Managing a Layoff – Part 3
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 3-part series. Click HERE for Part 1, and HERE for Part 2. 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.
Final Planning Session for Downsizing
Day 28: The final day before the reduction in force took place, we met with our local Human Resources Manager. Our biggest worry going forward was the number of employees with whom we had to meet (11), as compared to the number of managers (3) who were authorized to know what was happening. Jeff and I were concerned about escorting employees back to the area to clean their desks, only to call another name, since employees sat so close to one another. Additionally, we were concerned that if we spent too much time between conversations, employees could text or call one another, leading to even more concerns and confusion in the office area when we were not present. We discussed numerous plans to try to make the RIF as efficient and painless as possible given the challenges and logistics.
When laying off employees, both Jeff and I knew that reactions were unpredictable: I had seen people cry, people shout, employees smile and shake hands, and others who were silent as they headed for the door. We wanted to be as prepared and limit the possibility of outbursts in the office.
“[We] were concerned about escorting employees back to the area to clean their desks, only to call another name, since employees sat so close to one another.”
Accordingly, options we considered for how to sequence the layoff conversations included:
Option 1: Have one manager and the HR representative in a conference room close by, so that we could be near the office where the affected employees sit should there be issues. Time the conversations as quickly as possible (Starting from when the first employees arrive) to minimize the number of personnel in the office as people cleaned out their desks. We declined this option as we wanted to give employees an opportunity to leave without having to go back to their work area should they be emotional or embarrassed. Using a conference room in the immediate vicinity of the team would possibly result in affected employee running into other employees in the event that the affected employee wanted to leave quietly.
Option 2: The second option for the RIF conversations we considered was to call all employees into two separate conference rooms at random. We would then plan to have another manager present to ask for cooperation, and to state that details would be explained later. This plan would allow us to speak with the affected employees and let them leave right away, or remove personal items from their work space without doing so in front of a large number of other employees. We thought this option was viable, but were concerned about the affected employees sitting by themselves in the work area before being called to be given their notice.
Option 3: The last option we evaluated was having two conference rooms on the far side of the complex reserved to hold multiple layoff conversations at once, enabling the event to go as quickly as possible. The location also allowed employees who wanted to just leave for the day to be able to do so quietly. Arrangements could be made for them to get their belongings at a later date. We would still run the risk of an employee who opted to go back to his or her desk running into another employee walking to the conference room, but felt there was really no way to prevent this. Having two rooms available also allowed us to move from one room to the next on the fly, as needed. Jeff and I opted for this plan and agreed to be in regular contact with one another as the events played out.
Letting Employees Go
Day 29: The layoff took place in the morning. I was in the office early to make sure I could be as prepared as possible. Because of the amount of time I had worked at this office, I had grown to know some of the affected employees quite well. For this reason, I tried to minimize my interaction with the employees that week, knowing that on Thursday I would have to tell them their positions had been eliminated. Despite such efforts, the first individual I would be speaking to at 9AM happened to walk by my office and nod in my direction to say ‘good morning.’ As luck would have it, just a few minutes later I passed the second employee as he was arriving.
At 8:30AM, Jeff and I went over to the HR Manager’s office for last minute preparations. We planned for about 30 to 40 minutes per employee, start to finish. At 8:50, I was in a conference room with the HR Manager. At 9AM, I called the first employee over. When he sat down at the table, I began:
“As you know, the company is undergoing significant financial challenges. In order to maintain our competitiveness, we have had to make some difficult decisions including the consolidation of certain positions. Unfortunately, your position is one of those affected, effective immediately. We will provide a number of benefits to you to help you through this difficult time.”
Though we were expecting the conversation to take just 15 minutes (most employees don’t want to stick around and talk), the first employee asked a number of questions. He was in quite a state of shock following the news. He opted to clear out his desk, so I asked one of the other managers on my floor to clear the employee’s cube of personnel ahead of his return to the area so that the affected employee could clear out his things with as much privacy as possible. By the time I walked him to his car and shook his hand, it was 10:10.
Meanwhile, Jeff contacted me to say that he, too, was behind schedule. One of the people he was scheduled to let go was not answering his phone, nor was he at his desk such that I could locate him. We had to improvise based on who we could find next.
One by one, we let employees go, taking turns helping them clean out their desks and walking them to their cars. By lunch time, word was out and people all over the office were on edge.
When it came to the last individual to be let go, he was fully aware of what was happening. He was relatively new and did not know where the conference room was that he needed to go, when Jeff contacted him. Knowing his fate, he grabbed his keys and began raising his voice in anger. I promptly went over to his desk to take him out of the area so that I could talk to him privately. As we made the walk to the conference room, he explained that it was the third time in his young career that he would lose his job. The 5 minute walk to the conference room where Jeff was waiting felt like an eternity for me, as the employee continued to express a great deal of anger and resentment. He knew it would be Jeff and an HR representative waiting for him when we arrived at the conference room. Over the course of the morning, we had experienced all of the reactions: acceptance, shock, denial and anger.
While the last individual to be let go was still in the room with Jeff, I setup an urgent All-Hands Meeting (AHM) with the remaining staff for a little later that day. Everyone knew what had happened that morning, and while we did not have a great deal of details or answers, we both felt strongly that we should make sure the team heard what happened from us and answer what questions we could.
Click HERE for Part 4 of Managing a Layoff, the Conclusion.