Thursday, June 07, 2007

Circle of Victims

Call it what you will -- downsizing, right-sizing, layoff, firing -- separating someone from their job is a brutal act.

Oh you can try to be compassionate, caring, and controlled during the surgery, but done with a mercifully quick and sharp scalpel or a dull and rusty axe, it is an invasive surgical procedure -- and there will be blood and there will be pain.

As with any trauma, even with compassionate care and treatment, recovery takes time and understanding.
There are always those individuals who never quite recover, despite liberal application of TLC: Time's Long Consolation. No amount of consideration or commiseration consoles these souls, and they carry the scars of the sudden surgeries throughout their lives -- they truly see themselves as victims -- no matter how long they cruise alongside Time's Arrow.

Perhaps the saddest reality of this epic, tragic life-opera is the circle of victms created by each and every job separation - whether it be necessary or not; justifed or not; professionally, compassionately, and swiftly done or not. When the military talks about a surgical strike, they also have to talk about collateral damage. By and large, collateral damage is people - a circle of victims that radiates from the center of the strike.

In organizations where job elimination or layoffs occur, there is collateral damage, there is a circle of victims.

Who are the individuals in this circle?

I believe one of the primary reasons so many organizations have changed the name of their personnel offices to Human Resources is the elimination of the "person" in personnel. Resources are things like dollars and widgets and time. You can't hurt time's feelings, or affect the health of a widget, or see a dollar cry. As when bombing from 20,000 feet - the collateral damage is invisible - you cannot see the upturned and horrified faces of the circle of victims. They are just marks on a map or numbers on a spreadsheet.
But they are there.

Family members suffer when the wage earner is suddenly no longer earning wages. They see the tragedy written on the ex-worker's face every day, and they have to watch as he or she struggles to cope or fails to cope - crashing and burning in front of them. They get to re-live the tragedy, day in and day out. The family is there for future relapses and flashbacks.

Co-workers are not unaffected by a colleague's sudden disappearance. Workloads shift and other jobs are reassessed. Responsibilities shift and the ground moves under their feet. The thin veneer of security they may have used to delude themselves about the stability and solidity of their jobs has been stripped away and illusions are now shattered. Look in their eyes and you can see the doubt that runs through their veins like a poison. Add a large dose of "survivor's guilt" and they become "unstuck" in the hierarchy. They not only have to think outside the box, they can see the large hole in the bottom of the box, and they are frightened.

Supervisors forced to remove someone from a job, particularly a long time employee, can be victims themselves. The front office may see nothing other than a number bumping against the bottom line, but the front-line supervisor sees a face, hears a voice, and has memories of interactions that will not go easily into any good night.
There are many others affected by such changes - customers, friends, volunteers, vendors, clients, and the list goes on. They all have faces and they all have stories.

Speaking of stories...

Let me tell you one about a friend of mine from more than 30 years ago.
I was working for Social Security and worked with pleasant fellow I shall call Frank. Frank was a compassionate interviewer and a very good claims representative. On a Thursday afternoon on early spring, he interviewed a young lady for Supplemental Security Income benefits, based on a disability. He completed his interview by informing the young lady that she did not qualify because her living circumstances precluded payment of benefits (she was already being supported by her family) and that she should come back when her living situation changed. She was quite upset, but Frank was a skilled and caring fellow - and he calmed her down.

The next morning we all received the shocking news that the young lady had gone home and killed herself in a fit of despondency. Frank looked sick and turned rather pale. We could all see that her death was affecting him, so we all reassured him, but he was inconsolable and went home for the rest of the day.

Monday morning came, and Frank did not show up for work. He did not answer his phone or his door. When family finally entered his home, they found him dead of a heart attack, apparently on that fatal Friday.
Frank's decision was the right one. He handled his interview as skillfully and anyone could. His conscience should have been clear and rationally he was in the right. Yet the rash action of the young lady created a circle of victims that included our colleague, whose heart attack now widened the circle of victims. I don't remember the young lady's name, but I will never forget her face as she left that Thursday. I will never forget Frank's face when he was told of her death. I will never forget the faces of my co-workers when we learned of Frank's death.

This may seem an extreme case, but I can just as easily remember every nuance and every detail of 8:03 AM, Thursday, August 12, 2004. I was standing at the right side of my desk when two Directors walked in, demanded my office key and my ID card, and then gave me 15 minutes to clean out my desk, shut down my computers, and leave. I remember the look in their eyes, the little nervous smiles at the corners of their mouths, and the hollow sound of their empty words. They said it was nothing personal, just a necessity brought about by budget cuts and reduced state spending. Yet, as I write this, the desolation and loneliness I felt rushes back and must be pushed aside once again. After nearly three years, the wound is still raw. I did not believe them then, and I do not believe them now.

I am not a human resource, I am a human being. I live, I feel, I love and I pay taxes. Most of all, I hate feeling like a victim or part of a circle of victims. Though such things are part of daily life, they remain tragic and painful. I only ask that those charged with discharging others from their careers, jobs, and livelihoods, should bear in mind that it is never a good thing, and that they are dealing with people, not numbers - and for that reason they need to be mindful of the circle of victims that may include even their own fragile, flickering flames...

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