What employers often forget during a layoff

Massive layoffs may be the new business norm. Earlier this year, Deutsche Bank began slashing 18,000 global jobs while, in 2018, General Motors laid off 14,700 workers, Toys R Us dropped 30,000 employees, Verizon Wireless let go 44,000 staff and Wells Fargo announced a three-year plan to lay off 26,500 workers. The latest casualty is WeWork, an office-sharing start-up that plans to cut 4,000 workers, or nearly one-third of its workforce.

Even in a tight labor market, layoffs are never good news. While it’s natural for HR professionals to focus their efforts on the workers being laid off, some ignore the needs of remaining employees, whose morale and productivity may plunge in the months ahead. HR must develop solid business and transparent communication plans that coach employees through the transition, rebuild their trust in management and engage them in the company’s new mission and culture.

“The most critical thing HR needs to do is provide clarity of purpose and education,” says Jill Havely, managing director of talent and rewards at Willis Towers Watson, a global advisory, brokerage and solutions company. “Help employees see the vision of your company and know where and how they fit into that vision.”

How Will My Job Be Affected?

Managing a massive layoff demands a multi-layer, multi-dimensional approach. Start by delivering broad communication to the entire workforce that explains the layoff–the how, what, why and when–which can help minimize “survivor’s guilt,” Havely says. Then, identify the layoff’s impact on different segments of your workforce and be prepared to address employees’ questions about job responsibilities, available training or resources, and if their job is safe or at risk.

Havely says this approach relies heavily on transparent, timely and open communication, which will help employees regain their trust in the organization.

“Companies that have the most success going through these types of massive layoffs are those that have strong leaders and a strong sense of employee trust,” she says, adding that change ambassadors may be appointed to act as sounding boards for employees. “By understanding your rationale and how they fit in, employees will get it–but emotionally, it will take time. Their friends are leaving, and they might feel extra pressure.”

Show You Care

When communicating with employees, avoid using email, says Laura Hamill, chief people officer and chief science officer at Limeade, a software company that elevates the employee experience.

Instead, encourage the company’s leaders to conduct town halls to disseminate information and address employee concerns.

“It shows that employees matter to them, are worth their time and that they want to hear their voice,” Hamill says, explaining that email messages tend to be cold and aloof. During these meetings, she says, it’s important for executives to articulate the company’s values and new or modified workplace culture.

Related: Why HR leaders need to cultivate connections 

Likewise, HR needs to train managers on how to hold similar conversations with their staff, she says, adding that burnout must be part of that conversation. Existing employees often absorb more responsibility, which can be overwhelming. HR can train managers and employees about burnout–what it is, how to recognize the signs and where to go for help.

“Of course, layoffs are hard and there’s a lot of tension,” says Hamill. “How you treat people throughout this whole process is an indicator of whether or not you will still have any [employees] remaining on the other side.”

Middle Ground

Some organizations, especially those with a mature talent-review process where employee skills are mapped out, convert layoffs into career opportunities.

“Part of your planning process should be sitting down with line managers to review the skill sets and career aspirations of those who remain,” says Daniel Ratti, principal and head of leadership development for South America at KornFerry, a global consulting firm. “Do appropriate matching [of people with job tasks] in a way that’s deliberate, accurate or consistent with what you know regarding their career aspirations and potential.”

For example, maybe someone in business development was laid off. Assign some of that individual’s responsibilities to a remaining employee who’s interested in that role. It may actually motivate that worker, explains Ratti.

Unfortunately, HR professionals sometimes feel pressured by senior management to quickly execute employee layoffs. By succumbing to this pressure, he says, HR must then deal with the negative consequences of an incomplete strategy that doesn’t sustain employee engagement and performance among the existing workforce.

“Try to find some middle ground because the consequences of just doing it and being overly transactional are going to be much greater than if you take a bit of time,” says Ratti. “Give yourself a little bit of a runway so you can take a more thoughtful approach.”

As more HR professionals progressively learn how to live with mass layoffs, he says, one key lesson involves the importance of connecting layoffs with the company’s overall purpose.

“When [remaining] employees understand your ultimate goal, why and how you do business, the impact your company has on clients and society, and tap into that energy source, that activates discretionary efforts,” says Ratti.

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Carol Patton
Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.