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Fri 1 Feb 2019 01:49 AM

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Opinion: You're fired (but don't take it too personally)

Burning bridges with former employees could lead to companies getting burnt

Opinion: You're fired (but don't take it too personally)
Up in the Air the 2009 film addresses the business of layoffs

“How much did they first pay you to give up on your dreams?” The famous scene from 2009 American comedy drama film Up in the Air sees corporate downsizer Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) convince an employee that getting fired could be the best thing that ever happened to him. He persuades him that losing a $90,000 annual salary only to receive $250 a week in unemployment somehow works in his favour.

“I see guys who work at the same company for their entire lives; guys exactly like you. They clock in, they clock out and they never have a moment of happiness. You have an opportunity. This is a rebirth. If not for you, do it for your children,” he tells the employee, who is seemingly convinced that he can pursue a cooking career in his fifties.

In reality, it’s unlikely that a middle-aged corporate executive with little experience in F&B would succeed in making a drastic career switch while still being able to afford his mortgage and in the film’s case, his daughter’s asthma medication.

But as Clooney himself states, “What we do here is brutal and it does leave people devastated, but there is a dignity to the way I do it.”

Clooney’s opinion is shared by real life character Shirin Patwa, who has personally delivered the bad news to around 200 people in her more than 14 year career. She now heads a Dubai SME in the business of making layoffs humane. SikkaLuna helps companies deal with the complex process of restructuring by executing outplacement plans, including preparing the Ryan Binghams of the world (those tasked with delivering termination news) for the difficult conversations, as well as providing coaching, emotional support and placement assistance to exiting employees.

SikkaLuna has seen significant growth over the past 12 months amid challenging economic conditions and a tsunami of job cuts. Last year, Emirates NBD Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) showed the UAE’s non-oil private sector firms continued to reduce their workforce in September. In December the same year, Arabian Business reported that Standard Chartered is cutting jobs in Dubai as it looks to curb expenses, with as many as 100 job losses expected. A month later, UAE carrier Etihad Airways revealed plans to cut 50 pilot posts as it seeks to slim down operations amid mounting losses, while the recently approved $115bn, three-way bank merger between Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, Union National Bank and privately-held Al Hilal Bank is expected to result in a thousand jobs being cut, according to Bloomberg.

It’s fair to say that SikkaLuna is in demand. But should businesses care about making layoffs humane? The answer is yes, and here’s why: for the sake of making a point, let’s think of layoffs as customer service. According to a 2017 American Express report, 33 percent of Americans said they would consider switching companies after a single instance of poor service, which would cost US companies over $62bn a year. Now imagine how much it would cost companies if all the staff they layoff gave them poor reviews, or worse, if the employees that actually stayed on witnessed their potential destiny within the firm. Inevitably, it affects their loyalty, motivation and productivity. Patwa refers to one multinational corporation which lost the perfect candidate after a two-year headhunt due to a negative review.

“Companies are realising that the best, easiest and cheapest way to build an employer brand for themselves is by ensuring that no bridges are burnt towards the end and that the exits are managed well,” she says.

Luckily, solutions such as SikkaLuna exist, but the majority of local HR departments are unfamiliar with outplacement and the effects of bad exits, and are untrained to deliver bad news, according to Patwa.

Trefor Murphy, founder and CEO of Dubai-based recruitment consultancy Cooper Fitch, says HR teams have “significantly improved” in the last five years in terms of how they let people go.

And judging by the job cuts that are waiting to happen in 2019, perhaps more companies should watch the 2009 George Clooney film to practice for what is to come. The only question left to ask is, how long can you sell someone a dream before they realise the reality?