Undoubtedly, layoffs are hard on everyone involved. They’re often a result of a financial workplace setback, which is stressful in itself, and of course as rumors start to swirl and cuts start to happen, panic rises and the fire feeds itself. Managing this chaos can be difficult, especially for young leaders who haven’t encountered it before.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that fear is the prevalent emotion during and after layoffs. Your team members will be understandably nervous about the company’s future and their future in it. Following are some best practices for young managers to allay these fears and rebuild their direct reports’ trust.
Transparency is elemental to trust. Employees have the right to know what’s happening with the organization that necessitated a workforce reduction. Be honest about who will and will not be impacted. Rumors can be far more damaging than the truth, and if left unchecked, fear and speculation can negatively influence people’s actions. For example, some employees you aren’t even planning to let go may think they see the “writing on the wall,” and in what they consider a preemptive strike, quit to take other jobs. In that case, you lose valuable human assets who could have helped with damage control.
Along the same lines, make sure you’re communicating clearly. Transparency refers to not hiding or obfuscating relevant information, but clarity refers to making sure your message is coherent and intelligible. In other words, don’t send your employees emails and memos about what’s going on in formal, technical language that’s hard to understand. Also, don’t mix your messages, telling one department one thing (i.e., “The sales department won’t be affected”) and another department something else (i.e., “We’re not sure which departments will be affected”). The best way to ensure clarity is to make sure you have correct, complete information yourself before disseminating it. That way, you don’t unintentionally add inaccurate fodder to the rumor mill.
Before, during, and after layoffs, exhibiting authentic empathy is critical. Layoffs affect people’s lives, families, and livelihoods … they must be handled with compassion and understanding. Even those who make it through the layoffs may fear that what happened to others could happen to them, feel like the company didn’t take care of its employees, miss friends and coworkers who were laid off, and grapple with very real survivor’s guilt over being spared when others were not.
Spend time with your remaining employees one on one. Listen to them and allow them to air their grievances and express their emotions in a safe space. Remain positive, but don’t invalidate or try to “explain away” their feelings. Do reassure them in areas (i.e., “Layoffs are over; your job is safe”) where you’re able to do so honestly.
One way to reassure your team that they have bright prospects with your organization is through goal setting. By their very nature, goals are future-oriented, so use them to pull your people out of the past and point them toward the future. Use the one-on-one time you spend with them (see previous section) to not only hear and validate them, but to help them set forward-thinking goals. Discuss ways they can continue to contribute and help cover the workload now that numbers have dwindled. Focus on SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound), to help restore their confidence that the company is moving forward and they’re an important part of it.
Leading by Example
Another way to restore trust with shell-shocked employees is to set an example of trust yourself. Speak only positively about the organization and its potential to not only recover but thrive after the recent downsizing. Don’t allow anyone to pull you into negative conversations. If Ann says, “I can’t believe they let Dan go! What are we going to do without him?” express your confidence in your team’s abilities and talk about the present and the future, not the past.
Continue to work hard, so your direct reports see that you’re still invested in the organization. Show an interest in each one of them and what they’re doing, and offer them plenty of support. Ask what you can do to help them. Embody resilience, and they’ll follow suit.
Finally, remember that you’ve all come through a hard time together, so do your best to restore an affirmative company culture by celebrating successes and milestones as you move forward. According to Harvard Coaching Institute founding member Judith Glaser, doing so kindles feelings of “‘inclusion, innovation, appreciation, and collaboration’ in the brain, which pave the way for creative thinking, calmer work environments, increased focus and resilience to stress—even during periods of high pressure” (Leapsome).
Layoffs are very trying, but an empathetic, positive manager who builds strong connections can get their team through the rough patch and lead the way to success and better times ahead.
If your organization is facing possible layoffs, consider partnering with outplacement pioneer Challenger Gray & Christmas (a sister company to Barbachano International) to develop a more caring, empathetic and effective approach. Let us know how we can help you navigate and plan your upcoming layoffs, and foster a smoother and orderly transition.
By Fernando Ortiz-Barbachano
President & CEO of Barbachano International (BIP)
Barbachano International is the premier executive search and leadership advisory firm in the Americas (USA, Mexico, Canada, and Latin America) with a focus on diversity and multicultural target markets. Outplacement and Exe