Art Of The Layoff? No, More Like the Art of Sounding Like a Jerk

Anytime you see a story with a headline that reads “The Art of Layoffs,” you better prepare yourself for a lot of double-talk and nonsense.

The Wall Street Journal this week used that headline on a interview with a guy named Howard McNally who “oversaw thousands of layoffs” in the early 2000s as Chief Operating Officer of AT&T during a time when “the company’s traditional landline business shrank and its wireless revenue grew.”

OK. I get that. The old phone landline business went through a huge upheaval as people rapidly moved to cell phones, and with rapid upheaval sometimes comes big layoffs as companies transform themselves to the new business realities.

I’ve been there, done that, get that completely.

What I don’t get is the notion that there is some kind of “art” to the process of mass layoffs. I also don’t get the “lesson” that Howard McNally says he learned from this process. Here’s how The Journal described it:

Question: You had to oversee thousands of layoffs during the latter part of your career. How did you manage letting so many people go?

Howard McNally: It was painful. What’s most critical is honest and direct feedback on someone’s career.

I was the chief of staff for the eastern region’s president of sales. We did a layoff, and I had a man in his 40s come into my office crying. He had been laid off. He said, “Howard, I have in my hand six, seven evaluations of my performance and everyone says I was doing an outstanding job, and now you’re telling me I was at the bottom of the heap. You lied to me.”

That was a huge learning moment for me. Since that day I’ve had a forced distribution of performance ratings. You can’t’ have more than 50% of your people who are above average.

That was probably the most controversial part of my management style. When you came to me and you had ten subordinates I required you to number them one to ten. Period.

I had a curve for everyone where I’ve gone and a lot of people haven’t liked it. But ever since that man, it’s important for me to tell a person where he stands.”

There’s no art to laying people off

So, what I take away here from AT&T’s Howard McNally is that the lesson from mass layoffs is that if you have a controversial Jack Welch-like forced ranking system in place, you’ll feel less guilty about the process as you’re laying off those thousands of workers because you’ll be able to tell people you’re getting rid of with a straight face “where they stand.”

Memo to McNally: this is total, unmitigated BS, and selfishly focuses on the bruised feelings of the executioner rather than the real-life emotions of those losing their jobs.

But that’s not all. McNally also had this gem of a piece of management wisdom to impart:

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Q: You worked at AT&T at a time of tremendous transition and change. What did that teach you about your career?

HM: Be careful who you piss off. They may be your boss tomorrow.”

Here’s a question I want to ask: how did this guy ever get to be the COO at a company like AT&T? And how does someone so clearly insensitive, openly uncaring, and flat-out stupid get into a job like that — and then have The Wall Street Journal herald them as having some artful and teachable skill in laying people off, as if that’s a skill worth puffing your chest out about?

To get a REAL perspective on layoffs you would be better served to read this blog post by my old college classmate Paul Oberjuerge, who was laid off a few years ago after 30 years as a sportswriter and editor here in the U.S. He eventually ended up as an expatriate journalist working in Abu Dhabi for an English-language newspaper called The National. He recently reflected on what it meant hearing the news that the uncaring and insensitive manager who laid him off had just ALSO been shown the door. He wrote:

My biggest problem with this guy, during the meltdown of print journalism and, specifically, the newspaper group for which he worked, was that he apparently had no real problem laying off people. Because if he did, he wouldn’t have overseen round after round after round of layoffs…

My rule of thumb, as outlined on this blog a few years ago, was that every manager gets one round of layoffs. Maybe two. But to stick around for three, four, five rounds of cuts, well, you’re pretty much just a career executioner, aren’t you?”

Something you should never get used to

Yes, oversee “thousands of layoffs” as Howard McNally did, and you’re not some executive with great wisdom to impart to the masses in The Wall Street Journal. No, you’re simply a “career executioner” as my old college classmate put it, and a particularly insensitive one at that.

Let me say this again: laying off people is something you never, ever get used to, nor does the process get any easier the more you do it. That’s because it is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do in life, and unless you are less-than-human yourself, you should always find yourself thinking, as you are doing it, “this could be happening to me.”

I don’t know AT&T’s Howard McNally — never heard of him, don’t know anything about him. I hope that The Wall Street Journal took what he had to say out of context, or fouled it up in some way, because the only “art” that McNally demonstrates here in this story is the art of making an ass out of yourself and coming off to all the world as an insensitive and clueless jerk.

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.