Work: Pardon me, friend, but you’re in my job

Navigating the awkward social ramifications of ‘bumping’ another employee out of a job.

When the CBC announced 800 job cuts last spring, Carl, an East Coast radio reporter with only four years under his belt, knew his spot could be in jeopardy. What he didn’t realize was that the downsizing would also cost him a friend. Soon after the announcement, a colleague with more seniority exerted her right to “bump” him out of his chair when her own job was eliminated. “We were friends!” says Carl (not his real name). “She’d been over to parties at my house!”

Bumping, or “displacement,” a common practice in unionized workplaces, is intended to protect longtime employees by allowing them to assume the job of a more junior co-worker — either in their own department or in a lower job classification — in the event that their job is made “redundant.” But critics of the practice say that, by putting much of the onus on employees to sort things out among themselves, displacement policies are a recipe for all sorts of guilt, resentment and all-around awkwardness in the office. This past year, with more than 387,000 jobs slashed in Canada between October 2008 and last August alone, some workplaces — particularly in the media, airline and manufacturing sectors — have become virtual bumpatoriums.

“At first, there is a real emotional feeling about putting someone else out of work,” says Montreal-based industrial psychologist Allen Etcovitch, whose consultancy, Allen Etcovitch Associates, has helped companies facilitate downsizing operations for decades, “but in the end, if it’s a matter of you or me, I would rather it be you.”

After Carl lost his job, he moved over to the TV department to fill a string of temporary positions as a video journalist, a job he doesn’t enjoy as much. Where he works, there is no cap on the number of times an employee might be bumped, which is an unsettling thought. Making matters worse, he and his bumper still sit next to each other. “Occasionally we try to make idle chit-chat,” he says, “but I don’t know if we can be friends anymore. We will always be co-workers, one of whom bumped the other.”

Although it’s by no means a perfect system, admits Karen Wirsig of the Canadian Media Guild, the CBC’s union, displacement is still the “fairest” and most transparent way of handling an already tough situation. “It is always the last resort in a downsizing,” she says. “It’s a measure that’s used to guard against discriminatory or baseless firings in the workplace. Otherwise, you can imagine the other side. [Employers could] go in and pick all their least favourites, no matter how long they’ve been there.”

Still, knowing you have the right to bump someone doesn’t make it any less embarrassing, especially when you’re the one doing the displacing. Ha Nguyen, another former CBC employee, still feels bad about having bumped a co-worker out of his temporary job in the computer graphics and engineering department almost a decade ago. As a goodwill gesture, she treated him to lunch at a Lone Star Texas Grill restaurant in Toronto. “He was very nice about it,” says Nguyen, “but I felt bad. I still do.”

Beyond the cringe factor, one of the biggest complaints employers and employees alike have with bumping policies is that it’s often not necessarily the best performers or the most talented staff keeping their jobs. “I personally believe that performance is more critical than years of seniority, especially in a tight economy,” Etcovitch says. In 2008, however, the CBC’s union actually won the right to broaden the displacement policy. Senior employees are now guaranteed the right to bump, even if they have never in the past held the specific job they’re taking.

In many cases, displacing staff can be challenging for employees left to cope with the loss of well-liked colleagues — often ones considered great at their jobs — and to train new ones bumped from other positions or departments into theirs. This was Carl’s experience. The same week he began his job in TV, his new department began producing a 90-minute show — and his lack of experience had everyone stressed out. The weeklong job-shadow training he received was inadequate, he felt. “My second day of filing my own stories, I had producers shouting at me because it was 5:30 and I haven’t [finished] my story yet,” he says. “It’s like, man, I’ve been doing this for a day!”

Of course, despite lost friendships and being bounced around, Carl considers himself lucky to still have work at all. He’s been filling maternity leaves and other temporary contracts, building up his own seniority ranking so next time there are job cuts, it’ll be someone else’s turn. “I have five years of seniority now,” he says. “The ironic thing is that the union’s goal is to get me to six years so I can bump someone in the region.”