Downsizing: In health care, it’s not if but when

Have response ready, consultant advises

The director of health information services at a medium-sized hospital in the Midwest sits in the human resources office reeling from shock upon hearing she is the latest victim of the hospital’s downsizing program. She’s handed a severance check and told that her personal effects will be sent to her later. There is no opportunity even to speak to her staff before she’s shown the door.

If this scenario isn’t familiar to you, it probably is to someone you know. But the time to prepare your response isn’t when you’re holding a pink slip, says health care consultant Roseann Christophersen, MBA. By then, it’s too late.

Have a course of action planned in advance because downsizing will happen to you at some point in your career, says Christophersen, who is president of Christophersen Consulting, a health care consulting firm in Fox Lake, IL. "It’s not a question of if but when. The standard operating procedure of the ’90s is downsizing."

‘Take it or leave it’

Christophersen says she’s found that in today’s business environment, there’s not much room for negotiation when the ax falls. "Many times it’s take it or leave it." Still, she notes, there are things to do and say that may optimize your chances for the best outcome possible. They include:

• If you’re told the downsizing will take place at some point in the future, ask about the possibility of outplacement services. Odds are you won’t get them, she cautions, noting that this practice seems to have virtually disappeared in the past two years. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.

• Even in the most cut-and-dried, take-it-or-leave-it scenario, ask these two questions: "What will my staff be told?" and "If I use this place as a reference, to whom should the potential employer be referred, and what will he or she be told?"

• If you’re handed a check along with your coat and hat, think about what it represents in terms of how many weeks of severance pay you’re being offered. Although you may not be able to do the computation on the spot, ask the human resources (HR) manager —or whoever you’re dealing with — what the amount is based on. If you don’t understand the answer, ask again. If the HR person doesn’t seem to know, say you don’t mind waiting until he or she makes a phone call to find out.

Generosity in severance pay is, for the most part, a thing of the past. But at least ask for a week’s pay for each year of service, Christophersen advises. Again, you may not get it — but what have you got to lose by asking? In addition, ask about accrued vacation time and sick days and whether those can be translated into cash.

• It’s likely that someone will explain how long you’ll be carried on the company insurance policy, or maybe you assume you’ll get the standard 18 months provided by COBRA, which ex-employees pay for. Still, ask the question.

Wait! Don’t rush to sign anything!

• If you’re given a severance agreement, don’t sign it on the spot. You can be sure this form was put together by the company’s attorneys, and you should have someone with similar skills looking out for you, she says. "There’s a nice, positive way of saying, ‘Look, I’d like to take this home, keep it for 48 hours.’ This is not the time to play junior Perry Mason."

If the HR manager warns you that the agreement may not be valid if you don’t sign right away or otherwise pressures you to sign immediately, say that this feels like you are being asked to sign something under duress. When you use that word, Christophersen notes, "a lot of times people will back off."

Even if you’re happy enough with the agreement to sign it right away, don’t leave without a copy. Say something like, "Let me get a copy of this before I sign, and I’ll sign both."

• Keep the name of a labor law attorney handy, she stresses. After you’ve lost your job is not the time to look for this kind of resource. The lawyer, indeed, may say you have to sign the severance agreement. But it’s worth the $200 to pay a labor attorney to make sure. Christophersen says she’s seen cases in which health care managers were able to negotiate additional financial compensation because the company didn’t put together as solid a package as it might have.

• Ask who your contact at the company will be — who you can call with questions later. Get a name before you walk out the door. Don’t accept, "I’ll get back to you." Once you leave, it’s over.

• After you’ve left the facility, dazed and confused about having your life turned upside down, pull into the nearest parking lot and write down everything you can remember about the conversation. What did the boss say? What did the HR manager say? What were you told about references, about what your staff will be told?

Don’t make these notes at your former place of employment, she warns. "Someone may come up and say, ‘What’s going on?’" Later, send a letter to your former employers recapitulating this information, saying, "This is my understanding of what was said."

• Weigh everything within the context of your situation. "If you haven’t been in the job that long — for example, only a year — and you weren’t happy to begin with, take the money and run," she says. "But if you’ve been there a long time, think about how this will affect you. Think about it before you’re actually in the situation because at that point, your mind is a total blank."

Roseann Christophersen, MBA, President, Christophersen Consulting, 6800 State Park Road, Bermuda 397, Fox Lake, IL 60020. Telephone: (847) 587-0391.