Managing a Layoff – Part 2
A Detailed Account of Downsizing a Team By One Manager at a Fortune 500
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following comments chronicle a layoff event that occurred at a Fortune 500 Company, as recorded by a manager in the organization. This is the second part in a 4-part series. Click HERE for Part 1, and HERE for Part 3. Key details are omitted to keep it anonymous, however the timing, details and commentary are factual. The days identified record the timeline of conversations. Also included are some of the author’s observations on the process as it happened, as well as other notes, concerns and suggestions for other managers going through similar events.
Evaluating the List of People to Terminate
Day 12: After a couple of weeks of silence, questions were received back from the senior management team at the Business Unit, pertaining to some of the names we had submitted. Specifically questions solicited information about what they were working on, and reasons why we thought they would be appropriate for job elimination when compared to some of the other names just above the cut. Because we were initially asked for a total of 11 names, we were optimistic that the number might have been reduced since we only received questions on 4 employees. It happened that the 4 names being asked about were the same names we had recommended be moved to fill critical openings on other teams. Unfortunately, it was later stated that the other 7 employees were still on the list.
Following our reply with answers, communication about decisions being made, timing, and other planning information again went silent. We had been told that the layoff was likely to take place before the end of the quarter, which was just a few weeks away. Specifics on days, next steps, and what we could expect were not provided.
Lack of Communication About the RIF
Day 26: It had been two weeks since the last piece of communication. Jeff and I were starting to wonder if something was even going to happen, or if the situation had changed. However, on Day 26 we were suddenly given confirmation that the layoffs would indeed occur, in conjunction with an additional restructuring unbeknownst to us. All of this was to take place in just 3 days (later the same week). Jeff and I were informed we would be issuing notices of termination at our local office. Beyond the two of us, only the local Human Resources Manager would know of the RIF.
“The most difficult part of the layoff hit me square in the face as the situation became more and more real – how do I explain it to my employees? Or to the employees I have to walk out?”
Upon getting the news – again with limited details – Jeff and I sat down and discussed logistics. How would we do it? How would we do this to make it easier for those affected and for those in the vicinity? Should we call the team into a conference room while the individuals were let go? The challenge we had was simple: there were three of us who knew what was happening and 11 conversations to be had. By the time last names were called, we had no idea what to expect since word would likely have spread by that point. Our Human Resources was supposed to give us a “play by play” script and details the next day in order for us to know what to say. We agreed to hold off planning any details until we received the details from HR.
The most difficult part of the layoff hit me square in the face as the situation became more and more real – how do I explain it to my employees? Or to the employees I have to walk out? The reasons given to us from the Business Unit of softening demand did not make sense. The market was not crashing, there was no housing bubble as there was in 2009, and all of the employees were working a lot of hours, just trying to keep up. Granted, sales were down, but there was more than enough work to go around and certainly critical tasks that were still waiting for attention. Terminating employees would only make problems worse for our department.
Setting the Timing and Logistics for the Layoff
Day 27: Today we met with the Human Resources team from the Business Unit to go over a high level review of logistics and the information we were to review with the employees affected by downsizing. We were also asked to submit a schedule of the times we planned to have the conversations with the various employees, as we were going to be executing the layoff across multiple offices simultaneously. All details, however, were to be arranged with the local HR staff at each respective office.
Some of the details reviewed in the meeting included:
- A brief review of our company’s ethics and employee relations policy
- Dates for the RIF and the date of the last paycheck
- Overview of benefits for the employees (severance pay, outplacement services, post-employment health benefits, etc)
- Overview of the notification meeting, time, and protocol
- Brief overview of who was responsible for which part of the notification discussion (Manager or HR Representative)
- Brief review of security parameters
- Materials to be provided to the manager (talking points, Q&A, employee separation checklist) and HR Representative (Benefits paperwork, contact information, letter of separation)
- Tips for listening and responding to questions from the employee
- Types of reactions to expect (anger, shock, denial, acceptance) and corresponding behaviors
- Typical questions employees are likely to ask (“Why me?”… etc)
Gaps in Preparing for the Reduction
Having been through this experience before, I would advise other managers that there were some very important things missing from the overview meeting and planning session we hd with the HR team from the Business Unit:
1. A Specific Post-Layoff Communication Timeline: Particularly in times of confusion and stress, communication to employees should be the number one concern for all managers. However, during the review with our HR team, the plan for broader communication – both from key leaders in the organization and the timing at which it would be provided following the downsizing were unclear. This left managers like Jeff and I in a very uncomfortable position for the next 48 hours, considering we wouldn’t know how to answer the obvious questions we were to receive from employees.
2. Explanation of Rationale: One of the biggest concerns I had from the start was the rationale and reasoning behind the layoff. I fully understood the reason why layoffs are sometimes needed in business, and that they serve as a means of financial cost control. But despite the fact that sales were down (by 5%, not 50%), my team’s workload was very high and its ability to complete tasks in a timely manner was already difficult. We were struggling to keep up as it were, so for those employees who remained, saying we reduced people would not go well. I was hoping to get more details or explanation during the planning session in order to communicate it to others, however the statements made about why this was happening were very high level.
3. Request for Help Needed: The HR leader presenting to a group of about 20 people solicited questions for several minutes. Though answers were provided, what she did not offer, though, was help. Jeff and I both expressed concern during the meeting over security at our office because there were only two of us, plus the local HR manager, and eleven people we would be talking to. To make matters worse, our office space featured very tight, 4-person cubicles. Since we were strictly told not to speak about the situation with anyone, yet expected to work through some chronology that would minimize the difficulty and awkwardness of the situation, the logistics of the situation were troubling to us. We did not receive any help on this matter and were left to our own planning.
4. Planning for Contingencies: Because of the sensitivity and fear that layoffs create within a workforce, issuing notifications of termination must be carefully orchestrated. However, there was no discussion of contingencies – an employee calls in sick, an employee leave early for an appointment, etc. Further, since we were given word the same week as the issuance, we would also be dealing with the very real possibility that an employee was out on vacation.
Jeff and I had one last planning session at our local office scheduled for the next day. The day after that would be the layoff.