Laying Off People in Times of Change

When organizations must restructure or rebuild or go through major change, many times they must lay off workers. This is always difficult, but there are things you can do to ensure a successful transition. 

Communicate With Impact

No matter what actions you take it’s important to realize that employees are nervous, and many of them are essential to future success. Poor communications will lose your workforce. Keep in mind, when people don’t know or understand what is happening, they make it up. That means the rumor mill heats up and burns out of control. Don’t let that happen. Control the message. Use an encouraging tone that acknowledges that difficulties lie ahead, but still keep a positive vision for the future. 

Above all, be truthful. Your credibility and ability to lead is on the line.

Who Stays and Who Goes?

Deciding who stays and who goes begins with rooting out toxicity from the organization. The good news is that toxicity comes right to your front door; all you need to do is listen for it. Essentially, toxic employees will tell you how good they are and that pretty much everyone else sucks. Perhaps they might attack past management with a “Glad those idiots are gone!”

You also want to identify those that are “dug in” and firmly believe change is unnecessary. Unfortunately, the typical “dug in” profile is a long-term employee who likely contributed much to the business in the past. The trick here is to find those that will come along and re-engage. 

This entails talking to your people. The main point of discussion is to present the current status of the company and department, the things that are going to change, and the employee’s thoughts and opinions on that change. It is a process that elicits a response like “it’s about time” or “I am pretty excited to get started” — or “that’s never going to work” or “we’ve tried that before and the results were disastrous.” Either way, it will gauge whether an existing employee is going to support or drive the change, or resist or even undermine it.

The best part of this process, of course, is to find those who are highly engaged and energized by a new and improved executive team. They’ve got a kind of turn-me-loose mentality. This is your A-team. 

Once you’ve assessed your existing talent, once roles are revised and talent gaps have been identified, you’ll have a list of people whom you’ll need to let go. This needs to undergo a thorough analysis. Past performance history needs to be reviewed, along with disciplinary history. 

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Another often missed, but critical component of this is the adverse impact analysis to eliminate discrimination exposure. This means looking at whom you cut loose based on race, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, and the many other protected categories. 

Once this is complete and you are convinced no adverse impact exists, it’s time to roll…or is it? 

Actually, not so fast. Separation agreements need to be prepared, meaning severance policy amounts, benefit continuation, and outplacement considerations.

Planning for the Future

You can see how it’s a massive understatement to say that HR will be busy during this time — for at the same time that HR is working with senior leaders to plan a substantial reduction in force, they are full speed ahead supporting the company’s recovery effort. This includes new job content for new roles, counseling on org-design issues, market evaluations for new roles, upping the business’ recruitment brand, and prepping employment ads. If you think it sounds a bit convoluted, you would be correct.

Ultimately, the key points to remember during any reduction in force are:

  1. This is hard.
  2. You have a job to do — it is to save the organization.
  3. Know your goals and commit to the strategy to make it happen.
  4. Surround yourself with people you trust. Even better if they are effective communicators. 
  5. HR is essential to navigating this terrain. 
  6. Commit resources to the employment law aspects of your task.
  7. Treat everyone, including those exiting, with respect. Do your best to help them transition.
  8. Communicate with your employees profusely. They are scared. But they can handle the truth, and your credibility depends on it.

Kurt Meyer is a managing consultant with Best Workplace Solutions, a part of Michael Best Consulting LLC. He has extensive experience with human resource systems and multi-plant and multi-facility management, and a history of successfully aligning strategies with company growth.

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