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How MIT approaches layoffs

An interview with Alison Alden, vice president for human resources
Vice President for Human Resources Alison Alden
Vice President for Human Resources Alison Alden

Fiscal Year 2009 was a challenging one for MIT. Global economic woes necessitated Institute-wide budget reductions, which in turn led to reductions in the Institute's workforce. The MIT News Office's Editorial Director Nate Nickerson sat down with MIT's Vice President for Human Resources, Alison Alden, to talk about the way MIT HR handles reductions in workforce at the Institute.

Q: Have there been a lot of layoffs at MIT over the past year?
A: To meet reductions in the General Institute Budget, there have been 105 layoffs since January 2009, a relatively low number compared with our peer institutions. The number has been kept down partly because some departments have been able to reduce expenses in creative ways. These have included reductions in hours, couple-of-week-long furloughs, and in one case a department taking an unpaid vacation for a week. Also, about 90 open positions were left unfilled, thereby achieving significant savings without affecting current employees. There were also a number of employees whose salaries were paid for by grants who were laid off because their grants expired last year, but those are not related to the budget reductions.

Q: When you're faced with layoffs, is there a basic way you approach the process?
A: Making a decision to lay off an employee and communicating that decision is a difficult and emotional process for everyone involved. Our top priority is to make certain that when we do have to do this, it is done with great care for the employee's well-being and professionalism. I personally set a high standard as to how layoffs should be handled at MIT, and work with managers and HR staff — who are well versed in these matters — to try to meet this standard every time. Our goal is to make sure every employee is treated fairly and respectfully during a time of great stress and difficulty.
Q: Let's get specific: How is an individual layoff done?
A: The process begins with a particular department, lab or center [DLC] making a layoff decision. Many times this is a decision to eliminate a position due to budget cuts, reorganization, or an operational change that results in elimination of positions. Although performance and job skills can be a factor in a layoff decision, a decision to lay off someone is not a termination for performance issues. Before a decision is finalized, my professional staff carefully reviews the decision, and the reasons for the layoff, and make sure the unit's actual financial concerns or organizational needs support the decision.
Q: How is an employee notified of a layoff?
A: Once the decision to move forward with a layoff has been reached, the next step is collaboration between the DLC manager and the Human Resource representative assigned to that DLC to discuss the details for communicating the decision to the employee, with attention paid to what we may know is happening in the employee's life at the time. Most times, both the employee's manager and an HR representative meet jointly with the employee to share the news of the decision. Both offer support and make sure the employee has the right information about benefits and other details.
Q: What happens after the notification is given?
A: The employee is usually encouraged to take the rest of the day to absorb what has just happened. The HR Officer assigned to that particular unit follows up with the employee to see how the person is doing and to answer any questions. The employee is encouraged to use our internal staffing services who offer one-to-one help with job strategy, resumes, and interviews. One area that we've been working on during the recent layoffs is to identify possible job opportunities within MIT that the person might apply for. So far, we have been successful in helping place about 20 percent of those laid off in MIT or outside positions, and our efforts continue.

Q: Does an MIT employee who has been laid off receive a severance package?
A: Unlike many employers, we do not provide severance to an employee who is laid off but instead provide a paid working notice period. The length of notice corresponds to a particular employee's length of service, with an employee remaining on the payroll and continuing to receive benefits for the notice period. At times, and for various reasons, the person is paid but does not have to work the entire working notice period. In any event, HR assists in the transition of each employee.

Q: What do you do when an employee has concerns about his or her layoff or how he or she was treated?
A: MIT has well-established policies and procedures that allow an employee to raise a complaint with regard to those kinds of concerns and obtain an effective, confidential response. Of course, the employee should make the choice as to whether he or she wants to raise an internal complaint or seek other options.

Q: How does your office address privacy concerns regarding layoffs?
A: For the privacy and confidentiality of employees and managers alike, my office does not comment on individual matters. We sometimes hear rumors that we know to be untrue, about us or about others, but in respect of privacy rights, we do not comment.
Q: What is MIT's thinking about future layoffs?
A: Given the importance of this issue, the Institute-wide Planning Task Force included a Working Group on Human Resources and Benefits. While recognizing that some layoffs are likely to be necessary in the coming years, the working groups suggest that MIT continue to plan for these changes in ways that best support MIT's mission. Among their recommendations are that the Institute should avoid "across the board" layoffs, try to place employees who have been laid off in new positions at MIT, and continue to ensure the layoff decision process is fair and equitable and that layoffs are done in a caring and humane way that recognizes the contributions of the employee.
Q: Any closing thoughts?
A: I'd like to emphasize that our goal is a simple but critical one: to help everyone who feels the impact of one of the most difficult circumstances in a workplace. In this spirit, I am working with Professor McKersie and Professor Bailyn to review the processes in a self-reflective study to continue to improve our processes. However, I firmly believe that our approach to layoffs reflects the MIT way — informed by data, characterized by care, and implemented with compassion and professionalism.

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