There came a time in my business career when one of the companies I had purchased—a meat processing plant—just didn’t have the staying power to survive. I had done everything I could to make the company a success, but after three years of hard work, long hours, and millions of dollars in losses, it was time to throw in the towel.
My company employed 200 workers, and under federal law (the WARN Act), any company with 50 or more employees is required to give those workers 60 days’ notice before closing its doors. I knew it would be ethically dishonest to take the easy way out—to simply issue pink slips, skip out during the wind-down period, and delegate the job of closing the business to someone else. Instead, I called a plant meeting and delivered the bad news myself.
It wasn’t easy to terminate people who’d worked so hard for me for years and, in the same breath, ask them to keep working for another 60 days so I could fulfill an existing contract. It would be entirely natural for employees in this situation to be angry and resentful—not reactions that would give an employer confidence that they would show up for work after that. And it wouldn’t be unheard of for angry employees to lash out against the owner, harming the plant or its products in some way, just to get even.
I didn’t want that to happen. As I stood in front of my employees explaining to them why the plant had to close and giving them a brief recap of the efforts I had made to try to save the business, I could see the disappointment and fear in their faces. I wanted them to understand that I cared about them, that I’d done my best for them—and that I was truly sorry.
My plan was to tell them those things in a calm, clear, unemotional way. But when I stood in front of the men and women I had talked to and worked with every day, tears filled my eyes. I couldn’t help it, and the tears continued to fall until my speech was finished. I stood there embarrassed that I was unable to hide my emotions, and I feared an angry crowd of disgruntled workers would jeer and mock me. But, as I dried my eyes and tried to regain some composure, one of the workers shouted out, “You’re not so tough, Boss!” and the rest of the workers applauded and laughed.
It was a telling moment for me. As a leader, I had always thought that having a buddy-buddy relationship with my employees would compromise my ability to manage effectively. I followed this principle throughout my career, and it served me well until that day. However, I realized then that there are times when compassion and empathy should guide your decisions, and if your emotions are sincere, a moment like that one will be remembered and appreciated by everyone who witnesses it.
But crying in front of my employees couldn’t be the end of it. This was my first plant closing so I had no prior experience in how to proceed. My core belief has always been to put myself in the other person’s shoes in order to solve a problem. So, I asked myself, what would I want my employer to do for me in this situation? I decided then that if they were going to spend the next 60 days working for me, I’d spend the next 60 days working for them. While the plant remained open, I would tell them the truth, provide for their short-term needs as best I could, and help identify other job opportunities.
One of the things I did was offer employees the opportunity to work up to seven days a week, with three separate shifts per day; they had the option, through overtime, to earn at least twice their usual take-home pay for eight straight weeks. I gave them all accrued vacation and sick pay, plus two weeks’ severance on their last day of work, which added up to about a month of pay. I hired bilingual job counselors to help non-English-speaking workers fill out their unemployment papers. I gave them an hour of paid time to visit the plant’s job counselor and a paid day off if they needed to interview for other jobs. I called competitors and urged them to hire line managers, and I wrote letters of recommendation for each position manager. And I met with the local heads of my company’s labor unions—the Teamsters and Meat Cutters’ Union—and asked them to set up a help desk in the plant for workers to locate job opportunities and fill out any necessary paperwork, so they would be on file with the union office.
These actions, combined with an open-door policy during that time period, created a positive atmosphere that reaffirmed my belief that if you treat others with honesty and respect and preserve their human dignity, they will reciprocate in kind. All of my employees stayed on and saw the company through until closing day, allowing me to meet my contractual commitments. It also gave me the opportunity to say a personal thank-you and good-bye to each and every one of them.
Less than five years later, I opened a new meat plant about 60 miles away. Surprisingly, many of my former employees found me once again and became the core of my new team and work force for many years to come.