Layoffs as a Strategy: The Message You Send When They’re Done RIGHT

© Gino Santa Maria - Fotolia.com
© Gino Santa Maria - Fotolia.com

When the phone rang the other day, I recognized the number right away.

It was from a friend of mine; we both have kids around the same age. My wife and his wife are good friends. Therefore this is a call that I always return.

When we finally chatted he said that he needed a favor. He wanted me to have a talk with his daughter.

His daughter, a recent college grad (class of 2010), had just started her new job about three months ago, working for a major brand. Although she had some doubts about this organization from the first day (she arrived and they were not expecting her to start that day), she had given them benefit of the doubt.

One day last week, she got to work and noticed a tenseness in the office atmosphere. Asking around, she eventually realized that they were possibly laying off people.

Badly handled terminations

Suddenly she looked up and one of the executives who had been behind closed doors abruptly walks out of his office with his belongings. He was the first to go on that day.

This being her first job, she was traumatized by this scene. She did not know what was going on, and apparently, no one else did either. She asked around and nobody knew anything. They were all searching for answers.

By mid-morning, there was an announcement that there would be a “all-hands-on-deck meeting” in the afternoon. That only made the problem worse. The rumor mill began to percolate: mass layoff, divisions closing, etc. Everybody began to wonder whether they would have a job.

As I listened to this story, I could not help but think about all the stories that we have heard throughout this economic turmoil of layoffs gone bad.

I was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal a few years back and I still remember one quote that I made during that interview — “If you lay off people the right way, the word will get around that you are a great place to work.”

We have all heard the horror stories of layoffs being done the wrong way. The same way that message gets out is the same way that it will if the layoffs are done the right way.

The manner in which a company handles layoffs can have a direct and focused impact on morale, commitment, and retention of the remaining employees.

Layoffs as a strategy

Layoffs, like any other project, must be thoroughly planned. The key should be to prepare and then prepare some more. The most important part of this process, besides the actual layoffs, is the “Message.”

Not only should you have a script for the meeting, but your “Message” to the remaining employees has to be on point.

As much time and energy should be devoted to scripting this message as it is to creating the overall layoff strategy. Every employee that is terminated tells all their friends what happened, and their friends will repeat the narrative. The speed that this message gets out has a direct correlation to the manner that it is done.

Do it badly and your name is all over the place very quickly.

Do it with dignity and the message going forward will be a powerful one for your company’s brand.

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Meeting with the message

Whether consciously or not, employees greet these types of meeting with basically two questions: “What’s in this for me? Do I still have a job?” That is what their attention is tied to.

By getting your message right, you’ll provide a more compelling answer to the question “What’s in this for me? or “Do I still have a job?” To fully adapt your message to your audience, try to be sensitive to those needs.

If you were in their shoes, what would you want to be assured of? What questions would you ask?

The same amount of planning that you put in making the choice as to who will stay must be spent getting the right message to the ones that are left behind.

According to my friend’s daughter, as the afternoon rolled around, everyone headed for the main conference room for the “all-hands” meeting, not knowing whether they would have a job when they returned.

Mixed message

The senior leader got up at the meeting and explained that the company was going in a different direction with a possible merger. He discussed the major layoffs of some long-time executives. He spoke about how they were still working on plans to integrate the strategy of both companies if the merger went through. From the employee’s vantage point, it was not a coherent message.

Questions & Answers are the interactive portion of any presentation. The Q&A is designed to give you (as a presenter) a chance to respond to the concerns of your audience. It gives you a second chance to support your argument and reinforce your message. It’s also an opportunity to learn more about your audience and their concerns as they relate to what was said.

At this Q&A session, everything hit the fan. Every direct question that was asked was not given a direct answer. At the end of this effort, the employees all walked out more confused than they were going in. And not only that, but the main question on so many minds was still, “Will I have a job?”

Why you need an offboarding strategy

Layoffs are just as important as onboarding new employees. There must be a strategy for layoffs, just as you have one for onboarding, and retention, or for your overall talent management strategy.

This layoff strategy should be designed to not only maintain current productivity and preserve the company’s ability to attract talent, but it should also be designed so that employees feel that the layoff process was fair and that the company did everything they could to make the transition as dignified and caring as possible. While no one will feel good about getting a layoff, there is a huge return on the time and effort spent on ensuring a fair decision in the layoff process.

My advice to my friend’s daughter was very simple: get your resume and LinkedIn profile up to date, and begin your strategy to find a new place to work.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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