How To Communicate Layoffs

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Letting people go is an emotional event – not just for those being laid off but for those who remain. Of course those who are let go need help with the transition to new employment. But the employees who survive the cutbacks also need reassurance about their own future – and an understanding of the strategic goals behind the cuts.

The following guidelines will help companies handle layoffs in a way that affords dignity to those let go and reassures survivors that the downsizing decision wasn’t made arbitrarily. It will also help the remaining employees feel positive about the organization, optimistic about their future and committed to working toward a better day. Keep in mind that employees who resent how their laid-off colleagues were treated and are fearful about the company’s direction are not productive employees.

1. COMMUNICATE WIDELY AND OFTEN

Managers often think they shouldn’t let employees know when things are going poorly. They don’t want their workers to become discouraged. But people aren’t stupid; they know when things aren’t going well. Discussing and acknowledging the company’s position is the first step to keeping people involved – and committed to solving problems they understand.

2. FILL IN INFORMATION GAPS FOR YOUR EMPLOYEES

If layoffs become necessary, people won’t be shocked if they have seen them coming. To that end, share market data and competitive information. Don’t proclaim layoffs without need, of course, but don’t undermine trust by lying or being unrealistically upbeat two months before a layoff.

3. GIVE THE MOST PRESSING INFORMATION FIRST

When the question on everyone’s mind is “Is there bad news ahead?” let them know. Don’t bother starting with a discussion of the competition, market forces or the financial environment; no one will pay attention until their most critical question is answered.

4. NEVER DELEGATE PAIN

The most delicate challenge is letting someone know that he or she has been let go. Don’t delegate this painful mission to the HR department. Most people are loyal first to their manager, then to their company. The person’s manager should deliver the message. Companies need to allow managers a realistic timetable to have one-on-one conversations with the employees …(Continued on next page)

who are being let go.

5. DELIVER THE MESSAGE PERSONALLY AND RESPECTFULLY – AND LISTEN

Deliver the message in private, and give employees time to react. People have different reactions – some need to vent, some need time to think and some need facts and explanations. As quickly as possible, get them thinking about their future. The manager’s primary message should be “How can I help?”

6. PROVIDE OUTPLACEMENT SUPPORT

The question everyone asks after a layoff is “What do I do now?” Few people have a resume at hand and a job-hunting network mobilized. Outplacement helps them land on their feet. You’re offering help at a high-stress, emotional time. It sends a signal to them and to the remaining employees that you’re treating the ex-workers as people, not as line items on a budget.

Exit interviews can also be useful, but may best be performed by a third-party firm. Employees can provide valuable information that they might not be willing to share with an insider. Make sure that they’re asked: “How do you feel the layoffs were handled?” This will help them vent and may also reveal important tips to make the process a little less painful.

After a morning of layoffs, no one is in an emotional state to work. Give people the space to deal with what just happened. Accept that you’ll lose (at least) a day of productivity, and do whatever it takes to help people cope with their emotions quickly.

7. SUPPORT SURVIVORS, TOO

Employees who survive the layoffs will struggle with doubts about the company’s future. They want to know how their jobs will change. Will they now be expected to do their jobs plus the jobs of their ex-coworkers? What is the precise state of the company financially? Are further layoffs imminent? You must address each concern with as much rational discussion as possible.

8. CEOS: BE FRONT AND CENTER

The CEO must be there for the managers as well as the terminated employees. One approach that worked well: A CEO helped his managers by giving them his prepared, written statement to read. It covered the relevant facts, including logistics concerning health insurance and other benefits, and outplacement options. After each manager conveyed the news to her employees, she directed them immediately to the outplacement center. This was a good way to orient them toward the future and help them feel supported as they started their search for a new job.

Layoffs are never easy. But they can be handled best by remembering that uncertainty is the source of rumors and stress alike. Clear and open communication with managers, laid-off employees and survivors can keep morale steady through one of the most difficult moments in a company’s life.

Copyright 2009 New York Times Syndicate