The Dreaded Downsizing: 5 Tips for Managers

April 10, 2014

It’s probably your least favorite task as a manager or human resources professional. But there are ways to minimize the unpleasantness associated with layoffs.

It’s nice to be on this side of the Great Recession that began last decade. Companies were shedding jobs so fast and furiously that it was a luxury to have time to cushion the blow that hit both those employees who were laid off and the “survivors.”

DownsizingBut even in a good economy, downsizing isn’t that uncommon. Businesses reduce their payrolls for a variety of reasons all the time. Whether it’s due to an ongoing cash flow problem, a merger or acquisition, or a reduction in products or services, all companies that must downsize have one thing in common: the tremendous challenges involved in orchestrating the layoffs and dealing with the emotions and changes in workflow for those who remain.

As you prepare and go through the process, two words should always be in the back of your mind: dignity and communication.

Here are five practices that smart companies employ when faced with this unhappy journey.

  1. Help laid-off employees maintain their sense of self-respect.

If at all possible, have your meetings at a time and in a place where the employees won’t have to walk back to their desks or offices with the entire staff present, asking questions. Tell them exactly how you will communicate their departure to co-workers, that it’s not a reflection on their tenure there.

RespectDo they need to clear out immediately and exit accompanied by a security guard? This depends on the nature of your business, for one thing, and your knowledge of each individual. You want laid-off employees to maintain their dignity, but you’re also responsible for protecting the company and the livelihoods of the remaining employees.

  1. Be as honest as you can about the reasons for the downsizing.

…without breaching company confidentiality, of course. Make it about the business, not the employee.

  1. Be empathetic.

Write a script if you have to. Don’t read it word for word, but know ahead of time the words you’ll want to use to express your dismay at having to let the employee go.

  1. Be proactive about helping the employees make their transitions.

ResourcesIf you have the time and resources, put together a packet for employees that contains things like:

  • A list of their most noteworthy contributions to the company, related to accomplishments, personal skills, attitude, etc. (look through old performance reviews if necessary)
  • A formal letter of reference. Address potential employers directly, and write it as if you are introducing a valued employee. Do not put anything in writing about the reasons for the layoffs.
  • Contact details for potential new employers
  • Information about any job-coaching services your company provides. If it offers none, provide a list of community and government resources that might help.
  • Maybe even a short handwritten thank-you note for the employees’ years of service
  1. Keep the first four points in mind as you help the survivors through their transitions.

The employees who weren’t laid off will likely be nervous, fearing for their own positions in the organization. They’ve lost daily contact with co-workers, some of whom were probably friends, too.

Communicate with them. Recognize that productivity might be down and morale low for awhile (keep this possibility in mind as you decide on dates for the layoffs). If it’s logistically feasible, talk to each one individually, or have managers talk to small groups.

Help them preserve their own dignity. Remind them that there were numerous reasons why they were kept on, and emphasize their ongoing value to the company. There will likely be rough patches during the transition, but keep your eyes and ears open and respond quickly to problems.

Dignity and communication. Make those words your mantra, and you’ll minimize the pain and upheaval of this necessary work responsibility.

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