YOU'VE DECIDED TO DOWNSIZE...NOW WHAT?
With so many organizations eliminating positions and reducing staff in Calgary, it’s critical that for the sake of the people losing their jobs and the organization that needs to carry on afterwards, layoffs are done the right way. Unfortunately this is not an area in which there is broad-based sophistication. Very often we find that permanent damage is done across the board: to the departing employees, to the company’s brand, and to those left behind.
Here is the first installment of our weekly series Departing with Dignity, a conversation between Higher Landing Founder & CEO Jackie Rafter and Brian Hallamore, formerly an HR Executive with Imperial Oil.
Jackie Rafter: So the organization has made the decision to reduce staff due to its economic situation. What happens next?
Brian Hallamore: Often organizations get tied up in knots over these decisions because they get into a mindset that they have made a “tough” decision, and they start down a path of “command and control” to match the seriousness and toughness they think are required. What follows is a restriction of information to the point where even some senior and middle management are unaware of what might happen and when.
This coincides with significant speculation, organization paralysis, a very brief time to prepare managers for the discussions they are expected to conduct, and then a very rapid set of conversations with those leaving, followed by their very early physical exit from the company. What often follows is a shocked remaining workforce dealing with a survivor mentality, and more organization paralysis.
Rafter: Is there a way to do it differently?
Hallamore: The answer is YES, but it requires a different mindset – the “problem” needs to be conceptualized differently. First, it is helpful to realize that these decisions are not actually tough. They are definitely unpleasant because of their consequences for work colleagues and friends who work in the organization. However, a tough decision is one where there is either a dilemma (no “right” way to do it) or two very similar options for action with very different implications for the organization’s future. Most decisions about reducing staff are straightforward – the organization either doesn’t need or can’t afford a certain set of skills, or it has found more efficient ways to do work with fewer people.
With this as a new starting point, you can develop some basic or fundamental principles to guide the staff reduction effort, such as the following:
- Treat all employees with dignity and respect.
- Employees are trustworthy.
- Employees are motivated to do a good job and leave on good terms. Employees are adults and deal with the truth.
Rafter: I understand those principles, but why are they important? What difference do they make?
Hallamore: If you really believe these principles (or others like them), and use them to design and guide your staff reductions, then you are unlikely to have expediency or the very normal desire to avoid unpleasant situations that significantly disrupt your process.
For example, this mindset and these principles very clearly imply that you are not dealing with a situation of poor performance, where there are risks to the company in allowing the departing employee some time to leave. No doubt there can be individuals where you suspect there is such a risk, but you can deal with those on a one-off basis.
Rafter: But that’s not the majority of employees?
Hallamore: No, for the vast majority of employees, you trusted them with the company yesterday. If you’ve been open and honest about why they are losing their jobs, they can accept that, and you can trust them to take good care of the company assets until they leave.
Departing employees in these circumstances appreciate that you are allowing them to finish up their work to leave for someone else – they get closure with their work and their work group, and feel better about the trust you've shown them. This allows them to start their transition to their next job more quickly.
By demonstrating to the employees who are staying that you trust those leaving, you are communicating a great deal in terms of the importance employees represent, and they can settle into their new roles feeling better as well about the organization. They don’t feel as guilty about having not been asked to leave when their friends and colleagues were.
Rafter: What about the role of leaders during these times?
Hallamore: Strong leadership during times like these is absolutely critical. As I mentioned earlier, in many of these cases even senior leaders may not know much about what is happening, which is very uncomfortable. contrary to what often happens, this is exactly the time when leader must be out and visible. There is almost nothing that can be more detrimental than the combination of an uncertain workforce and managers staying in their offices. Even when a staff reduction is being handled poorly overall, an individual leader can make a big difference to his or her team by actually leading.
Rafter: What sorts of things should leaders consider?
Hallamore: In particular, be clear about your visibility. Just walking around is not sufficient. You need to have thought about the types of conversations you want to have, how you will actually engage your employees in dialogue, and actually listen to what they are saying.
It is not all about you as the leader - it is about giving people the opportunity to vent, tell you things you would probably not normally hear, break down, whatever it is. It is not easy to do, and depends on your personal style, but finding a way to do this – listen, be empathetic, and most of all, be open, honest and transparent.
Also, this is not just something you do for a week – it requires you, consistent with your principles, to have employees be your first priority. That can mean holding additional meetings with them, etc. for weeks or months, and that is not easy because as a leader you will have high-pressure demands on your time. As a leader, you don’t have to state the unmitigated truth, but you do need to tell the truth.
Rafter: Can you say more about that?
Hallamore: As a leader all you really have is your own personal credibility with your people. It’s true that employees have a view of leaders that “they” know everything. In that circumstance, the trap for the manager is that he or she actually tries to meet that expectation, which can cause them to provide assurances when there are none, and so forth. It is very tempting to try and meet it too – you can see the pain your people are in and you want to help. Really though, It is as simple as just telling the truth.
My experience is this: if you listen to your employees, respond to their questions with answers when you have them and actually say “I don’t know” when you don’t have an answer, you can continue to have a productive workgroup in the face of significant uncertainty, especially if you promise that you will provide clarity for them as soon as you can. That doesn’t mean everyone will be happy and there won’t be emotions and conflict. It does mean that they will feel they understood their situation as much as was possible and that they were treated fairly. In the end that’s as much as you can accomplish during times like these.