Coping With Layoffs

By Tim Parker

Human resources departments use dozens of clever acronyms to describe the layoff process. They include “rightsizing,” “downsizing,” “resource adjustments,” and “workforce restructuring.” No matter what kind of trendy label they put on it, it has the same devastating effect on the employee.

With few exceptions, the American fire service has not had the term “layoff” in its vocabulary. That all changed in 1978 when California voters passed one of the first tax-limitation bills (Proposition 13) in the country. For the first time in history, many California fire departments were faced with the possibility of massive firefighter layoffs, station closures, and service reductions. California’s Proposition 13 taught us some valuable lessons. First, we are no longer an island unaffected by events that surround us. Second, we cannot guarantee lifelong fire service employment. Even though the United States is enjoying one of the strongest economies since the ’50s, there are still no shortages of new challenges that can affect fire service employment. From my perspective, we work in an environment of revolutionary change and find ourselves impacted and challenged not only by local events and tax limitations but by private competition, global economies, consolidated services, technology, changes in the stock market, and even world political events. Like it or not, these are some new realities with which many of us are confronted. As difficult as it is to imagine, you may some day be the one who is responsible for layoffs within your department.

PREPARING YOURSELF AND YOUR DEPARTMENT

The layoff issue is unquestionably one of the toughest challenges a fire chief will ever encounter and probably the one that he is least prepared to handle. By its very nature, the fire service prides itself on its ability to adapt and prepare for crises. Regardless of the type of incident or the number of human casualties, we are expected to perform at our best in spite of the individual cost.

It took us a few years, but we finally learned that the fire service is not entirely made of superhumans without emotion. The fire service has learned the hard way that we need to take care of not only our firefighters’ physical needs but their psychological needs as well. With the advent of critical incident stress debriefing teams, we now have the tools to help us manage the effects major casualty incidents may have on our people.

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Surprisingly, a layoff can have a similar effect on the person being laid off as on the chief delivering the news. As with any stressful event, it is imperative to understand the effects of layoff and prepare yourself and your department for this potentially life-changing event. Unless you have been through it, you might question whether a layoff is really a life-changing event.

Of the top 100 positive and negative stressers in life, job loss is ranked third, only after the loss of a spouse (No. 1) and other family member (No. 2). At the risk of sounding cynical, after 27 years in the fire service, I believed that there’s probably not much that would surprise or affect me anymore, including the layoff of a firefighter. I was wrong. I found out very early in the process that I wasn’t personally prepared, nor did I truly understand the significant effects a layoff would have on the department.

To put it in perspective, imagine that you have worked most of your adult life with a group of men and women. You have known their children since they were born and remember their graduating from high school. You spent countless hours with these employees, training together and responding to thousands of calls. You basically shared your lives. Then, you find out that they are candidates for being laid off.

UNDERSTANDING THE EFFECTS OF LAYOFFS

In addition to providing us with money and, thereby, a particular standard of living, our jobs make us feel productive and useful to ourselves, our families, and society. They provide us with a sense of belonging and contributing to a group, whether it be an engine company, a platoon, or a division. Frequently, when we are asked about who we are, we often describe ourselves in terms of our work: “I’m a firefighter.” Particularly in our profession, our identities are defined in large part by what we do. Being a firefighter is a source of extreme pride and earns a certain amount of respect within the community. It is one of the few professions in which the employee proudly wears a T-shirt that displays the association to the community and a commitment to common values.

The fire service is also one of the only jobs left in America that entails an oath or verbal affirmation of the individual’s commitment to protect the public and coworkers. The oath is that unique bond between firefighters that goes beyond the job description. Job loss is difficult for anyone; however, for a firefighter and his coworkers, it can be particularly difficult. The fire service for many of us is not just a job but a way of life.

Sudden job loss can obviously cause a life disruption, a reordering of priorities (both personal and financial), and damage to our self-esteem. Without the necessary tools to help manage the effects of job loss, many firefighters and their departments are simply not prepared to handle the stress of unemployment.

