Layoff protocol: Giving tech staff a 'heads up'

Layoff protocol: Giving tech staff a 'heads up'

Amid the drama surrounding layoffs, the last thing an IT manager needs is a disgruntled ex-employee damaging systems and morale. It's crucial that the IT department take steps to protect the company's assets, without offending either the laid-off employees or current staff.

Preventing said damage during layoffs requires that IT management conduct a risk assessment based on three issues: whether former employees once had or currently have the ability to steal intellectual property; whether they could intentionally disrupt system capabilities; and whether they have direct access to customers, according to Russ Gates, global managing partner at Arthur Andersen. This risk assessment, Gates says, should include an audit of the company's network, hardware, software, and both physical and network security.

At risk

IT staff must review IT systems access and confirm that these privileges are correctly issued and adequately secured. IT managers should also review all network logins and passwords for easily guessed passwords and for fictitious IDs that a departing employee might exploit to gain access, Gates says. Similarly, access through telecommuting must be given extra attention to ensure that no opportunities exist for hackers. Gates also insists that independent contractors' accounts be closed if the contractor hasn't worked for the company recently. Although layoffs are all about cost cutting, IT managers may consider a third-party audit, which might highlight unforeseen security weaknesses.

If highly ranked executives or IT staff are targeted for layoffs, extra precautions must be taken, Gates says. Laid-off network administrators should be shut out of all company systems immediately because they hold insider IS knowledge. The e-mail and system accounts of departing top IT executives should also be closed immediately to preempt loss of proprietary information. Remaining employees should also be asked to change their logins and passwords, Gates says.

Pull the plug

"We don't handle it any differently if one person leaves or 100 people get laid off," says Bill Coquelin, vice president of IT at Proxicom, a consultancy that cut 19 per cent of its work force on March 23. "The only difference is for people with network administrative privileges. They have the most access, and since it's an emotionally trying day during a layoff, we want to make sure we [disconnect all of their systems access] first. We don't expect problems, but you've got to be defensive just in case."

On an ongoing basis, Coquelin's staff keeps tabs on the hardware and software employees use. The company currently has 2,000 devices running through its network, including servers, laptops, and other equipment.

When IT is advised before a layoff occurs, they can retrieve all equipment, and Coquelin's staff backs up the employees' desktop PCs prior to their notification of termination. Departing staff are then allowed to copy needed files before leaving the office for the last time.

Handling network access is more complicated. Proxicom requires employees to set eight unique passwords. Each time an employee logs on to the network, a different password prompt appears. Former employees lose network access, but their e-mail addresses are kept active and hidden in an off-network server. That way, managers can route incoming messages to another employee to handle. If anyone returns to the company, the address is reactivated, Coquelin says.

"No one likes to associate good with a layoff, but I like to think we treat people professionally and ethically," Coquelin says. "We've enjoyed a close-knit community, so we have had people volunteer to come back without pay. We didn't take anyone up on the offer. Everyone is staying in touch, which is a big thing because most people in IT aren't necessarily good communicators."

Prepare for layoff landing

To stay on top of it all, aircraft manufacturer Boeing uses a termination checklist for layoffs, firings, and voluntary departures, says Dan Odekirk, senior vice president of human resources at The Boeing Co. The list ensures consistency because not all departing employees visit HR when leaving -- especially during a large layoff. (Boeing reports that their last large layoff occurred in 1995.)"Our biggest concerns are the account access that [laid-off employees] have. Maybe a pager wouldn't be as crucial as making sure the accounts are closed out," says Jennifer Davis, customer requirements manager in Boeing's central services response center, similar to other organizations' help desk.

For departures, Boeing managers check that all proprietary hardware, software, and other materials are returned. Checking in proprietary materials is made easier because Boeing requires staff to formally check out hardware, software, and office equipment for use on or off premises.

Boeing's airplanes and engines are costly, as is the technology used to design and manufacture them. All computer hardware has an easily visible Boeing ERMS (equipment records maintenance system) sticker. The sticker's bar code corresponds to an entry in a database that describes the condition and location of all hardware, Oderkirk says.

When a Boeing employee leaves, the manager e-mails a help desk point person. "This staffer has an e-mail distribution list for each employee that indicates all of the IS people who manage the various accounts he or she might have. Then our point person notifies all the necessary IS people to shut down all accounts," Davis says.

Managers outside of IS handling layoffs ensure that remaining personnel and customers who work on the premises are notified of colleague layoffs, Oderkirk says. In addition, managers follow up with the systems department so that access codes can be changed accordingly. This includes removing IDs and passwords from Boeing's proprietary timekeeping software, confiscating the ID badges that permit building access, deleting e-mail accounts entirely, and shutting down access to voice mail.

For departing Boeing employees who own Web pages on the company intranet, either the content is deleted or the ownership is transferred to a remaining staffer. Telecommuters' ISDN or DSL lines are disconnected.

Although Odekirk insists that Boeing's imminent move from Seattle to Chicago will not involve any layoffs, managers with employees who choose not to move will review the termination checklist.

The administrative costs of managing a layoff can be tantamount to hiring staff. This is especially so for IT staff, where hiring costs are four times compensation, sources say. Experts advise managers to create an environment people want to return to when the bottom line improves, to check in on departed employees' job searches, and to continue to forecast labor needs.

In addition to thinking longer term about hiring, a company may want to consider improving systems and security permanently, rather than beefing up during a crisis. Security glitches can crop up when least expected.

Jackie Cohen is a free-lance writer in San Francisco. Contact her at

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