Layoffs on the Horizon? How to Lead Through a Reduction in Force

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Forbes.com

November 30, 2018

By Terina Allen

“It’s a big company. They don’t care. It’s a business. We’re numbers. It doesn’t matter.” This is some of what Tara Gress, a General Motors’ employee, told the Washington Post in an interview about the company’s impending closures and layoffs. Tara was just expressing what most employees are likely feeling as they process the layoff news and begin a journey of uncertainty and change.

This week, GM announced that it intends to completely shut down five of its plants and terminate the employment of approximately 15,000 employees. This is certainly hard news for current GM employees to hear, but it is also the kind of news that likely brings discomfort to employees working in many other manufacturing companies and even in other industries as well. If GM needs to do this with the economy doing as well as it is, we can’t help but wonder whether the hot economy has peaked and is now in cool-down mode. Is GM just the tip of the iceberg for more bad economic news to come? CBS News MoneyWatch asserts that this indeed could be the case.

Management’s response matters.

GM has shared several reasons—and CNN reports—why it has become necessary to close five North American plants and let go of 15% of its salaried workforce. However justifiable (or not) these reasons might be, they provide little (if any) comfort to those who will actually lose their jobs. This news, no matter the reasons, has surely created instant anxiety for the employees who might end up on the chopping block and for those who will remain.

The economy and business have an ebb and flow to them that reliably provoke uncertainty, and uncertainty exists within every organization. Still, the approach that management applies as it moves through difficult times like these matters. Employees will become increasingly doubtful and anxious as they watch their colleagues become unemployed and wonder in fear whether they will be next to receive a layoff notice. It is incumbent upon managers to do things to alleviate—as opposed to increase—anxiety.

A process for leading and managing an organizational reduction-in-force (RIF).

I outline an effective RIF process below, and you can download it here as well. GM and other organizations facing a reduction-in-force (RIF) circumstance would do well to administer consistent and meaningful processes that serve to benefit employees and managers alike.

Layoffs happen and should even be expected from time to time. But managers unnecessarily exacerbate the challenges for those impacted by withholding information, providing misinformation, being overly opaque, failing to plan for and manage a consistent process and by overlooking the importance of addressing human dynamics. In contrast, the best managers and most effective leaders will do things like this:

  • Determine critical positions and departments and the criteria for these positions regarding layoffs.
  • Give as much notice of pending layoffs as possible. A lack of notice creates real resentment from those being laid off and dramatically increases mistrust of management among remaining staff (also known as survivors).
  • Address the feelings that both the laid off and remaining employees will experience. Provide a “safe place” to share and validate emotions.
  • Preserve the institutional knowledge and intellectual capital. Be certain to keep enough of the best people on board to accomplish organizational goals and/or have knowledge shared with others.
  • Base layoff decisions on sound business analysis and data intelligence rather than making arbitrary, across-the-board cuts. And avoid making decisions based on personal relationships and biases.
  • Be transparent and communicate openly and often. In the absence of information, employees will simply fill in their fears and anxieties with information, usually negative, about management and the company.
  • Reassure remaining employees of their value to the organization and how they can contribute to building a brighter future.
  • Ineffective implementation of a reduction-in-force plan could lead to unintentionally losing excessive talent and institutional knowledge. Make an investment in those left behind. It is typical for many people to “jump ship” during uncertain times so be sure to invest proper time, resources and emotional fortitude.
  • Have a clear vision and plan for operating post layoff. Will the “new” organization or department be in a position to deliver the services and/or products you require? Consider operational capacity in your lay off decisions. What kind of new stresses will remaining employees experience? Have a plan to mitigate this.

During this difficult time, managers and employees at all levels would do well to hone in on specific things they can do to make the entire process work more smoothly. Following is a guideline of best-practices for managers and employees respectively.

Specifically, managers are encouraged to understand and do the following.

In addition to the above list, managers need to be timely, strategic and particularly skilled at managing communications, leading organizational change and addressing human dynamics if they are going to be successful. Those in management are responsible to apply practices and a clear process to make transitioning through the layoff process smoother.

