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February 11, 2009

By Matt Barcus
President, Precision Executive Search
Managing Partner, A/E/P Central, LLC, home of

When people ask me what I do, I like to tell them that I am an “Executive Search Consultant,” but I always then clarify that with, “you know, a headhunter.” I am not a Human Resources professional, but I interact with them on a regular basis, and based upon those interactions I thought I could offer up some different suggestions that Human Resources professionals could be doing during these slow times. Now, I do have a couple of good ideas, but I have decided to hold off on those ideas for now as a friend of a friend set me straight about what many Human Resources professionals within the civil engineering industry are going through right now, and it is a topic that is worth mentioning.

The economy has slowed down, but you have not…many of you are still working 50-60 hours week, but now you are experiencing the dark side of human resources where the best skill sets you have are guts and compassion. Downsizing, layoffs, RIF, whatever you want to call it, it is not a pleasurable experience, no matter which side of the desk you may be on. I speak here not through experience, but through the account of this process from a Human Resources professional in our industry.

Preparing for layoffs is grueling:

Compiling staff review documentation from managers;
Working with managers in identifying who will be laid off ;
Coaching those managers as to how to best approach the looming conversation while knowing that no coaching can really ever fully prepare someone for what it’s like to let a colleague go;
Organizing and implementing severance programs;
Administering COBRA;
Conducting outplacement assistance;
Fending off lawsuits;
Taking on the tasks of those in your department who were recently let go;
Much more that I am surely missing.
Maybe the most difficult duty you have right now though, is having to sit down across the desk from a mom or a dad, from a single parent, from an employee whose spouse just lost their job a week ago, from a parent with a sick child or a child who is just getting ready to go off to college, from a young woman who just put a down payment on her first home, or from a friend, and telling them that they are being laid off. ..and then dealing with roller coaster of emotions that are felt from that employee, their family, from yourself, from their supervisor and from their friends who still work there.

This is not what you signed up for, but there is no better trained or more qualified person in your organization to deal with the current situation than you:

You have the guts to stick to the orders that you were given as opposed to packing up your desk and bailing;
You have the compassion to empathize with these folks;
You have the ability to absorb the verbal abuse that is unleashed on you;
And you have the know-how and the desire to do EVERYTHING in your power to make sure that these folks are granted their severance, that they are provided everything they need to know about applying for COBRA, that they know who to call to roll over their 401K into what you hope to be a new 401K in the very near future, and to coach and to help these individuals find new employment.

Especially during these tumultuous times, the Human Resources professionals are clearly the unsung heroes whose compassion, resiliency, hard work and dedication are the rock…wait…the mountain…that everyone leans upon.

The great thing about being in America is that we are resilient. We have the ability to dig down DEEP and to be strong, to stand tall, to fight tooth and nail, and to land on two feet. It is not an easy thing to be a part of, on either side of that desk, but the smoke will eventually clear and most people will be a better person for it.


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