STAGES OF GRIEF

From my perspective, one of the more important tools in managing the effects of layoff is gaining a better understanding of what behavioral changes can happen during and after the layoff process. Let’s face it, when you’ve reached the rank of chief officer, you’ve probably experienced your share of difficult employee behavior, personal stress, as well as wide swings in department morale. It’s unfortunate, but it has become one of the realities chief officers must contend with every day while leading and managing the department’s business. Most chief officers have learned how to successfully manage their departments in spite of these daily challenges. However, when a layoff hits the department, it’s not one of those daily personnel behavioral challenges we’ve learned to expect. We rarely have to deal with grieving employees or, for that matter, a grieving department. Because a layoff is considered a life-changing event, chief officers should not underestimate the impact it may have on the entire department. The grieving process can best be described in seven stages.

  • Stage 1: Happiness or Shock and Denial. Rarely are layoffs unpredictable. There is usually some indication that downsizing may occur because of loss of contracts or profitability, tax limitation, legislation, and so on. Regardless of its predictability or the fact that “at-risk” notifications had been issued to employees months in advance, most employees still experience disbelief or shock when a layoff occurs. Don’t underestimate the shock factor. I’ve seen people become faint and nauseated after getting the bad news. Many employees hope that somehow it’s going to change even though it’s unlikely. Conversely, some employees feel great that they will be able to take a vacation or are just relieved that the waiting is finally over.
  • Stage 2: Emotional Release. Venting feelings of anger obviously is not a new fire service emotion. The difference is in its finality. Some employees believe that there is nothing to lose and take extreme actions against management or employees.

One of the most extreme cases happened at a Washington State fire department where a captain barricaded himself in his office and refused to leave until his demands were met. Again, you just can’t underestimate or be prepared for this extreme. Most employees, however, experience great sadness, frustration, and even jealously. These are common and, believe it or not, important for a person to start to move on.

  • Stage 3: Depression and Physical Stress. It is not uncommon for laid-off firefighters to feel lost and helpless and to doubt their abilities. We all like to believe that we are a valuable part of the department and that our skills, training, and education are important to the community. Losing that sense of identity can lead to depression and signs of physical stress such as sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and stomach problems.
  • Stage 4: Panic and Guilt. Clear thinking or even simple planning can be difficult. Planning what you should do next is virtually impossible. We take for granted our ability to plan daily activities or future activities. The panic stage is usually short but one of the more difficult to experience.

Most employees I have had to lay off were discharged not because of their performance but because of a change in mission or reduction in budgets. Once the laid-off employee recognizes that his abilities are not in question, the feeling of guilt will start to pass with time. Until the healing process begins, many people continually think, “If only I had done this or that, I would probably still have my job.”

  • Stage 5: Anger and Hostility. As hard as it may be to believe, feeling angry at those around them is an important part of the recovery process. That’s important to remember when much of that anger and hostility is directed at the chief and other chief officers. It is a time to show compassion and empathy to those directing their anger toward you. There are, of course, limits, and your personal safety must never be compromised. Fortunately, it is very rare that laid-off employees cause physical harm. Most just want an opportunity to express their concern and displeasure over the process. This is just a natural behavior, and you shouldn’t be surprised if it is directed toward you.
  • Stage 6: Renewed Hope and Rebuilding. Emotional recovery from layoff varies widely from person to person. Fortunately, in time, firefighters begin to plan for a new life without their old department. During this time, they are usually able to take constructive action toward obtaining another job or even changing professions.
  • Stage 7: Resolution. Some of my former fire department employees have told me that they didn’t believe that they would ever be able to learn to let go. However, in time, they began to feel more in control of their lives again. Even though the loss was still part of them, it no longer dictated their actions. There’s an old saying that “time heals all,” and for the most part, time is the only real element that can heal that loss of identity and association with the fire service.

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Sometimes you can get stuck in one or more of these stages. If this occurs, it may be wise to see a professional counselor or contact the outplacement employee assistance center, if one is available. Even though you may no longer be a member of the department, you can still call on management for occasional assistance or guidance.

“SURVIVORS”

The grieving process is not limited to employee(s) who have received the layoff notice or who have actually left the job. It’s not uncommon to have your “survivor” employees experience some of the same behaviors.

Another dynamic that management should prepare for is “survivor’s guilt.” I didn’t have an appreciation of how a layoff would affect the firefighters and officers remaining on the job. My initial reaction was a sense of relief that the process was finally over and that we could just continue where we left off. I quickly found out that the relationship we had built over the years was not going to be the same and that survivor’s guilt is real and, in many cases, unavoidable. Retained employees simply need to have time to grieve for those laid off and to understand what this means to themselves and their department. To a certain degree, my experience has shown that even the survivor is displaced and may need to be reintegrated into the department. Basically, you need to allow time for him to redevelop trust in you and the department.

