In Downsizing Economy, Is There a Jewish Way To Lay Off?

By Nathaniel Popper

Published February 25, 2009, issue of March 06, 2009.
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Behind the headlines about the massive layoffs sweeping the Jewish world are experiences like that of Rochelle Mancini.

Mancini worked at the American Jewish Congress for 23 years until December, when her employer learned that it had lost much of its endowment in the alleged Ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff.

A few weeks later — just a day before New Year’s Eve — Mancini was called in late in the day and told the next day would be her last. To add to the trauma, Mancini was told that if she wanted her health coverage to continue beyond the next day, she would have to write a check immediately.

Mancini had sympathy for her organization’s unusual financial straits — more than half of the AJCongress’s employees had to be let go — but Mancini said she believes that there were simple ways to have handled her situation better, particularly at an organization that bills itself as a voice for Jewish values. “Had I had two more days of advanced notice, I could have saved hundreds of dollars on health care,” Mancini told the Forward. “Those kinds of things, when you are unemployed — they matter.”

Mancini’s experience starkly lays out a question being confronted by organizations across the country: What is the right way to fire someone?

The ethics of laying off employees are of general concern, but Jewish organizations face the additional burden of publicly representing Jewish ethics and values — a burden that many communal insiders say is too frequently ignored. “One of the very weak points of our collective service is how we deal with personnel matters,” said Danny Allen, the CEO of Magen David Adom of America. “If it took a few extra dollars to keep our humanity or the humanity of the people we employ, I think we owe it to the people we employ to cover that.”

Surely, no one being laid off enjoys the experience. “I don’t know anybody who has been laid off who thought they were treated fairly, or that the employer did it well,” said David Edell, the president of Development Research Group, which provides professional consulting for many Jewish nonprofits.

But Edell and others agree that there are better and worse ways to do the dirty deed. Consider, for example, the case of Herbert Lazarus, who worked for nearly 25 years shelving and retrieving books at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan. In early February, just two years short of his retirement, Lazarus was called in and told he was being immediately terminated. Fellow employees said that Lazarus, who is legally deaf, was not offered any help in finding new work or in tracking down benefits to help pay for living expenses and health care.

More than 70 scholars and researchers have signed a letter calling for Lazarus to be reinstated, citing YIVO’s Jewish obligations. “As a Jewish organization, particularly one that is rooted in traditions of social justice, it behooves you to consider the welfare of your employees,” the letter said.

Carl Rheins, YIVO’s executive director, would not comment on the letter or on Lazarus.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, an editor of “Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality,” said that Jewish texts and tradition are filled with discussion about the importance of work — and the responsibility that employers have to employees. When it comes to the intricacies of firing employees, Dorff said their employees should be given ample advance notice, and the personal situation of each employee should be taken into consideration.

“Try to avoid firing people who have worked for decades and who are a year away from their retirement or their pension,” Dorff said. “It’s just mean, frankly, to fire people at that stage. And it’s ungrateful for the services they’ve rendered.”

At the American Jewish University, where Dorff works, cutbacks have been necessary, but Dorff said that the staff elected to take salary cuts as a group rather than allowing any individuals to lose their jobs.

Simon Greer, president of Jewish Funds for Justice, said that one of the best ways for organizations to ease the injustice is to distribute pay cuts across the board. Greer said that the tendency at many organizations is to begin by cutting the people at the bottom of the pay scale, but, he said, it is often these people who can least afford it.

“People who have been making good money for many years likely have more to fall back on than someone in a lower-level support position,” said Greer, whose organization runs leadership seminars for Jewish communal professionals. “We believe that the pain should be felt progressively down the scale.”

That is often easier said than done. At YIVO, where Lazarus was fired, a number of lower-level staff members offered to take pay cuts rather than have entire positions axed. The YIVO board instead decided to begin with layoffs. At the American Jewish Congress where Mancini worked, an executive, Marc Stern, said the severity of the organization’s economic losses made it impossible to take any partial measures.

“There’s no question this was an uncomfortable situation,” said Stern, the acting executive director. “Giving people the time to clean up nicely and leave at a more humane pace was costing us money we no longer had.”

Stern and other executives cited the stress experienced by executives who have to carry out these steps. William Rapfogel, who had to fire nearly a dozen employees at the Metropolitan Council for Jewish Poverty last summer, said that the experience of firing a loyal employee is “horrible — it’s just really awful.” Rapfogel said that the stress can often lead executives to be more remote —and less honest. In Rapfogel’s case, he said it was made easier by the fact that his own organization’s vocational programs could give the fired employees help in finding and training for new jobs.

One of the most famous Jewish rules is Maimonides’s notion that the highest form of charity is to help another person find work. Executives who have been involved in firings say that the most important thing an organization can do is help former employees seek out new jobs.

Mancini said that at AJCongress, the executives seemed too harried to offer anything of the sort. The experience left her with a bad sense of déjà vu.

“When I was growing up, you would hear horror stories about big manufacturing companies letting people go just a year before their retirement,” said Mancini, who was herself readying for retirement. “I think I had assumed that issues of ethics and treatment of people in the workplace had evolved. And I think they probably did. But I think we underestimate how cataclysmic events can erase those advances.”

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