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Creative Layoffs Give Companies Staffing Flexibility

How can an employer reduce costs during an economic slowdown but at the same time retain the "knowledge capital" of valuable employees? Some U.S. firms have come up with new and creative approaches to worker layoffs.

Accenture, a global management and technology consulting firm, has instituted a program called "Flexleave."

Spokesman Reinhard Zeigler says Flexleave allows employees who would like to step away from their jobs for a period of time ranging from three months to one year to do so.

"They still receive some income. They still receive access to all Accenture technology they are accustomed to, our computer, our voice mail," he said. "They are allowed during that period of Flexleave actually to seek employment with anybody but a direct competitor."

Mr. Zeigler says Flexleave allows the company to cut its overhead costs but at the same time retain its employees' commitment and trust.

"We are seeing both men and women taking time to do some studying that they had been hoping to do, or to spend more time with the family, some fabulous world travel," he said. "And then the door is open to bring those colleagues back after an agreed upon period of time."

The key to surviving a recession, says business consultant Andrew Birol, is to find creative ways to get the work done without either firing people or having them always on your staff.

He says job sharing, giving one job to two people to share until the economy improves, is one option.

He also recommends urging entrepreneurial employees who always wanted to start their own businesses to do just that, and sell their employer the services they are presently performing on payroll.

"You can say to the analyst, 'hey, I still need what you do and what I would like you to do is be a contractor, and I can pay you 'X' which is getting you started. You will have one captive customer who will not pay all your bills but will cover your basic expenses,'" Mr. Birol said.

If sales are too low and costs are too high, and an employer does not know what to do, Mr. Birol says, the employer might try asking the experts, his workers, for advice.

"They might very well come back to you and say: 'you know, if you did not make us do it this way, and you let us do it that way, we could do it much faster, and we could get more done with the same people and may not need to cut people out,'" he said.

Mr. Birol urges firms not to think of work in terms of jobs, but rather as tasks that need to be performed. Do not lay off workers on the basis of seniority, but rather on the basis of which tasks are essential to the company's well being. Today's new economy, he said, calls for innovation, not tradition.