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Letting GO

Letting GO

Reaction Time

Knowing how to fire correctly is important-to those who stay as well as those who go

Reactions to retrenchments and mass terminations can vary dramatically. "Only a small per cent of employees take the separation process really poorly," says John Cullity, chief general manager IT for Allianz Australia. Nevertheless, the reactions can sometimes be surprising.

When Web site and multimedia design company Spike (Australia) went bust, there was little prospect of the staff receiving any of their entitlements. Administrators Ferrier Hodgson were called in, and the options they put forward were either to close the company down immediately, or to keep it going and attempt to find a buyer. The staff agreed to try the latter, and despite a gloomy prognosis, spirits remained high, even until the final closure when all efforts to find a buyer proved in vain. Before one meeting where the administrators were to deliver their not always upbeat predictions, the staff passed the time by engaging in a Mexican wave around and around the meeting room. The administrators were surprised, to say the least.

"It certainly goes against the grain," says Graeme Campbell, a director of Ferrier Hodgson with 25 years experience in the industry. "It's not the norm to see people prepared to carry on the way they did at Spike knowing that they probably won't be paid. Normally when we come in the place is in decline, which means both the business and the staff."

When Spike finally closed the doors, the staff went off to a local pub for a wake. They have since held ex-employee reunions, which perhaps suggests that when everyone is in the same boat, spirits tend to be higher.

In most cases, however, retrenchments and terminations affect only a proportion of the staff, and rather than an all-in-together attitude, you instantly create distinctions and division.

Classic depictions of individual reaction to termination describe a "grief curve" comprising three stages: an "ending" (including shock, denial, fear, grief and stress), a "neutral zone" (including ambiguity, mixed signals, discomfort and mixed motivation) and, hopefully, a "new beginning" (including control, risk taking, acting, planning and finding purpose). Robert Walters' Burnicle says this depiction is particularly true for men, who are generally less inclined to discuss what they are feeling. They paint themselves into an emotional corner by putting the best face on what in reality may be a bad situation.

But not all reactions follow the classic grief curve. There's the normally placid person who suddenly becomes violent, the potential suicide and what Burnicle refers to as "the deer in the headlights" reaction - someone who is so unprepared and surprised that they just literally sit there staring in a daze. "You're not even sure if they've heard what you've said. You have to say it again to make sure they understand," Burnicle says.

While some disgruntled employees may take revenge through acts of sabotage, the more common experience is dealing with the feeling of abandonment most people feel upon being sacked, and their reactions can be very upsetting. Burnicle recalls having to spend several hours, in his role as outplacement consultant, with one of his clients' employees until the person felt composed enough to face colleagues out in the office. With others he has had to do follow-up phone calls in the evening when they got home and again the following morning. "Some people have a lot of other problems in their lives that you don't know about, and being retrenched is just the final straw," he says. "It might be a low probability, but suicide attempts by some people must be a consideration."

A few with tougher hides see a silver lining in the dark cloud of retrenchment and even black humour. Burnicle cites one fellow who had undergone a number of retrenchments. According to Burnicle, he was so inured to the process that he had had plaques placed around his property, such as "The Company X Swimming Pool" and "The Company Y Extension", declaring for all to see his gratefulness for the payouts received. "It's all about re-establishing self-confidence," Burnicle says.

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More about ACTAllianz Australia InsuranceBaker and McKenzieBaker and McKenzieBossColonial First StateCVSDrakeDrake Beam MorinFerrier HodgsonFirst StateHagemeyer AustraliaHISIndustrial Relations CommissionQueensland University of TechnologyQueensland University of TechnologyVIAVigilance

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