23 Apr Top 3 Things I Learned by Laying-Off 700 Employees (what to do, and what NOT to do…)
I’m extremely troubled (even angered) by the approaches way too many organizations are using to reduce the size of their workforces as a result of the novel coronavirus. Clinical. Cold. Dispassionate. Heartless. People are joining Zoom calls to be told they’re no longer employed. Other people are getting emails, text messages, or other impersonal forms of communication letting them know they’re out of a job. Boom. Band-aid ripped off. Box checked.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou
I love the above quote from Maya Angelou for a lot of reasons – but none more so than when it comes to my list of the Top Three Things to Focus Upon During Lay-offs:
- Layoffs, furloughs, and reductions in force (RIFs) traumatize everyone – unless you’re on the sociopathic spectrum, you’ll experience suffering… Either direct, or indirect, or both.
- Those expected to “just do it” (HR and corporate communications professionals, senior leaders, and project/program managers) often suffer the most – but later – often in unexpected and unhealthy ways.
- The “how” related to designing and delivering layoffs matters – a LOT
There are about 10,000 ways to screw-up the process of furloughs or layoffs (let’s use the euphemism “reduction in force,” or RIF). Many organizations are exploring 100s or 1,000s of them right now. However, there’s really only ONE way to do RIFs well: compassionate, professional, specific, and timely.
Unfortunately, most organizations focus their RIF process on timeframes and dehumanized steps. This is backward – and no, I’m not advocating for the process to drag on, or to be willy-nilly – that actually violates the prime directive of being compassionate. We need to get on with the process – but the design of the process needs to focus on compassion first,not as an afterthought or a “throw-in” (as it’s so often done).
Return to the year 2000 and the “dot-com bust.” There’s a long story here, but I’ll shorten it significantly. I was asked to lead a business that needed to shed more than 700 employees (from a total of about 900) as soon as possible. The business was in bankruptcy, and what “was” didn’t exist any longer, what “was to become” wasn’t clear – all we had was “now,” and now was truly terrible.
Over the next few months, I led wave after wave after wave of RIFs, and I learned a LOT about myself – and others. I learned about compassion, about fear, about professionalism, and about how to do the ugly, nasty, and hard work of RIF’ing people the “right way.” I want to share some of that hard-earned wisdom with leaders – and with staff – that are part of RIFs today.
I hope it helps.
Beware – I’m generalizing below. For some, losing their jobs at time like this is truly a gift! (You’ve been waiting to find a way out, and now you have the prospect of getting unemployment as a bonus.) In addition, some employers (especially those in the public sector) rejoice at the ability to RIF underperforming, toxic staff members. These are clearly the exceptions, and not the rules…
The Top Three Things to Focus Upon During RIFs
Recognize and plan for the fact that everyone will suffer; everyone will be traumatized.
In the vast majority of situations, losing members of your organization to RIFs is a traumatic event for everyone;where you will likely feel one of three kinds of suffering:
This is the suffering by those who have, or will lose their jobs. (See a previous blog post related to “Instant Life Dislocations – and Why Transformational Change Feels So Hard” for more information about this dynamic.) These individuals are grieving – and they need to grieve immediately and effectively.
- Advice for leaders: Be kind. Show some love (genuinely) those who have lost their jobs. Be vulnerable, be transparent, be kind. It’ll help them, and you too.
- Advice for staff: Don’t put off grieving – feel the loss, all the way through. Grieve now, and grieve well (And no… Feeling despair is not grieving – it’s actually grief delayed. What “was” isn’t any longer – your loss needs to be processed.) At the bottom of the grief process is where new options are available.
At our core, we are empathetic creatures who can experience the grief, loss, anger, fear, etc. on behalf of someone else. This is real suffering, and it is often the most unexpected kind of suffering. It’s also the kind of suffering that leaders have little experience navigating themselves, much less in others.
- Advice for leaders: Own your feelings related to your indirect suffering (more on that in #2 below), and recognize and allow others to do the same. Give some (limited) time for “grace and space” – where people are encouraged to process.
- Advice for staff: Be aware. Be introspective. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to those who are experiencing direct suffering – offer tangible, relevant assistance And then, get on with your own life. For most people, RIFs are a brand-new experience – and it’s the kind of dislocating, disquieting change that is both unexpected and unwelcomed.
