Joel Brockner on “bad process” in the Yahoo layoffs

Many feel that upper management in some of the most prominent companies has lost touch with how to care for employees on every rung of the ladder.  In his book The Process Matters: Engaging and Equipping People for Success, Joel Brockner addresses managers who want to promote a high-quality work environment for employees. Today he writes about the problem of management manipulation in the case of Yahoo’s recent, unexpected rash of layoffs. Brockner insists that it was the method used by management rather than the action of firing the employees that lead to such an outcry.

Yahoo Lawsuits Begin Over Management Manipulation

by Joel Brockner

Process matters jacketYahoo has been going through tough times so we shouldn’t be surprised to hear, as the New York Times recently reported that, “More than one-third of the company’s work force has left voluntarily or involuntarily over the last year.” It also comes as little surprise that among the involuntarily departed, some are suing for wrongful termination. It’s tempting to chalk up the negative reactions of former employees to economic considerations. After all, when people’s livelihood is at stake, it’s understandable for them to be looking elsewhere or for giving their former employers hell to pay.

However, many studies show that it’s not simply decisions that are economically unfavorable that are causing the upset. Rather, the combination of economically tough decisions and people’s perceptions of the decisions being handled poorly are putting them over the edge. Those filing suit at Yahoo claim that the way in which the layoffs were implemented was unfair, in several respects. First, the layoffs allegedly violated both state and Federal law which requires 60 days advance notice. Furthermore, there was considerable consternation about how it was decided which employees would be laid off and which would remain. On paper, it is hard to argue with Yahoo’s method: based on their Quarterly Performance Review (QPR), those people who received the least favorable evaluations were the ones targeted for dismissal.

The problem, however, is not with making layoff decisions on the basis of (de)merit, but rather, with people’s perceptions of the way in which the QPR was done. According to the New York Times, “The Q.P.R. process was opaque and the employees did not know who was making the final decisions, what numbers were being assigned by whom along the way, or why those numbers were being changed,” the lawsuit says. “This manipulation of the Q.P.R. process permitted employment decisions, including terminations, to be made on the basis of personal biases and stereotyping.”

I suppose we also shouldn’t be terribly surprised to hear that the combination of a bad outcome and a bad process makes people very upset. After all, there is an expression in everyday life that captures such a state of affairs: “Adding insult to injury.” People feel injured by the bad outcome, and they are insulted by the way in which it was carried out. However, one thing we are learning from research and experience is that the expression, “adding insult to injury” doesn’t do justice to how aggrieved people feel when they find themselves in that situation. In mathematical terms, the expression, “multiplying insult times injury” is more like it. This is why I advise people in authority positions (executives, as well as teachers and parents) that whenever they have to make the tough decisions they should do whatever they can to ensure that the process for making and carrying them out is as high-quality as possible. This is not to say that that those on the receiving end will be happy; grudging acceptance comes closer to how most people will take it. But, grudging acceptance is a lot better than what authorities are likely to encounter when those on the receiving end feel like they have had the injury of an unfavorable outcome multiplied by the insult of an unfair or otherwise flawed process.

So, the Yahoos of the world who are faced with having to be the bearers of bad news have a choice. By investing in a well-handled process, they can minimize (read: not eliminate) the ire that translates into actions like lawsuits. Alternatively, by ignoring the quality of the process, they are at peril for more lawsuits or other expressions of discontent. Over and above the ethical imperative of handling the process well, there is an economic one: would you rather spend resources needed to handle the process well, or the far greater resources you are likely to need to defend yourself in a court of law?

Joel Brockner
 is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School. He is the author of A Contemporary Look at Organizational Justice: Multiplying Insult Times Injury and Self-Esteem at Work, and the coauthor of Entrapment in Escalating Conflicts. His most recent book is The Process Matters: Engaging and Equipping People for Success.