The white collar world treats employees like precious gems.

First came uncertainty. Jenny was charged with duties that felt like due diligence. She asked around and was able to confirm through her industry’s grapevine that her company was up for sale. Then came fear. A deal had been made. The buyer had a good reputation, but would she be among the survivors? Our vacation booking plans were put on hold.

Fitful weeks passed with no word, until finally came the glorious news that she would keep her job with no loss of pay, taking on even greater responsibilities. We celebrated with dinner out at a favorite place.

Then came tears. As a human resources executive, the job fell to her to wield the long knife on some 240 co-workers who were just as nervous as she had been, but not as fortunate. Almost all were talented and productive people, just redundant with existing staff in the mammoth corporation that had bought up my wife’s company. Many of them were people she had hired. Some were close friends — one so close that our teenager had taken to confiding in the woman when fed up with her oh so obtuse parents. Jenny could do nothing to save any of these peoples’ jobs. She could only break the news as gently as possible and do her best to help them in transition. During Hell Week she spent 12- and 14-hour days handing out pink slips and soothing words. Some took it better than others. Then she would come home and break down crying out of compassion for colleagues and dread that longtime friendships might not endure.

Fortunately, she is in an industry where it was within her power to ease their pain quite a bit. Everyone got severence packages totaling at least several months pay with extended health coverage, along with outplacement services. The latter includes use of company facilities and free placement counseling while they search for new jobs, even with competitors. The job market was as good as it’s ever been, so Jenny was hopeful that none of her compatriots would be out of work too long. Still, she wept for them.

A Study In Contrast: I couldn’t help comparing this scenario with layoffs as I know them in the PHC industry. What kind of sendoff do journeymen and technicians and office staff get when they are sent packing for reasons beyond their control? For that matter, how do they get treated while still employed?

After last month’s commentary, “Are The Consolidators Losing Their Luster?,” I received the following e-mail from an anonymous ARS manager: “ARS could not care less about the people in the organization. Our ‘little’ $5 million company was built on a foundation of our people. ARS is the leader in terms of taking a very successful and profitable operation and working overtime to: 1) change things just for the sake of change; and 2) sh - - all over the people who made it what it was.”

In fairness, ARS ought not be singled out for insensitive people management. Nor is this a phenomenon limited to the big consolidators. Most small PHC contractors don’t have a clue either about modern employee relations. When belts must be tightened, many loyal, hard-working people get kicked out the door with nothing more than a handshake and thanks, if that. In fact, nobody who has been around this industry for awhile would expect any different treatment. “Layoffs are a fact of life in construction,” goes a saying I’ve heard a hundred times. It’s unfathomable to many industry citizens that in other fields dismissal comes cushioned with severence pay and assistance in putting together a résumé and job search. This is the norm in much of the white collar world — a world as remote as the land of Oz from our industry’s mainstream.

Family Feeling: A couple of days ago I returned from the Contractors 2000 Super Meeting in San Antonio, which was centered around the theme of “Recruiting, Hiring and Retention.” Business futurist Roger Herman kicked it off with a thought-provoking keynote address. A central tenet was that people in today’s work force want to work for an organization that makes them feel like part of a family.

Do most PHC contractors treat employees as family? From my observation post over two decades of spying on this industry, it seems that most don’t even treat family like family! The dog-eat-dog ethic seems ingrained as part of construction industry machismo. “Sorry, layoffs are part of the business. Get over it.”

It’s so hard to find good help, everyone cries. Why oh why don’t they take a liking to our industry?