Woman working and looking at cell phone.

When Nita Chhinzer was working at Nortel, the company was in the midst of massive layoffs and asked some of its employees if they were willing to be laid off “voluntarily.” She accepted the offer and turned her job loss into an opportunity. Less than a year later, she enrolled in a PhD program and studied downsizing for her thesis.

Being laid off from work no longer carries the stigma it once did, says Chhinzer, now a professor of human resources in the Department of Management, adding that an average of two per cent of Canadian employees are laid off annually. But there’s a right way and a wrong way for employers and employees to conduct themselves during a downsizing.

Laid off employees often turn to social media to express their frustration with their former employer in ways that could tarnish both reputations. It’s a difficult situation for employers, says Chhinzer, because withholding information about layoffs breeds mistrust among remaining employees and releasing too much information can result in negative publicity.

“When these massive leaks happen, they go viral,” she says, citing examples such as HMV and BestBuy, whose employees tweeted about their layoffs. When downsizing goes public, it invites media scrutiny and public outcry, which can interfere with the human resources and legal processes involved in making difficult employment decisions.

“It’s about containment of how people share information during the process so you can get accurate information out,” she says. She cautions that social media posts aren’t always factual, and companies have no control over what outsiders post. “If inaccurate information gets posted and shared a million times, that’s a real problem.”

Current employees, however, are considered to be an extension of their organization, and are expected to behave appropriately both on- and offline, says Chhinzer. If their actions harm their employer’s reputation, affect their ability to perform their job, create a hostile work environment, cause their coworkers to feel uncomfortable, or breach the Criminal Code, they may face repercussions.

“The employee has a huge responsibility to remember that whatever they’re posting, they’re acting as agents of the organization,” she says. “If their employer has become part of their social media identity, that connection can easily be made and they can be held accountable for their actions in their private time.”

Chhinzer advises those who have been laid off to avoid venting about their former employer on social media because it will only hurt their future job prospects.

It’s also up to employers to handle layoffs with professionalism — conversations with employees should be done in person, not over email or social media, or left as a voicemail. Being downsized can be stressful, causing people to react emotionally rather than rationally. That’s why some employers announce layoffs on Fridays to give those who have lost their jobs time to deal with their feelings over the weekend.

Losing a job represents a loss of identity as well as income, and can cause mental and physical health problems, she says. Layoffs not only hurt those who were downsized, but also remaining employees who may lose trust in their employer and feel guilty about their laid-off colleagues, causing reduced productivity. Layoffs also deter job seekers from applying to these companies.

But there’s a bright side to unemployment. “Look at layoffs in terms of being an opportunity,” says Chhinzer, adding that it’s a time to explore new job prospects or go back to school.