In the new movie Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a flying executioner patrolling the skies above America’s unravelling economy, touching down only to drop the axe on the luckless casualties of the crisis.
Gary Agnew is Canada’s answer to Clooney’s American horseman of the economic apocalypse, but the veteran of the downsizing industry says such brutishness would never fly in Canada. Where U.S. firms may hire hitmen like Clooney to pull the trigger, Canadian bosses find the courage to do it themselves — with help.
“The movie has got a U.S. slant to it and is an exaggerated portrait,” says Agnew, a partner at the Calgary-based human resources company, Cenera. “We don’t go in and fire people. We train managers in how to do it humanely.”
After the layoffs, Cenera helps former staff regroup. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. Let me tell you: 95 per cent of the people I have worked with have gone to positions that are far better than the positions they were in,” Agnew says.
That’s what gives him his cheery disposition: He loves helping people turn a career crisis into a career-advancing pivot. But it’s not easy.
“I think most of my colleagues carry a fairly heavy bag full of emotions because we feel the pain people have been through,” he admits.
Genevieve Belben heads up DBM’s Atlantic Region and has overseen countless downsizing operations. Local branches of the global career management company handle small-scale layoffs, but Belben flies in when an East Coast company is closing, meaning she doesn’t quite share the itinerant life of Clooney’s character.
Like Agnew, she rarely participates in the actual terminations. “We’re the future focus. We don’t want to be tied to the bad news,” she says from her Halifax office. “We’re retained by a corporation, but we work for the employee.”
But no matter how many times she’s been through it, D-day is always a bad day. But still, “change is not a bad thing — change spells opportunity,” she says.