We can do better

A practice all too common in America’s C-suites is to engineer company reorganizations, better known as employee layoffs, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Typically presented to shareholders as proactively adapting to rapid market changes, we all know the primary goal is to improve the organization’s bottom line before the end of the calendar year.  Unfortunately, our own government is now following suit.
 
The recently approved budget bill signed into law in late 2013 has reneged on a longstanding commitment to take care of those who take care of us.  For example, benefits for disabled military retirees and survivors of those killed in action were slashed, and retirement benefits for veterans under 62 years of age have also been reduced.  Is this any way to take care of those who have put their lives on the line for the rest of us?
 

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Adding insult to injury, approximately 1.3 million civilians lost their unemployment benefits as of the end of December.  The program that expanded unemployment benefits beyond six months was created to help those who lost their jobs during the “great recession”—a recession that continues for scores of individuals who can’t find work that offers a living wage.  Many of these folks are hardworking individuals who have no wish to collect unemployment but now when they need it most, they are being thrown overboard without a lifeline. Unfortunately, most of our elected leaders do not seemed particularly bothered by their actions.
 
Most of us will agree that years of rising deficits, reckless spending, corporate greed, and government excess have taken their toll and need to be brought under control. But, leadership requires extra innings.  Taking away benefits from people who earned them—when they most need them—will not encourage people to enter military service or help people find jobs.  The reality is much more complicated and takes time—and empathy.  Empathy is all too rare in our corporate boardrooms and has all but disappeared from the halls of Congress. It is especially painful to note that only after the budget compromise passed both the House and the Senate, several lawmakers discovered they has voted for legislation that contained some of the egregious provisions affecting the disabled and survivors of those brave men and women killed in action. While a few have promised to correct their mistakes, there is no guarantee that this will happen.  
 
Our recent global recession has created an abundance of turmoil in the workplace, raising ominous cries of abuse, especially of those on the lower rungs of employment. Levels of discontent and distrust are rampant as the divide between “haves” and “have nots” increases on a seemingly daily basis. Trust—that indispensable and intangible statement of belief in one’s leaders—continues to evaporate in many organizations and the government. We know that trust in company leadership has waned and every recent poll has illustrated our lack of confidence in Washington. Like the principle of reputation, it takes a long time to build trust and it can be quickly destroyed by insensitive, uncaring or unappreciative actions by our leaders.
 
As we enter a new year we need to ask ourselves “Does it have to be this way in 2014?” The answer should be a resounding “no”.
 
Unfortunately, Congress has too few members who ever served in our Armed Forces and even fewer who have experienced combat—as citizens who rely on these brave men and women to defend us, we must implore upon our elected officials to take care of those who put their lives on the line every day they serve. We must help them grasp the national security perils of violating the historic pledge we have made to our veterans and their families, especially with today’s all volunteer force. Changes in military pensions must not be enacted on the backs of those who have already retired, but if absolutely necessary, can be applied to future legions of soldiers. And, those who have paid into unemployment, worked hard, and lost their job because a balance sheet needed to look better, should not have to go hungry and end up homeless because some members of Congress believe that if you are not working, it’s because you’re lazy.  We need to find the monies to extend the emergency unemployment benefits for those affected Americans for at least six more months.  
 
We need to send a clarion call to company and higher education executives and their boards of directors and trustees that effective leadership means treating employees as humans who matter—not pieces of machinery that can be discarded on a whim.  At the very least, no layoffs should be executed during the holidays. It is nothing less than criminal as it often destroys the very fabric of families.
 
Tough times should never be a license to squeeze employees or military veterans and families, especially during the holidays. Instead of a time for joy and celebration, for many families, the holidays become a time of sorrow. As a nation, we can—and should—do better.  Let’ s make sure next year’s holiday celebrations are filled with faith, reflection, joy, giving thanks, healing and renewed strength.  Let’s be sure we take care of our military veterans and fellow citizens.

Eich is president of his leadership consulting firm, Eich Associated, Thousand Oaks, CA. He is the author of two books: Real Leaders Don’t Boss and the just released Leadership Requires Extra Innings. He has served on Congressional committees for Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).