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Two Kansas City Star reporters told to choose who gets sacked

You could call it the “Hunger Games” approach to layoffs – one that’s getting a big thumbs-down from workplace experts.

The Kansas City Star recently told two of its journalists, Karen Dillon and Dawn Bormann, that only one of them could keep her job -- and the employees themselves would have to decide who should leave the company, according to the media blog

Dillion confirmed the report in an e-mail to NBC News, but did not provide any more details. The investigative reporter has worked for the Kansas City Star since 1991, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Bormann did not answer an e-mail seeking comment. She reportedly is leaving the company, according to KC Confidential, a blog that covers Kansas City issues

On Monday, Mi-Ai Parrish, president and publisher of the Kansas City Star, announced in a memo to staffers a new round of layoffs -- the third since she joined the company in 2011, according to MediaKC, a blog that covers media issues.

In a statement e-mailed to NBC News late Wednesday, Parrish said the paper was cutting its workforce by 17 positions.

"These are always difficult decisions, so we will on occasion allow employees to volunteer for a severance package when we are reducing in areas where there are two or more of the same types of positions," Parrish said.

She added that if an employee in a group does not volunteer, "then the person with the least amount of tenure is included in the severance program."

Parrish declined further comment on personnel decisions.

Workplace experts said it’s practically unheard of for a company to take this approach when deciding who to terminate – for good reason.

“I would strongly caution any organization from insourcing layoff decisions to the employees. There’s a reason why they pay people in leadership positions more than they pay their direct reports,” said Bob Kelleher, CEO of The Employee Engagement Group and author of the new book “Creativeship: A Novel For Evolving Leaders.”

“Leaders should be held accountable for making those tough decisions," Kelleher said. "I don’t believe it should be the employees who are put in a position to make those decisions.”

Companies sometimes ask workers to step forward in a voluntary layoff situation, but pitting one person against another is not the way to go, said Nan Russell, host of the “Work Matters” radio show and author of “The Titleless Leader.” 

“Personally, I think it’s very appalling that individuals would be in that kind of situation -- not only from the emotional standpoint for them to have to make that decision, but also for what happens to the people who are left behind and their now lack of respect for the leaders in that organization,” she said.

Management usually has guidelines when it comes to layoffs, whether the call is made based on performance or other factors, Russell said. Employees, in turn, expect that their leaders will make fair, tough decisions, and when they do, they earn workers’ respect and trust.

But making two people choose who will be the one to leave indicates someone lacked the courage to make the choice, she added. That can create problems beyond the pain of the employees involved.

“Not only are they going to feel terrible no matter what the decision is, but the people left behind are, too,  and are going to wonder what’s going to happen to them... . Do you get chosen next?” Russell said.

Any action related to a layoff is always closely watched by the remaining employees, Kelleher said. A company always needs to evaluate what effect any decision will have on the individuals involved, as well as the organization and the brand, he said.

“Every action has a reaction,” Kelleher said.