Facing up to layoffs Essay

Most of us, when asked to rank our job duties in order of preference,
would probably put firing employees at or near the bottom of the list.
Telling someone that he or she is out of a job is one of the hardest
things a manager must do. It’s particularly sobering when we
consider how it affects not only the employee but also a host of family
members, friends, and creditors.

When termination culminates a long struggle between poor
performance and progressive discipline, we can take solace in having
given the employee every opportunity to hold onto the job. This used to
be the standard pattern of laboratory terminations–until recently.

Today, many helath care professionals confront an unpleasant
management dilemma once rare in our field: layoffs. The nationwide
decline in patient census, coupled with an increased awareness of the
need for cost reduction, has prompted many hospitals to reduce
personnel, their biggest operating expense.

This sudden need for substantial staff cuts caught many
institutions off guard. Some hospitals do not even have a written
layoff policy. To steer clear of any suggestion of discrimination, most
institutions follow the “last hired, first fired” policy in
determining who should go. Unfortunately, this often removes highly
productive, highly motivated (and lower paid) members of the work group.

Some of us may be tempted to take the opposite tack, and use staff
cutbacks as a convenient chance to rid the laboratory of costly and
perhaps less productive senior personnel. At best, this tactic creates
severe morale and public relations problems; at worst, it can result in
a lawsuit.

Intelligent staff-cutting policies are a sad necessity until the
hospital cost crunch is reversed–and that appears unlikely in the near
future. Good communication is critical before, during, and after the
traumatic events. Layoffs should never come as a surprise. Long before
actual cuts are made, management should hold meetings to inform the
staff of the need to reduce operating expenses and increase
productivity. If layoffs become inevitable, we must promptly explain
who will be terminated, when, and why. It’s the only way to keep
one step ahead of the inevitable rumor mill.

Notify employees of their job termination in private and as soon as
possible. Give them complete details on severance pay, benefit
coverage, and related matters. Going a step further, hospitals would do
well to emulate other businesses by offering placement services that
help overcome the emotional and financial strain of a layoff.

Of course, the best way to deal with layoffs is to avoid them.
There are few better uses for our creative talents than in averting needless personnel cuts. Now that length of patient stay is declining
in many hospitals, we need an active data base to convince
administration that we are still operating efficiently. Since most lab
tests are performed during the first half of a patient’s stay, we
should be able to demonstrate the limited impact of shorter stays on
test volume.

Bringing in more testing is another way to avoid layoffs. New
payment regulations make it advantageous for hospitals to perform more
outpatient and preadmission testing. Instead of laying off
technologists, perhaps we can put them to work as marketing
representatives, attracting new business to the laboratory. It may be
possible to prove that unemployment payments and other costs outweigh the financial benefits of short-term staff reductions.

When staff reductions are the only answer, we must work to soften
the blow. Has the laboratory considered an incentive program
encouraging senior personnel to choose early retirement? Have
volunteers been sought to take a cut in paid hours by leaving work early
during slack times? Given the high number of second incomes in our
profession, many employees might be receptive to flexible workday
options that allow them to spend more time at home.

Perhaps the burden of cost reduction can be shared by the entire
work force, instead of a few individuals. A simple across-the-board
decrease in hours, or extra unpaid “vacation” days, can
substantially lower personnel costs without eliminating any positions.

Remember, however, that across-the-board cuts risk infuriating the
whole work group. Management must have a thorough understanding of
staff feelings before implementing such a program. In a more
conservative approach, the laboratory might hold positions open
indefinitely when they become vacant. This is attrition. It works only
if the lab’s turnover rate is rather high and the need to lower
labor costs is not acute.

If you haven’t faced the threat of layoffs yet–or if you
have, and hope not to again–start planning now. Your main objective
should be to enlist the staff in maximizing efficiency. Acknowledge
that funds are very tight, and ask for suggestions and support.
It’s time we closed ranks in the laboratory, instead of just
thinning them.

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