managers pushing us to work harder while we wait to be laid off

A reader writes:

In mid-August, my company informed us that my department was to be laid-off sometime in September. It is now the end of September and we have not had any more information about the layoffs. Our bi-weekly department meetings have been cancelled and my direct managers have no information. Our senior managers have been asking for overtime and increased productivity.

Is this normal? What is the usual process for layoffs? Are my senior managers’ expectations unreasonable? (They are not being laid off).

Would it be crazy to leave for another job when a severance package (albeit vague) has been promised?

I’m supposed to be laid off by now. How hard do they expect me to work?

There are three common ways of doing layoffs:

1. Let people know that they’re being laid off at a specific point in the future. (Often this timeframe is 60 days, if the layoffs are covered by the WARN Act, which — with some exceptions — requires employers with 100 employees or more to give advance notice when closing a plant or doing mass layoffs, defined as 500+ people or 33% of their workforce. But when the WARN Act isn’t in play, the timeframe can vary.)

2. Let people know the day they’re being laid off, with no advance warning. You’re called into an office, told you’re being let go that day, given a severance agreement, and told to pack up your things and go. This happens so fast that you’ve usually already been locked out of your computer while sitting in the meeting.

This is very common, largely because many experts who deal with this stuff believe that having those employees linger is bad for morale and prevents the company from starting to recover and move forward. Unsurprisingly, the people who are on the receiving end of this find that this way isn’t so good for their morale either. (It is true, though, that there are cases where doing it this way makes sense — although those cases are probably outnumbered the times that it happens when it shouldn’t.)

3. Let people know that they’re probably going to be laid off at some point in the future, without giving a specific timeframe … or giving a specific timeframe, which then passes with no update. This is your situation, and the confusion and lack of communication are pretty common when it happens.

So what you’re dealing with isn’t unusual, but it sucks. And it’s unquestionably an unkind way to treat people. It’s possible that they don’t have answers themselves — but now that they’ve decided to bring you into the loop, they need to continue giving you information about what’s going on, even if it’s just “we don’t know yet, and we’re waiting on factors A, B, and C to play out.”

And leaving you all in a state of limbo and yet still pushing you to put in extra effort is obviously absurd.

Of course, this could have played out even more poorly:  They could have not warned you that layoffs were coming, pushed you to work tons of overtime (which you probably would have done, because you’d be assuming that you’d still have a job at the end of it), and then laid you off when it was done.

In any case, I would absolutely start looking for another job — actively — and accept an offer if you get one; don’t wait around for a severance package. There’s no guarantee of how much severance you’ll get unless you have a contract that spells that out (which most people don’t), and no law requires that you get any severance at all. You could wait around for it and discover it’s only two weeks’ worth of pay, or something like that. Or it could be more generous — a few months’ worth, for instance — but you might not find a job during that time and have no source of income once the severance period runs out.

Basically, look at severance as a safety net, not as something you want to be dependent on.

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