Behavioral changes are a normal part of the grieving process. Here are a few examples of the behavioral changes I’ve seen:

  • Many firefighters become cynical about the department’s new direction. Generally, employees become angry, frustrated, and disillusioned for seemingly minor issues.

Changes in core values and shifting alliances were readily apparent. Interestingly, some firefighters lost faith and trust in the department and its leadership, whereas others realigned their work ethics and improved individual performance. Some even changed to support management’s goals.

  • Some employees became suspicious of almost everything, particularly of management. Even positive, good intentioned programs or policy changes were interpreted as another way for management to “stick it” to the employee.
  • We’ve all struggled with morale problems from time to time; however, during a time of layoff, it can be pervasive and especially difficult for a department to work out of the situation. Despite your best efforts and intentions, there are no magic slogans or operational changes that will substantially improve morale or reduce survivor’s guilt. It takes time.

DEALING WITH STRESS

Psychologists tell us that stress is the body’s response to demands made on it. For many of us, change is a primary cause of stress. Obviously, when your department is involved in a layoff, much of the workforce is stressed. Even though time is a critical element in the healing process, some basic tools can be helpful in reducing the department’s anxiety and your personal stress.

We all have a certain amount of fear when it comes to the unknown; therefore, communication with your personnel can be invaluable. Regularly scheduled informational briefings from the chief are important-even if it is not good news. It is better than no news. At the very least, I have found that timely, factual information helps to reduce the seemingly limitless numbers of rumors.

As a chief officer, you’re not expected to be a psychologist or to have all the answers for every question you will be asked. You are, however, expected to listen to your employees’ concerns and, to the extent possible, develop an employee assistance plan to help minimize stress on the department. Even if your department doesn’t have a formalized employee assistance program, you may be money ahead if you can contract some of these services out, specifically counseling services.

From a firefighter’s perspective, whether it be a survivor employee or one laid off, providing employees with easy access to an empathetic ear can make any problem easier to handle. Many times, problems can be put into perspective when we know people still care about us.

Exercise is an effective way to work off tension. Some form of daily exercise is essential to your physical and emotional well-being, whether you choose walking, biking, aerobics, or running. Team sports provide exercise and social interaction. Even when confronted with personal or budgetary considerations, don’t short- change yourself where sensible, low-cost recreation is concerned. As hard as it may be to justify at the time, in the long run, it may be money well spent. Exercise and healthy competition can bolster self-esteem and enhance your sense of accomplishment. Many times people find themselves renewed and refreshed to face the daily challenges.

In addition to communication and exercise, former fire department employees can also benefit from helping others and volunteer activities. These activities provide another means for raising self-esteem and also provide some daily structure and social interaction, which are often lost after being laid off.

STRESS ON THE CHIEF

Most of us would agree that fire chiefs in the ’90s operate under a higher level of stress than their counterparts of 30 years ago. To their credit, most have learned to be successful in spite of the increased daily stress. However, in a downsizing environment, it is not uncommon for the chief to experience the same emotions as everyone else. It can seem overwhelming at times. It is not uncommon for a chief to feel out of control, disorganized, and even guilty for not being able to protect the department from layoff. Unfortunately, city officials and management still expect you to provide the necessary leadership and maintain the organization’s effectiveness in spite of your personal feelings. Understanding this reality in advance and planning for it can be of great help should you find yourself in the situation. Your EAP professionals can provide the necessary tools to help you better deal with the loss and to put what seems to be an uncontrollable event into perspective. I am by no means a psychologist, but the sooner the chief starts to heal, the sooner the department heals.

DEVELOPING AND IMPLEMENTING THE DOWNSIZING PLAN

Typically, the downsizing plan should include the following elements: counseling, consulting, outreach education, and social services. These services should target the unique needs of the employee targeted for layoff, retained employees, and employees considering retirement. Figure 1 illustrates a sample downsizing/EAP plan. Important components of the downsizing plan are your rationale and the criteria used to identify layoff candidates. In some departments, this is a simple process that has been negotiated by organized labor. Typically, in those cases, seniority may be the only criterion for layoff selection-basically “last hired, first fired.” In many departments, however, the criteria are not clearly defined.

