Eight lessons about leading layoffs
Lay-offs have always been a part of business operations. Lately, lay-off stories seem to be lessons in exactly how NOT to manage a layoff.
As part of my work as Executive for a nonprofit organization, I led numerous layoffs. These were different from the tech industry layoffs in the news. The persons affected were direct care workers. My organization was closing residential programs for people with mental illness because the clients were moving into independent housing.
But I share a few lessons learned that I think apply to any layoff:
- Be transparent about the situation: It is important to communicate why the layoffs are happening. Employees don’t need extensive detail about the many considerations that led to the layoff. But they deserve some explanation about why this business decision was made. For the layoffs I managed, I could say that the changes were good for the residents of the sites who would now have a chance to live more independently. But admittedly, it was not good for the employees since they would be losing their jobs.
- Be transparent about the process: The lay-off announcement may be momentous, but it is only the beginning. Employees being laid off need to know what to expect after the announcement. What are they supposed to do tomorrow? When will they next hear from management? What can they do to find other employment or to handle their separation from the company? Part of my announcement included information about next steps for employees and which person in the organization they could contact for various types of questions.
- Communicate continually: Even for a well-planned layoff, changes occur as they always do in business operations. Whether or not there are changes, having regular communication updates with employees will reduce stress and facilitate transitions. This point is particularly important if employees being laid off were not being terminated on the spot. After the layoff announcement, our employees continued to work in the residential programs while the residents transitioned to their independent apartments. Lack of communication would have created extra stress, anxiety or resentment in these employees which could have affected their work with vulnerable residents.
- If you don’t know, say so: No matter how effective leaders are, they cannot know everything at all times. Leaders rely on their team to give them information and advice to guide decision making. So, if an employee getting laid off asks a question that the leader does not know, it is best to say so. But, don’t stop there. Tell the employee that you will get an answer and let the employee know about your efforts to do so, including a time-frame.
- The Union is your partner: The direct care employees I managed were members of a bargaining unit. Before, during and after the process, I met with bargaining unit representatives to keep them informed. Our relationship did not begin at the layoff. It was built over time through regular labor-management meetings. Our open relationship allowed us to work together for the good of the business and its employees. During the layoff period, the bargaining unit representatives helped me to handle some of the employee questions and defuse emotional situations.
- Don’t hide: Although I was Executive Director, it was important to me to show employees I was accessible to assist them. Admittedly, this was easier for me to do with less than 100 employees affected by layoffs than if I led a large multi-site company with thousands of employees. Yet, I do know that employees later thanked me for being accessible to them. Be mindful though. Some employees will try to take advantage of one’s accessibility to be in touch about other issues. So, be accessible but set boundaries.
- Know yourself: I was particularly sensitive to the fact that I was a white, male executive conducting layoffs with direct care workers who were overwhelmingly persons of color, and mostly women. I did not bring this issue up in the presentations and meetings. I stuck to the facts and the process. But I was aware of it. I was careful to avoid comments like “I know how you feel.” or “It will all work out.” that could be perceived as patronizing. Show respect. Don’t pander.
- In person or remote: All of the meetings that I held were in person. I felt that in person communication was very important to make the message clear and to show that I owned the decision about the layoff. These days, however, with many people working remotely, managers discuss the relative merits of in-person notifications versus remote notifications. This is a valid consideration. If employees have been working remotely, bringing them into the office simply to notify them about a layoff could cause resentment and disrupt the layoff process. In my case, even though it was before the pandemic, I was working with direct care workers who could not do their job remotely. Therefore, in person contact was needed.
Is doing a layoff fun? Of course not. I retain what a work colleague told me at the time. She said, “When stuff like this gets easy and doesn’t bother you, you know it’s time for you to find another job.” For the record, I stayed in the position I held for 6 more years after these lay-offs. I learned from the experience and am still learning.
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