Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Something's Rotten in Brooklyn

The Washington Post ran an appalling story on August 9, 2009 about the Brooklyn Public Library, which hired a firm that specializes in coordinating layoffs to terminate thirteen employees. The firm, the Five O'Clock Club, coaches "businesses on how to execute mass downsizings and often visits companies on the designated day to help coordinate a layoff." Everything is done according to a script--employees are given a kind word and then the bad news. They also get advice on looking for new jobs, but at that point, many are probably too numb to take in what is said. The Brooklyn Public Library paid the Five O'Clock Club more than $15,000 to engineer the layoffs of a variety of workers, including some who were "career employees who [had] not looked for a job in decades ... [the head of personnel] believes the Five O'Clock Club might save the library money in the long run by helping it avoid lawsuits for wrongful termination." What was particularly upsetting about the story was the painful personal information it shared about the employees who were laid off. Enough details were provided that it wouldn't be particularly hard to figure out the identity of most of the individuals--so much for sending people "into unemployment with decency," as the President of the Five O'Clock Club, Kate Wendleton, has vowed to do. It should be pointed out that the unfortunate people who were laid off were not among the unionized employees of the Library.

In the aftermath of the story, the director of the Brooklyn Public Library apologized to staffers, saying that the "'library did not collaborate with either the Washington Post or The 5 O'Clock Club in writing this article.' Attached [to the apology from the director] 'was an apology from company president Kate Wendleton, who wrote, 'I intended this article be a profile of my company ... and not, as it turned out, a detailed and personal account of the downsizing ... [T]he mention of Brooklyn Public Library by name should never have happened.'" From here, the plot thickens.

The Post's Omblog reported on August 19 that Wendleton's "note of apology was actually written by library officials. 'I took the rap for it ... The Brooklyn Public Library wrote it, 100 percent.'" The author of the original article, Eli Saslow, has stated that "library officials knew he would be accompanying Five O'Clock Club staffers to the library, that he would be writing about it and that the library would be named in the story. He said he even contacted the library before publication 'to run through what the story was about and to tell them that employees' names weren't being used ... '"

I will think of this sorry tale the next time someone dumps on unions and wonders what they do for their members. Everyone comes out of this looking bad--the personnel director at the Library who was "nervous" and needed to be helped through the process of firing people; the library director who claimed she was misled but was on notice of what the story would contain; the Five O'Clock Club president who wrote a letter of apology and then disclosed that she had not actually written it; the reporter who needlessly revealed intimate information about fired employees and callously violated their privacy. This episode could serve as a template about how not to fire people.

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