Managing a Reduction in Force Is Tough but Preserving Trust Doesn’t Have to Be

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May 6, 2020

As strategic HR leaders, we find ourselves tasked with the challenge of spearheading a significant organizational restructuring effort. Whether the change is driven by growth, a shift in strategy, a merger or acquisition, or a global pandemic like the COVID-19 crisis, these high-pressure situations are never easy and always emotional. As HR leaders, we have the power to preserve trust and optimism (versus paranoia and detraction) during these trying times in three critical ways.

1. Establish and communicate guiding principles

It seems simple, but when decisions get tough, leaders need guiding principles. They need a set of agreed-upon criteria that they can use to drive all decisions related to a reduction in force. Those guiding principles should cover objectives, structural items, and selection criteria. They should be crisp, clear, and succinct enough to fit on one page.

Guiding principles should be determined by the leadership team and approved by human resources, finance, and the chief executive (most senior-level leader of the impacted organization). The guiding principles must be established at the start of the process and revisited throughout the decision-making, communication, and implementation of a reduction in force. They will anchor leaders in a true north for the efforts, provide the rationale for individual decisions that are emotionally challenging, and equip the leadership team with authentic key messaging to use in communicating changes to the organization once ready.

2. Spread the word strategically – from the bottom to the top

Once decisions have been made and you are ready to announce a major restructure, you’ll need a detailed, human-centered communications ‘run of show’ in the following order:

  1. One-on-One meetings with impacted employees. These brief meetings should focus on business rationale, address employee questions and concerns, and leave employees feeling cared for, despite the difficult circumstances. They require careful logistical planning and thoughtfulness when it comes to sending meeting notices; reserving conference rooms with privacy windows and tissues (or private videoconferences in the era of COVID-19); and prepping documentation including scripts, notifications, and FAQs.
  2. Leader-led staff meetings. Once managers have communicated with impacted individuals, leaders should host small-group staff meetings with their teams to provide topline messaging, answer questions, and set longer-term expectations about what’s to come. Leaders can take advantage of ongoing staff meetings for these discussions. If regular meetings aren’t in place, this is the time to initiate them. These don’t need to be content-rich agendas — and, most certainly, do not require leaders to communicate about individual impacts (in fact, do not communicate about individuals during these meetings). This is a wonderful opportunity to share key messages and, more importantly, to connect with people and address their concerns and anxiety during a time that matters most. These meetings open an ongoing dialogue between leaders and employees, which is critical during times of uncertainty.
  3. Large group communications. Once individual and small-group meetings have been completed, senior leaders should provide large-group communications. Depending on the culture of your organization, these can be in the form of town-hall meetings, webcasts, or emails. These meetings should reinforce topline messages about what is happening and why, as well as what to expect moving forward. In addition, they should provide participants with an executive point of view regarding the future of the organization, and give employees another opportunity to ask questions. Live town halls or webcasts are ideal, but in some organizations, emails will do. When employees see their senior executive communicating, they feel cared for and more optimistic about the future.

3. Mobilize your “Magic Middle”

Your front-line supervisors and managers — your “magic middle” of the organization — are a lynchpin in any significant organizational restructuring. You must quickly train them to understand why the reduction in force is important for the bigger business strategy and speak about it with clarity, relevance, authenticity, and optimism. They will be the ones to translate the information to their teams and coach others to adopt a new normal over the long term, so follow these two rules:

  1. Give middle managers a preview of EVERY communication. Once the time is right, ensure your front-line supervisors and managers have an advance copy of every communication, even if it’s just a few minutes prior to the wider distribution. This will ensure they are equipped with the key messages, which they can reinforce with their employees when questions arise. Communicating with them earlier in the process will help them feel respected and equipped to drive accountability and ownership of the decisions being made.
  2. Train middle managers on how to communicate with employees during a reduction in force. Gather your leaders in a room (or virtually, in the era of COVID-19) and give them the opportunity to express fears and concerns about implementing a reduction in force. Provide them with tools to address these concerns, messages to inform and inspire their teams, and an opportunity to rehearse, get feedback, and address questions.

In the end, remember that people are people. No one enjoys terminating their colleagues. These decisions are difficult. But with a true north, a respectful cadence of communications, and the opportunity for leaders to get more comfortable with the idea, you can use these moments to honor your employees’ dignity and, in doing so, build trust and respect for the long term.