Involuntary Separation: What Really Happened? 

Involuntary Separation: What Really Happened? Hiring Best Practices Qualifying Employees Job Transitions

Lay-off, downsizing, restructuring, job consolidation or RIF (reduction-in-force).  Candidates often use these terms in interviews to explain an involuntary separation from a previous employer.  In our hyper-dynamic business culture of acquisitions, cost reduction and strategy shifts, it’s easy to accept these as common events beyond a candidate’s control.  But recruiters should dig a bit more to reveal the untold story.

When evaluating a candidate’s employment history, parse job transitions into two types: voluntary and involuntary.  Persistently low levels of employee performance seem to rarely result in an outright termination, and other, less confrontational methods may be used by managers to fine tune an organization’s workforce.

“My job dissolved when the new CEO came on board.”

“My manager was let go, and then six months later I was too.”

“When my company was acquired, they got rid of the whole marketing team.”

“There was an increased focus on cost cutting; then I was notified that my job was being combined with someone else’s.”

No matter which term is used by a prospective candidate to describe a past job transition as involuntary, but not a termination, savvy recruiters should ask a few more questions to gain insight to underlying reasons:

How many employees — or what percentage of the workforce — were affected?  The higher the number (or percentage) of employees adversely impacted by an event, the more likely the move was made as part of a strategic decision for the entire company.  Large-scale decisions are not targeted at individuals.  They are meant to bring about significant and rapid change for the good of the whole organization.  

Conversely, if the applicant was the only employee affected, or perhaps the only member on a team to leave, the underlying reasons are highly correlated to the employee.  It still may not be due to performance, but whatever happened was more likely connected to the individual employee, and not the larger company.

At what level was the decision made?  If the candidate knows where the decision to reduce came from in their organization, the same premise holds true.  The further removed the decision-maker was from the candidate, the less likely the event was due to the candidate’s performance.

Was it a surprise?  If no, the candidate likely saw the proverbial handwriting on the wall before learning of the separation.  Whatever happened was due to organizational issues that were larger than just him or her.  However if the announcement was a surprise, although it’s not an automatic red flag, the decision was made for reasons not previously discussed with the employee.  Surprises can make it harder to rule out reasons due to performance.

Were alternatives offered?  In situations of re-structuring, jobs can move hundreds or thousands of miles away.  If the candidate was offered a new role locally, or the opportunity to relocate with the job, that’s undeniably positive.  It suggests the employee’s performance and overall value were still appreciated.

Is there a pattern?  Most obvious of all are multiple events in a candidate’s career where involuntary separation occurred.  Yes, some folks can be unlucky and have found themselves too often in the wrong place at the wrong time… but not that many.  If there is a pattern, there’s probably more to it.

As with any part of candidate qualification, all information should be evaluated as part of a prospect’s larger story.  Context is important, and there can always be extenuating circumstances.  There are no clear “if/then” situations.  But the recruiting pro who takes time to learn the details of job loss can better discern the real situation leading to separation.