Our last blog discussed the many issues that arise when organizations lay off a large number of employees, or even a relatively tiny handful of key players whose absence might be sorely missed.
As we explained, the impact can be swift and severe. Think decreased productivity, impaired employee engagement, stifled creativity and innovation, and increased employee turnover. Then there is the often under-noticed challenge of ‘survivor’ guilt. Employees kept behind to carry the organization forward are often left confused, bemused and anxious about their futures. They wonder if they might be next, or if the company will even survive until the next round of layoffs, if any are deemed necessary.
Another important, yet overlooked, factor in managing the aftermath of a round of layoffs are employment law challenges. Specifically, as disengagement increases, workplace conduct issues can mount—think everything from bullying to harassment—as employees start to care less about workplace conduct expectations. In addition, some terminated employees will take legal action in search of greater severance. Some will request stress leave or make accommodation requests that place additional performance pressures on survivors. In some cases, HR compliance lapses can result in fines and penalties as managers strive to do more with less.
Fortunately, these risks can be mitigated. While layoffs may or may not be inevitable, they can be handled in an effective and proactive way if management embraces a handful of key principles:
Transparency—Be honest with your employees and explain why layoffs are necessary. To the degree to which management is comfortable, review financial data—current and projected—and outline how the organization’s financial standing or strategic objectives have rendered a downsizing inevitable. Building a credible case for a workplace restructuring is one of the most effective ways to communicate and gain acceptance of what will undoubtedly be an uncomfortable change across the organization.
It’s also crucial to have a communication plan at the ready to deliver the news. This should anticipate and prepare answers to foreseeable employee questions, include details on supports for both terminated and surviving employees, and outline next steps for the organization.
Visibility—It’s easy (and common) for leaders to ‘turtle’ in the face of an adverse situation such as a mass termination. Recoiling into their proverbial shells to avoid workplace fallout and the ensuing emotional outpouring is easier than facing that storm head on. But doing so only creates long-term challenges and can put an already fragile workplace culture in further peril. The bad news should always be delivered by either senior or middle managers—but with both in attendance—while those leaders should be prepared to take the time to listen to employee feedback, be involved in potential exit interviews and be set to ease survivor concerns. As such, employers should provide leadership training to handle these difficult conversations, especially for millennial managers that might not have experienced mass layoffs or terminations in their career.
Accessibility—Management communication isn’t a one-and-done process. It needs to be a sustained effort and leaders at all levels should maintain an open-door policy in the weeks and even months after a round of layoffs. Because employees will fill information vacuums as they emerge, management should commit to regular (e.g., weekly) small-group or town hall meetings to keep employees updated as to the organization’s progress in addressing operational issues that necessitated the layoffs in the first place. They should be prepared to listen to employee ideas, encourage collaboration and provide assistance to fill any operational gaps. Being present and available will help assuage staff concerns and preserve crucial employer brand equity. Employers should also leverage technology to give remaining employees a voice to address rumours and gaps in information, such as an online Q&A submission forum that enables a dialogue between the employer and employees.
Support—Outgoing employees will require help such as outplacement services and potentially even more complex supports such as mental health assistance, depending on the circumstances. Your organization may already have the necessary HR infrastructure in place to manage those needs, or you may need to outsource those requirements to a third-party provider.
Survivors, on the other hand, need reassurance that the organization is not only financially stable, but has a game plan to help them manage new roles, responsibilities and performance expectations. These should be communicated in writing, with clear avenues to request assistance as necessary. How will this leaner, and presumably more profitable, organization evolve in the months ahead, yet still deliver high quality products or services? It’s an important question to ask, and proactive leaders should have an answer at the ready.
They may also need mental health assistance, as well, and leadership needs training on handling difficult conversations with survivor employees that may be struggling to cope with organizational change. The days of leaders telling employees “that they should feel lucky to have a job” are done. Doing so only leads to toxic workplace cultures with major disengagement issues.
Restoration—Rebuilding a damaged workplace culture can be a long and challenging process. Communication is critical, as outlined above, but so, too, is constant employee evaluation. Some employees simply won’t be able to manage added workloads or adjusted roles. Some may need to be shuffled internally, while others will need to be let go. But it’s up to management to present a clear vision for the organization that inspires a sense of excitement, passion and commitment to success across the workforce. Use those aforementioned town halls, team-building events and even the allure of new and challenging client work, to help employees return to peak productivity and their innovative best. Employers should provide training to managers to help them spot signs of dysfunction, such as individuals taking credit for work over team efforts, the emergence of cliques, or general malaise at meetings.
Remember that the vast majority of employees want to work for a leading organization, create game-changing work and deliver the best products or services possible. In the wake of a disruptive event such as a mass layoff, it’s management’s job to create the conditions for their ongoing success.