Here’s what we’ve learnt from our experience of facilitating 35 layoff events.
‘Layoffs’ – the word that strikes fear in the hearts of managers much the same as employees. This is mostly because it’s not just a business procedure but, an emotional event too.
We, however, tend to belong to a society that prefers crossing the difficult bridges when we get to them (mostly hoping that we would never have to cross them).
This implies almost zero preparation for something as ‘infrequent’ as layoffs.
And this is the reason that most of the times managers and employees, both alike, fail to view layoffs in their entirety.
Once the business decides that it needs to relieve employees due to a change in business scenario, there are three phases
By going through all three phases carefully you can ensure an empathetic layoff event and help build the confidence of your remaining employees in the organization’s future.
Phase I – Preparation
The preparatory phase of layoffs sets the tone for how the organization will be viewed in future. And hence, it becomes imperative that you prepare yourself on the below points :
1. Gather the facts
Be as familiar as you can with all facts relevant to the business decision of layoffs – this includes knowledge of the current market economy, the reasons for company’s decision to downsize, the criteria for terminating specific employees or departments and not others, the impact of the layoff on the company’s ability to meet goals and the personal and professional background of employees being asked to leave.
Not just that, but also put together all the relevant documents related to the notice period and severance package so that you’re equipped to answer all questions.
Vishvesh, an HR manager, recalls one of his experiences of laying off employees, “They have a lot of questions and they want to know everything. If you cannot answer, at least the questions that are most relevant to them, you lose your credibility. Now that I look back, I realize how under-prepared I was, in terms of facts. I kept fumbling for answers, when I should have had those at the tip of my fingers. There wasn’t much damage done as there was an experienced senior manager with me who handled the questions. But it would have been an utter disaster if I had to be alone.”
2. Plan the logistics
Start from the start – right from the venue of the layoff meeting to the people that would be present to even the day and time of that day that you would deliver the news.
Make a rough schedule of all the layoff interviews to be held, allotting a reasonable amount of time for each meet.
Also decide on the order in which you would want to see the employees – this may be based on any factors of your choice – for instance, the level of difficulty that you anticipate from them during the interview.
Avoid any last-minute changes. Also, make sure that the layoff happens in a quiet and private environment.
3. Create a guidance script
Whether you’re doing the interview alone or with a line manager, put these few things down on paper so that you don’t shoot in the dark and deviate from your agenda when emotions run high.
- All the facts of the situation
- Support that the organization will offer
- Support that the organization cannot offer
- Suggested responses for these questions. These are the most frequently asked questions that we’ve seen in our experience
- On what basis have you chosen me?
- Is this decision reversible?
- Is there an opening in another department that I can be a part of?
- If you were in my place what would you have told your family?
- My performance has been top notch. Then why me?
Always make a note of what you’d like to say. This is not to say that you cannot be natural. But looking at the sensitive nature of the topic, it always helps to prepare for all possible reactions.
The best thing to do here is to think up a sort of a script in your head.
In cases when the above questions come up, and the manager is caught off-guard, the situation can escalate into something not-so-desirable.
Of course, it isn’t essential that the employee follows your script but at least you have a reference point.
4. Expect and prepare for extreme reactions
Layoffs can be overwhelming for some employees to the point that they may become aggressive.
Expect the unexpected and always put your own safety, and that of the employee in question or other employees first. Keep security close, so that you can call on it if violence of any kind pursues.
In fact, we’ve also seen that some organizations keep an ambulance on stand-by on the day of the event.
Not only the physical safety but emotional well-being of the employees is also just as important. Make sure there is an on-site counselor available for employees when the layoff interviews are underway.
After a layoff, there was an employee who lost hope to such an extent that he called to inform us that he was on a railway track and that he intended to jump in front of the next train that passed by. It was one of our counselors, who then, helped him calm down and in subsequent sessions helped him move on with his life.
It is because of reactions like this that it becomes quintessential that the organization have all the safety measures in place.
Phase II – Execution
It’s one thing watching George Clooney, making a living out of professionally firing people in ‘Up in the Air’; completely different to do the same yourself in real life!!
Here are some details that one needs to look at as an HR manager in the context of execution:
1. Be driven by facts and a sense of fairness
Beating around the bush helps no one. Be concise and accurate. This, in no way implies being rude or abrupt or disrespectful. Most of the times, we get uncomfortable saying the difficult things and hence try to sugar-coat it (“Who knows? Maybe this is an opportunity for you to do something better!!”) or keep circumventing the main issue (“You know how difficult things have been around here. And you have been tardy at work too.”)
It’s always best to get to the point by saying something like “You know that the organization has been facing losses and the decision has been made to let you go.”
In fact, researchers believe that sticking to factual information and treating the employee fairly is what drastically impacts the employee’s perception of the layoff interview.
