The holiday season’s focus is dominated by positive distractions, but once in a while you may find yourself grappling with the crushing reality of corporate layoffs at the end of the calendar year. If you care about your organization and employees, even when layoffs are the right or only thing to do, we hear our inner voices asking ethical and operational questions. The experienced manager will handle “poorly timed” layoffs with the mature calm of a professional voice-over actor describing the hunt of a leopard chasing down a deer. For the less experienced, they will feel like a deer wearing a leopard costume. Here’s my “How To” guide for making a tough situation a teaching moment, a barometer for talent, and less painful for all involved.
Our careers take us down all sorts of unexpected paths, and it’s common to have managers in the world of business who have degrees in Art, History, and Sports Therapy. These talents have never had the themes of “Shareholder Wealth” pounded into their thought process and might struggle with strategy and tactics designed for this role. As their leader, this is your responsibility to make sure they understand this bedrock of corporate management. Additionally, if we can directly connect layoffs to the benefits of customers, we should do that too. Either way these conversations need to be had behind closed doors while in front of the team. Get everyone’s fears and misconceptions out in the open. Once everyone is on the same page they will be mentally ready to digest the next steps.
Practice the Conversation
How do you breakup with someone who loves you? You interviewed them, hired them, trained them, they stayed late for you, and they helped you achieve personal and professional goals. You like their personality. Crap. YOU REALLY CARE ABOUT THEM! Dare I say, love them? These conversations need to be practiced with a script of bullet points explaining “Why” this is happening and “What” is happening next. The conversation, as painful as it can be (sometimes), must be professionally respectful and brief. Work with leadership or a human resources teammate to develop talking points, but practice delivering the news out loud. Your shaky voice will benefit from saying the words and getting more comfortable with this new reality.
You should be able to gauge where managers stand on the spectrum of comfort during the prior two steps. Once you have identified the managers who are really affected by having to deliver this news, support them by conducting a few of these conversations along-side them. Intuitively decide how much of the dialogue should be shared based on physical cues (damp eyes, twitching hands, pale face, etc.). Take control of the conversation if it goes off the rails. Afterwards, take a moment to review what just happened; identify how the manager feels, calm them down, and ask them how they could have improved. Praise their efforts and gently make suggestions to help the receiver of the message. This is actually a very calming exercise that refocuses both of you for the next conversation.
A day of this can be emotionally draining. It’s not rare for the remaining employees to go grab a drink at a nearby bar with those same victims of the circle of business. Sometimes managers will slink away from their desk to have a private moment in their car. Before everyone goes in separate directions it’s important to collectively depressurize by reviewing what just happened. In a team review you should ask out loud:
- How did it go?
- What conversations were hardest?
- How are you all feeling?
- Leader: Express your gratitude
- Does anyone need to talk one-on-one after this?
These questions will most likely sterilize the raw emotion of the moment, and allow people to find a healthy perspective to grieve towards (including leveraging internal resources for help).
In this digital age résumés share the spotlight with LinkedIn endorsements and public recommendations. If you really do care about these people there are more options than ever to help them find the next opportunity or connect with people who can do likewise. Although some companies have strict human resources policies regarding employment verification processes that ask about employee performance, you still have a right to do what’s best for yourself. Just like a company.
P.S. – I’ve had my fair share of corporate Holiday lows. This scene always makes me laugh. No matter what side of the conversation you’re on, hang in there! There’s a lot of opportunity out there for you in this amazing country.