Managing a Layoff – Part 4
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, HERE for Part 2 or 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.
The All Hands Meeting Following the Release of Staff
Day 29: During the AHM, I led the conversation. I started off by establishing ground rules for the discussion. “Guys, thanks for gathering on short notice. We are going to discuss some pretty sensitive topics and information in here. I ask that you remember we are all working professionals and I expect you to hold this conversation in that way. As always, I ask that we be open and honest with communication. Jeff and I don’t have a lot of answers, but we will absolutely try our best to get them.”
Standing in the front of the room, the looks on the faces of dozens of our employees was that of disgust – this had been the third major jolt to our organization in 14 months. Though we tried our best to make them go smoothly, in truth, the Business Unit had done a very poor job providing answers or support to people like Jeff and I, who interacted with the workforce most affected by the changes.
I spent about 10 minutes walking the team through the past 4 weeks in an open and transparent manner. After the explanation of the day’s events, we took questions. Though our answers were few, the team clearly appreciated the honesty and openness by which Jeff and I answered questions. Though we did not discuss the details of how the specific individuals were selected, we shared just about everything else with the team.
Some of the questions I was asked by our employees about the layoff:
- Are there any other teams affected?
- How long has this been in the planning stages?
- Can you tell us the names of the people affected?
- Was workload a consideration when selecting names?
- Will we be able to hire temporary help to help cover gaps in capacity?
- What can we expect in terms of other communication coming out on this?
- Who made the decision to layoff people in lieu of other options?
- How was the number of people decided?
- How long should we wait to contact those affected and see how they’re doing?
- Will our interns be affected?
- Are there more waves coming for our team?
- How much say did you guys have in what’s happened today?
- How can we help?
After the Layoff: Picking up the Pieces
Day 30: With the downsizing behind us, I felt a lot better going in to the office. Not because I had to let go of employees, but because I knew that what was done was done. Though I was unable to support the rationale and move on the company’s part, I felt like the hard part was over.
What surprised me, though, was the number of passive-aggressive remarks and sarcasm over the course of the day following the layoff. For instance, at one point I emailed the team asking for a volunteer to assist with compiling a report, to which one employee replied “We have fewer volunteers.”
Another employee, in response to a questions about his team, asked me “What team? I don’t have a team.” In a third encounter, when asked about a certain project, an employee said “I have no one working on that, so we will have to just put that project on hold for the next year until I have someone to pick it up.”
“If you do not execute the RIF, you may end up needing to let go more employees further down the line to get costs under control.”
Though most comments were made in jest and part of the emotional processing of the downsizing, they were unlike the employees’ typical behavior. What was also interesting to me, even if unsurprising, was the sheer number of people who opted to work from home the day after the layoff, as well as the number of people who called it a day at 3PM (it was a Friday) and quietly left the building. When I stopped by one employee’s cubicle later in the afternoon commenting on how many people had left for the weekend, he instantly said “yeah, you could hear a pin drop in here.” The promptness of his response indicated to me how much he had thought about the silence that day.
An All Hands Meeting with the Business Unit Director
Day 34: After all notices had been delivered, the Business Unit Director held a brief all hands meeting with staff. He went through the basic reason “softening of the business” followed by a review of the organizational charts. After a few minutes of stating the changes that had taken place, he took questions of which there were few.
The Weeks Following the Downsizing
Over the next several weeks following the reduction in force, morale naturally hit very low points. Employees expressed disappointment for their friends that had been let go, anger at the corporation, and concern about the future of their own positions. Though communication was provided to the employees from the senior leaders at the Business Unit, the general feedback from our employees was that it was not well received or did not help explain what happened.
Jeff and I found ourselves serving more as therapists than managers – we had employees come into our offices looking to vent, to complain, and to express emotions. Some asked us how we were doing. A few employees asked me privately to review their resumes so they could apply to jobs elsewhere. Unequipped with a lot of answers, there was not much that Jeff or I could do other than listen and provide moral support.
Laying off employee is perhaps the hardest thing a manager has to do. Unlike firing an employee for bad behavior or misconduct, there are always doubts surrounding a layoff. Could it have been avoided? Is it the right thing to do for the company? Did you select the right people, or did you miscalculate in your decision?
And though it’s tough to watch the reactions on the employees faces when they get the news, there is a flip side. If you do not execute the RIF, you may end up needing to let go more employees further down the line to get costs under control. By not letting go some of your weaker performers, you may prevent yourself from justifying a new hire later on, who may end up being an upgrade in talent.
The lessons learned from this experience were very simple: communicate effectively; plan extensively; evaluate contingencies; show respect. Failure in any of these areas will result in a more painful experience than necessary, for everyone. Don’t forget about the employees who remain – while they are still employed, the people you had to let go were their colleagues as well as their friends.
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