2. Emphasize on it being a business decision
It is important that it be communicated to the employee that this is a professional decision and not a manner of extracting any personal vendetta against the employee.
Isha had been a driven and hard-working fresher. When recession hit, the company decided to trim out the newcomers first. One day, ‘out of the blue’ as she recalls, she was called by the manager to his office.
He lectured her about her performance and how she wasn’t showing enough improvement and wasn’t making enough effort. The conversation ended with him handing her a notice about her termination.
Isha was shocked and could hardly say anything. The situation got so bad for her emotionally that her friends suggested she go in for therapy.
As she would come into therapy every week, her hatred of the organization kept growing as she believed they had ruined her career.
However, it was only through probing that it came to the fore that she was not actually mad at the company for firing her. She understood that, that decision had to be taken.
What she was mad about was the fact that her work and skills had been belittled to justify the decision of firing her.
This would be a classic example of what not to do. In no way should a manager allow a ‘you-deserved-this’ attitude to creep into the conversation.
3. Sync up your words with your body-language
Even if you say you wish the best for them, and if your body language does not indicate that, they are more likely to believe what they see, not what they hear.
At Santulan, we study the science of body language in-depth. Check out some of our videos on body language that might help you become more aware of the kind of signals you’re sending off.
4. Make it a two-way conversation with an outer limit
Give a patient listening, without falling into the argument trap. It’s important for them to feel that the process is fair and compassionate, they need to feel they’ve been heard adequately.
However, you need to be prepared to close the conversation when it’s not leading in any direction.
For example, an employee might get so overwhelmed that he may start weeping and yelling. Also, the employee may keep demanding a reason and keep arguing that he doesn’t deserve this. At this point, it’s important to gradually end the conversation. You could direct your employee to your EAP or an on-site counselor at this point.
5. Help create a network
If you believe in the potential of the employee, there is nothing wrong with sharing professional contacts that you may have. This might help your employee secure a job once he leaves your organization.
For instance, when the organization decided to downsize; Gautam, who was a senior manager decided to give customized letters of recommendations to people in his team. Not only that, he even forwarded his contacts in the industry to make sure his employees had a point to start at.
This is not where it ends though. We tend to think once the news is delivered the hard part is over. Well, it isn’t yet.
Execution of layoffs can be an emotional experience for managers as well.
Many managers tend to feel responsible for the loss of their employees’ jobs and therefore it becomes necessary to help this group cope.
It’s essential that this be talked about, that managers get a chance to vent out their feelings of negativity. However, it isn’t enough to only talk.
Some retreats can be scheduled specifically for the managers where they get to de-stress, physically and emotionally while also building their teams again. And this brings us to phase three – consolidation.
Phase III – Consolidation
This is the time when employees start adjusting into their new roles and apprehension runs high.
This time is best invested in building meaningful and trust based relationships within teams.
Research from the University of California suggests that there are three factors which impact the remaining employees’ reactions
- The fairness of the layoffs and how it was handled
- Changes within the organization such as career prospects, quality of new job responsibility and job security
- Information about how their other colleagues are reacting
So, keeping these factors in mind, here are a few things the managers can do :
1. Acknowledge the event
When the manager confesses to genuine feelings and says something like “I know you have lost some friends in this layoff. It has not been an easy thing for the organization either but we need to start over and we can’t do it without your support.”, it does two things:
- He becomes a real person to the employee and not just some villain with no feelings
- It helps normalize feelings, where an employee realizes that he’s not crazy to have the feelings (anger or grief or fear or something else) that he has been having, that others may be sailing in the same boat as him.
2. Be available
Negative employee reactions are to be expected but make sure they feel like you’re available in case they need to discuss some concerns. Your availability and openness will serve as a reassurance to them when they have such questions in mind –
“Am I even doing this right?”
“Will they sack me the moment I make a mistake?”
3. Give them goals
Make sure that you give them specific and precise goals for future so that they can track their own progress and they know when their performance is not up to the mark.
The more clarity they have, the less anxious they will be.
Layoffs are a new beginning, don’t forget to treat it that way.
We had a client, who came to us in a very frustrated state of mind. He was a manager of a company that had laid off a few employees some 3 months back. He claimed that he had been following all the DO’s of handling employees after the layoff.
However, the unit morale had failed to improve. After an extensive session of analyzing his interactions with employees, he himself realized that he was regularly making comments like “Do your best” “You can do it” every time he gave tasks to his employees but never with a clear end objective in mind.
They were just random assignments without any clarity about how they would fit into the employees’ KRA’s for the year. In fact, he didn’t even sit down with them to re-align their KRA’s in the light of the recent event.
He now knew where he needed to do course correction.
Layoffs are never a desirable event – not for the employee, not for the managers and not for the company either. But if handled in the right way, this undesirable event can become an opportunity for growth for both the employees and the organization.