served an employer well in one recent case.

Recent case: Amy Silverman worked as a special-education teacher for the Chicago Public Schools. Shortly after announcing she was pregnant, she was told she would be laid off in a RIF. The city said it had lost funding for several special-education teachers and picked Silverman because other teachers got along better with co-workers and handed in good lesson plans. Silverman was allegedly weak in those areas.

Later, more funding came through and Silverman was offered a different position. She couldn’t adjust to the new job and was terminated again.

She sued, alleging she had lost the job she had previously done well because of her pregnancy announcement. She went so far as to argue that since she was rehired, she could not have been a substandard employee in the first place.

The court dismissed her case. It explained that no one had called her a bad employee—the city had simply said she was the lowest-ranked special-education teacher. (Silverman v. Board of Education of Chicago, No. 08-C-2220, ND IL, 2010)

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