Blue Avocado‘s most recent issue is The Layoff Issue. In it are articles about being laid off, doing lay-offs right, furloughs, and what to do when you lose your health insurance. All of these stories and the comments led me to remember my own experiences with layoffs – well, let’s call it letting them go, because there never was any intention of rehiring them as implied by the term “layoff.”

I had to lay people off twice when I was an Executive Director, and then was let go twice from ED jobs – sort of what goes around comes around, I guess. Both sides were very difficult.

The first time I laid people off, it was necessary to save the organization. I took over February 28 and the spend rate was such that the organization would have been out of business in September. The remaining staff gave me a fireman’s toy kit complete with hatchet at our holiday party that year. I laughed as did they, because the organization survived and went on to thrive.

The second letting go was seven years later, after 9/11, when our income declined. I let go of 20% of our staff on one day – it was termed a “bloodbath.” And it was – the cut was sudden, the people had to leave that day after clearing out desks and saying good-bye to co-workers. That was done on advice of counsel – something I regret to this day because our pro bono corporate law firm did not seek to protect people’s feelings, just the organization from any liability. I see today that I was governed by fear, and treated people badly because of that fear. To this day, I wish I had been able to live my stated values of caring for people and intending never to lay people off again.

In fact, “reduction in force” (RIF) may not have been necessary. That situation was not as clear cut as that seven years earlier, and in retrospect, I wish I had decided on across-the-board pay cuts and possible furloughs instead of a RIF. It would have spread the pain around, although it is likely that it would have simply put off the inevitable.

I did have some courage and some compassion, and worked with a whole team of people to plan and implement the RIF. It was important for me to do it in person, to talk to the people who remained, and to provide severance pay and outplacement services. Those things were pretty meaningless in the face of job loss, however, and there was a lot of anger and sense of betrayal by those who lost their jobs. Many of them struggled afterward; I think some of the pain could have been avoided by measures short of RIF.

Ultimately, I got to experience the pain of being let go from a job. As an Executive Director, I was subject to what I think were changes in Board priorities and personality preferences. My experience led me to see how my choices in 2002 created an environment where the Board had tacit permission to behave quite callously in letting me go. I now know how devastating it was for those I let go, and understand viscerally how difficult it is to recover and ultimately to forgive.

Most of all, I learned an important lesson: non-profits are simply places where human beings work. And human beings do all sorts of terrible, wonderful, and mediocre things to each other, regardless of where we work. It’s important not to have too high expectations that people will behave honorably and with compassion simply because they work with or are associated with a non-profit organization. Nonetheless, I hope people reading this wonderful set of articles will take heart from some of the stories and have courage to do what they feel is the right thing to do.