Letting people go is an emotional event — not just for those being laid off but for those who remain. Of course those who are let go need help with the transition to new employment. But the employees who survive the cutbacks also need reassurance about their own future — and an understanding of the strategic goals behind the cuts.
The following guidelines will help companies handle layoffs in a way that affords dignity to those let go and reassures survivors that the downsizing decision wasn’t made arbitrarily. It will also help the remaining employees feel positive about the organization, optimistic about their future, and committed to working toward a better day. Keep in mind that employees who resent how their laid-off colleagues were treated and are fearful about the company’s direction are not productive employees.
Communicate widely and often
Managers often think they shouldn’t let employees know when things are going poorly. They don’t want their workers to become discouraged. But people aren’t stupid; they know when things aren’t going well. Even if top managers spin the circumstances positively, the message comes across through unclear goals, a decrease in resources committed to ongoing projects, and other subtle clues. Discussing and acknowledging the company’s position is the first step to keeping people involved — and committed to solving problems they understand.
Fill in information gaps for your employees
If layoffs become necessary, people won’t be shocked if they have been able to see them coming. To that end, share market data and competitive information. Don’t proclaim layoffs without need, of course, but don’t undermine trust by lying or being unrealistically upbeat two months before a layoff. It’s impossible to regain trust once people know you’ve lied to them.
Give the most pressing information first
When the question on everyone’s mind is “Is there bad news ahead?” let them know. Don’t bother starting with a discussion of the competition, market forces, or the financial environment; no one will pay attention until their most critical question is answered.
Never delegate pain
The most delicate challenge is letting someone know that he or she has been let go. Don’t delegate this painful mission to the HR department. Most people are loyal first to their manager, then to their company. The person’s manager should deliver the message. Companies need to allow managers a realistic timetable to have one-on-one conversations with the employees that are being let go.
Deliver the message personally and respectfully — and listen
It does no one a favor to lay off employees with a note on their computer saying, “Don’t turn this on today!” Deliver the message in private, and give employees time to react. People have different reactions — some need to vent, some need time to think, and some need facts and explanations. Be prepared to give each person what they need to reach a stable emotional keel. Then, as quickly as possible, get them thinking about their future rather than the company’s. The primary message should be “How can I help?”
Provide outplacement support
The question everyone asks after a layoff is, “What do I do now?” Few people have a resume at hand and a job-hunting network mobilized. Outplacement helps them land on their feet. You’re offering help at a high-stress, emotional time. It sends a signal to them and to the remaining employees that you’re treating the ex-workers as people, not as line items on a budget.
Along those lines, give people the chance to pick up and immediately begin moving toward their future. Letting people go on a Friday afternoon, for example, is a terrible idea. Employees have all weekend to stew and won’t be able to do any job-hunting until Monday morning.
Exit interviews can also be useful, but may best be performed by a third-party firm. Employees can provide valuable information that they might not be willing to share with an insider. Make sure that they’re asked: “How do you feel the layoffs were handled?” This will help them vent and may also reveal important tips to make the process a little less painful.
After a morning of layoffs, no one is in an emotional state to work. Give people the space to deal with what just happened. Accept that you’ll lose (at least) a day of productivity, and do whatever it takes to help people cope with their emotions quickly.
Support survivors, too
Employees who survive the layoffs will struggle with doubts about the company’s future. They want to know how their jobs will change. Will they now be expected to do their jobs plus the jobs of their ex-coworkers? Or will their goals be changed accordingly? What is the precise state of the company financially? Are further layoffs imminent? Their doubts will begin with their own roles and expand outward to their teams and to the company as a whole. You must address each level of concern with as much rational discussion as possible.
CEOs: Be front and center
The CEO must be there for the managers as well as the terminated employees. One company planned to shut down an entire branch without coaching its managers in delivering emotionally troubling news; instead, the CEO was to come make the announcement. The branch manager and her employees gathered for the CEO’s visit, but he didn’t show. Instead, he sent the branch manager a FedEx box with termination packets and no instructions whatsoever. After an unsuccessful attempt (in front of the assembled employees) to get the CEO on the phone, the branch manager opened the box and proclaimed, “Today is my last day with the company and I’m so selfish, I’m taking you all with me.” It was a horrible moment for everyone, and the no-show CEO was instantly detested for his callous behavior. Each one of those terminated employees became an ambassador of ill will in the marketplace. You can bet that story was widely told in the months and even years after the event.
In contrast, another CEO helped his managers by giving them his prepared, written statement to read. It covered the relevant facts, including logistics concerning health insurance and other benefits, and outplacement options. After each manager conveyed the news to her employees, she directed them immediately to the outplacement center. This was a good way to orient them toward the future and help them feel supported as they started their new life as a job seeker.
Stever Robbins is president of VentureCoach.com, a Cambridge, Mass. entrepreneurial coaching service.
Stever Robbins is a serial entrepreneur, top-10 iTunes business podcaster (“The Get-it-Done Guy”), and CEO of Stever Robbins, Inc., an entrepreneurial consulting and coaching firm. He teaches at Babson College on building social capital.
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