In addition, many of those who get to keep their jobs suffer significant bouts of survivor’s guilt. Survivor’s guilt is another black hole of organizational productivity – some people can become paralyzed wondering why they got to keep their job while their coworkers didn’t.
- Advice for leaders: Remind those who remain that it’s normal to feel empathy for those who have lost their jobs. And, remind them of how their job connects to the value of the organization – the best medicine here is a sense of productive connection.
- Advice for staff: Shift your guilt into actions – 1) reach out to those who’ve lost their jobs and offer direct assistance; and 2) get focused on the work in front of you – become more and more indispensable, everyday (that’s the best way to avoid having your name show up on a future RIF list, if there’s going to be one).
Those expected to design, lead, and deliver RIFs often suffer the most – but later. They need mechanisms and support structures themselves to process their own trauma comprehensively and effectively.
Everyone can be an emotional, messy, vulnerable, and wounded creature during RIFs – especially members of HR, corporate communications, senior leadership, and program/project management. However, these individuals tend to just “suck it up” and keep going – often without caring for themselves at all. That’s a really bad idea.
If I was to do it again, I’d handle my own caring and healing MUCH differently.
- Advice for leaders? Be compassionate, but also be detached from falling prey to someone else’s trauma. Grief counselors, pastors, therapists, etc. have one thing in common – they are able to set and keep emotional boundaries effectively – and can actually “shake off” the toxic, negative, fear-based energy of those whom they are serving. This is the MOST important lesson I learned myself. Don’t wait (like I did) to learn it later.
The “how” related to the process matters – a LOT. Be compassionate, be professional, be direct and be timely.
Let’s go back to the four steps in the “how” of layoffs – be compassionate, professional, specific, and timely – and relate that to the last part of the quote from Maya Angelou; “They will never forget how you made them feel…”That is so, so true. In fact, the “how” of RIFs (what you do and what you say) will ultimately create the lasting memory people have about YOU, both as a leader, and as an employer.
How did you make them feel?
If people feel the RIF was just a perfunctory, box-checking exercise, you’ve likely ruined whatever trust and goodwill they had for you and your organization. People have a LONG memory when it comes to how they’re treated during times like this – especially when it comes time to bring people back to work from the RIF. Your reputation as an employer is at stake – “how” you process RIFs matters a LOT to your future competitiveness as a potential employer.
On the other hand, if they feel they’ve been treated with respect, with compassion, and with professionalism, they’re much more likely to understand the bad news – and to show respect, compassion and professionalism back to you.
- Advice for leaders: Tell your employees something like this, “The situation is terrible, but you aren’t. This is not a reflection of who you are – it’s an impossibly difficult dilemma, and I just wish I had different news for you, but I don’t.” Wish them well – offer support related to future job searches, unemployment, brainstorming, resume reading, etc., and then follow through when you’re asked (and you will be asked – I was asked by 100s of people for help).
For everyone: Realize that your track record in navigating bad days stands at 100%. You’ve made it through all of them, and you’ll make it through this too. Yes, the unknown can be incredibly frightening – but it can also allow for expansion, for dreaming, for making different, better choices about things
For leaders: If you’re a leader reading this – you’re most likely suffering all kinds of emotional trauma. Allow yourself to do so. Feel the disbelief, feel the anger, feel the despair – and recognize that others are entitled to their feelings as well. Help others move through their suffering but DON’T ignore yours! It will come back to bite you later. More than anything else, be kind – to yourself, and to those around you.
For staff: If you’re a staff person reading this – realize that most of us are amazingly resilient and creative, and sometimes a crisis is just what we need to look at new options and choices. In fact, most of the people who contacted me after I RIF’d them told me their job loss turned out to be blessing in disguise (however, it certainly did NOT feel that way at the start!) Remember – grief comes first. Do that well, and at the bottom of the grieving process is when we start imagining other options. It’s coming. Plan on it.
We Can Do This!
Truly, the COVID-19 pandemic sucks – on so, so many levels. But, this is also a unique opportunity to reconnect with our own humanity, and with the humanity of others, as we navigate the impossible decisions we’re forced to make right now.
Process your suffering (direct or indirect), set and maintain boundaries, make the process of layoffs and furloughs a compassionate, professional, direct and timely things – and maybe, just maybe, begin the process of dreaming about a different, better future for yourself and those around you.
We can do this – together.