1. Exhibit compassionate and strong leadership.

Be prepared for and address the myriad of emotions that you are likely to observe. In addition to the financial insecurity that can be created, the loss of a job can affect other areas from confidence to self-worth. Expect feelings that span the range of confusion and despair to anger and a lack of trust. This may be one of the most stressful times for all parties involved. Try to empathize and be understanding as you manage this process.

2. Focus on the employees who will remain as well as those being terminated.

In addition to focusing on those who will lose their jobs, it is equally important that leaders recognize and address the mixed emotions of those employees who remain. There is a high likelihood that productivity, morale and commitment will decrease as a result of anxiety, instability and a perceived breach of trust. While implementing plans for the employees who will be leaving, don’t forget to rebuild trust and develop morale with those who remain.

3. Be as transparent and forthcoming with information as you can.

As stated earlier, in the absence of regular, open communication, people will seek to fill in the blanks with unconfirmed—often untrue—information. Be sure to serve as a valid and dependable source of information and resist the temptation to appear secretive, inaccessible, or withdrawn.

4. Provide as many resources as you can.

Help employees believe that you “have their backs.” Even when their jobs are being eliminated, employees can feel a sense of dignity and respect when the process is deemed supportive and fair. Make it a goal to provide real meaningful resources to help them move forward.

5. Stay in your lane and balance empathy and understanding with company loyalty.

This is the balancing act that you will need to succeed at. As a member of management, you will be expected to demonstrate a unified front and solidarity with the “management team” and the organization. Balance this expectation with the needs of the employees, and be a leader among leaders by advocating that all the recommendations listed here get considered and acted upon. It’s a delicate balance, but one you will need to master.

6. Be smart about the restructuring and realignment process.

Really look at the remaining talent pool along with the organizational programs, products, and services and make sound restructuring and placement decisions. As best as you can, match people with the right positions based on interests, talents and skill sets. How you go about doing this will send powerful messages about your commitment to the remaining employees and, if done well, will go a long way to rebuilding trust and organizational commitment.

Specifically, employees are encouraged to understand and do the following.

If you are one of the people losing your job as a result of a layoff, I recommend you do the things listed below as well as read this article entitled “I’m Losing My Job, What’s Next?” Doing these things will help you transition through this difficult—and possibly frightening—life change as good as anyone can. Yes. You can get to the other side with your dignity and mental health intact. Start here:

  1. Remain committed to advancing the organizational mission and producing high-quality work—whether you are remaining or being let go.
  2. Ask questions and bring concerns and doubts directly to management; resist the temptation to gossip.
  3. Become aware of institutional policies regarding reduction-in-force (RIF) policies, and take advantage of any and all career transition programs which might be available.
  4. Remain connected to colleagues (as best you can) even after the RIF. This is important for those who remain and for those who leave.
  5. The remaining employees need to be open and share their feelings and concerns with senior leaders in the organization. These individuals should also serve as a support system for one another and help to rebuild the future of the organization.
  6. Lean into the change. Accept the reality of the situation, and be proactive in managing your career, your emotions and your finances.
  7. Build and/or solidify your professional network and inform others of your impending change and interest in new and challenging opportunities. Stay connected! Lean on your support system.
  8. Build collaborations and establish a communication strategy that exhibits confidence and advances your interests.
  9. Present yourself professionally and in the best possible light (i.e. language, attitude, resume, interview skills and presentation).
  10. Motivate yourself! Dance, laugh, sing, and do anything else that gets your juices flowing. You are responsible for you, and you have to pull out the energy and determination to move forward. No matter what, stay in the driver’s seat, and don’t become a victim.
  11. Get up tomorrow and the next day and the next day and keep it moving. Refer to this list and this other article as often as possible. Take notes on your progress.
  12. Stay engaged and committed to high performance. You still want to bring your best day and day out despite what is going on. You are responsible for your credibility and your brand.

Continual learning is key to ongoing career and leadership success. As an employee, you want to stay curious and get your mind around starting a new job or a whole new career. As a member of management, you want to provide as much support and resources as you can to those who are leaving, and work to shape the culture and rebuild trust with those who are staying.

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