RANKING SYSTEM

After the functions and services that will be reduced or eliminated have been determined, it would help to identify which classification of employees will be at risk-for example, if it has been determined that fire inspections will be reduced by 50 percent and there will be a 50 percent reduction in personnel, a method for ranking each employee can provide a numerical method for identifying which inspectors will be at risk. The ranking evaluation criteria should include those values important to the community and department. We used four criteria and assigned a weight factor to each. The criteria included last performance appraisal, mission value, adaptability, and seniority (see Employee Ranking chart).

Regardless of which system is used, it will be criticized by officers and firefighters. Regardless of the criticism, it is considered a sound business practice to define your reduction-in-force criteria and have the information accessible for all employees long before it is needed. At the very least, it reduces the department’s liabilities for wrongful termination.

IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN TO ME

We would all like to believe that we will never have to face a layoff; however, even in today’s economic boom, a significant part of the fire service community is being laid off because of shrinking federal budgets, closure of military bases, and changes in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex. For example, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) has had the responsibility for designing, developing, and manufacturing nuclear weapons for 50 years. Its mission was considered one of the most important components of the United States Cold War strategy. To the DOE’s credit, it was successful in meeting this important national objective. In 1991, the Cold War was essentially over. The effects of meeting this milestone in history and the resultant impact it would have on the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy fire departments could never have been imagined.

Across the United States, dozens and dozens of bases and sites continue to have their missions changed or permanently eliminated. Talk about the ultimate paradigm shift: For more than 50 years, the United States had embraced a strategy of nuclear proliferation, which required massive industrial capabilities and tens of thousands of specialized employees to design and manufacture these weapons. Seemingly overnight, the United States no longer had a credible Soviet threat or the need for numerous military bases or a massive nuclear production infrastructure. As a result, closures of hundreds of sites and bases have resulted in massive layoffs, including hundreds of fire department employees. In spite of the personnel consequences Cold War veterans continue to experience, I don’t think many of us could provide a valid argument for continuing the Cold War arms races. For the foreseeable future, changes in fire department staffing will coincide with future defense realignments. Ask yourself this question, Is there anything in your community that could have a similar effect on your department’s continued employment?

Laying off firefighters is one of the chief’s most unpleasant jobs. Nevertheless, like any other difficult task, you are expected to carry it out. It should be done in a professional manner with the utmost respect and dignity for the employee(s) involved. How you treat your employees during the layoff process (both those retained and those let go) will define how you will be seen as a leader in the future. Every employee will be keeping a mental score card to rate your leadership and management skills during this life-changing event. The department more than ever needs positive leaders who will continue to set positive examples for others. Take every opportunity to communicate with and listen to your employees’ concerns. Most importantly, be prepared. Don’t wait until you are faced with a reduction in force to develop your department layoff policy. It will be too late.

Tips for Facing the Layoff Crisis

Make no decisions that will cause any more changes until you have had a chance to gain perspective.

Talk to people you trust and respect about your situation. This is not the time to go it alone.

Talk with your family about your concerns. Let family members know that everyone is affected and will have to accept responsibilities to help out.

Spend time each day looking at the positives in your life. There are always some.

Remember not to measure your total self-worth in terms of this situation.

Analyze your family’s spending patterns. If there are things you can do without, cut them from your budget immediately.

Write out a budget.

Contact creditors, and explain your situation. Tell them what you are able to pay (even if it is only a few dollars).

Immediately start looking for sources of income. Using the new Unemployment Insurance (UI) phone-in system, contact a UI customer service representative to file a claim for benefits.

Consult a Job Service Center counselor, who may be able to suggest other income sources.

In your job search, include your local newspaper help wanted ads, area schools or college placement centers, friends and neighbors, private employment agencies, and your local Job Service Center.

If you or another member of your family feels unable to cope with the pressures, seek professional help. Counseling may be available through your area Mental Health Center, listed in the yellow pages of your phone book, or your department outplacement/EAP services.

TIM PARKER is chief of the Rocky Flats Department of Fire and Emergency Services in Golden, Colorado.

References

“Typical Stages of Grief Following Job Loss,” The Continuum Center of Oakland University.

“Weathering the Crisis,” Colorado Department of Labor & Employment, R6/92.

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