The difficult task of laying off employees

Posted on Written by Mary Elston
Mary Elston

Makeovers are big entertainment. Turn on the television, and there’s an extreme makeover taking place nearly every night. The ugly duckling girl is transformed into a breathtaking beauty, the old clunker car becomes a souped-up classic, or the dilapidated house miraculously morphs into a gorgeous home.

Whatever the challenge, something is moved from one extreme to the other in a blink. Wouldn’t it be great if we could order a market makeover? I put my order in awhile ago – it hasn’t been filled yet.

Look at news headlines in the marine industry, and you’ll find a range of extremes in this area as well. A major dealership or manufacturer bites the dust. On the other side of the program, signs of economic improvement are sprouting here and there. An entrepreneur starts a new business after getting laid off from another. That’s better.

Good news makes you hope there’s a ripple effect on you. But what if there isn’t? You’re not alone. With boatbuilders reporting work force reductions as high as 50 percent, the U.S. manufacturing sector accounted for 31 percent of mass layoffs in August, while the national unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means many managers and workers continue to face layoff woes.

Layoffs are an experience entrenched in extremes, too. Employees are hoping their jobs are safe and incessantly worried they aren’t. As a manager, you’re wracked with the weighty decision of whom to lay off, and how and when to do it. The layoff process is awkward for managers and demoralizing for employees who are let go. What are the best ways to handle layoff discomfort and extremes, particularly late in the game when many are thinking the worst may be over? In all cases, layoffs should start and end with dignity, keep good people and help them work smarter, encourage continued energy with remaining staff, and maintain an ongoing cadence of communication and caring. Tall order? Yes, but I know as a capable manager you’re up to it.

Depart with dignity: No matter where you manage people, you’ve probably had to lay off employees. How did you do it? Did you avoid blindsiding and provide advance warning that layoffs were regrettably going to occur? Were you cognizant of employee feelings, or did you call those affected into the office and simply slide their last pay check across the desk?

No matter how you did it, layoffs can leave impacted persons feeling dumped and disrespected. Lousy layoff methods also generate resentment toward management among remaining employees, sucking the wind out of sales and productivity. Since layoffs greatly affect people’s lives, managers need to take this into account.

An article in the Wall Street Journal last year (“Wall Street Exodus: Fear, Panic, Anger,” May 25, 2008) explained how the human psyche often goes through several phases when layoffs occur. First it goes numb, followed by survival mode and quickly turning to anger and then a frightening fear of the unknown as to what lies ahead. Do you sense a few extremes here? For all of these reasons and more, be respectful and empathetic when laying off employees. Thank them for their contributions. Offer available resources such as reference letters and referrals.

Layoffs should be done in person, if possible. If not, engage in a live telephone conversation. Executing layoffs through e-mail or mailed letter to an unsuspecting employee is cold and generally unnecessary. Provide consistent communication prior to layoffs and allow employees to depart with dignity by managing layoffs with respect and consideration for everyone who leaves, as well as those who are retained.

Keep good people working smarter: The manager who knows laying people off is only part of the layoff process is proactive and insightful. Once laid-off employees have departed, you want to hang on to good people you’ve retained. How do you do this? Communication is a vital part of keeping the lifeblood flowing through your business when the market is hot and even more important when it’s not. Maintain ongoing dialogue with your entire team – provide weekly updates, keep lines of communication open and clear. Don’t make people guess where they stand – tell them. Give consistent encouragement and don’t let any vital people slip into a solitary work mode.

Make it a management priority to help your remaining team work smarter by taking advantage of all the skills you have across the ranks. Don’t waste time and effort. Ensure teamwork is part of working smarter and includes building trust, keeping interaction vibrant, sharing ideas and pumping out productivity.

Encourage continued energy: Once layoffs are over, many managers assume business as usual for remaining employees. Wrong assumption. Many of those retained experience survivor guilt and a sense of continued vulnerability, making it difficult to concentrate and be productive. A Sept. 7 blog post by Ray B. Williams on the Psychology Today Web site included research results from Sirota Survey Intelligence. They found that after the recession in the early 2000s, surviving employees wanted two things from management: competent management to lead through a crisis and caring management with humanistic behavior.

Are you the manager who is delivering these two things to your team? Did you even realize you should be? If you answered no, bummer. You’re likely with the majority. This is especially significant because the economy is taking longer to bounce back than with previous downturns. Keep your cheerleading mode in play; be the competent and caring manager who encourages ongoing group energy. Don’t baby your employees, but stay tuned in to energy and morale levels while exuding leadership savvy and confidence.

Maintain communication: While you’re managing tough layoff decisions – making sure you keep good people working smarter and energizing your employees – what else should you be doing? You guessed it: communicating. None of the above means squat if you’re failing to communicate and failing to keep your group informed and valued. This is the biggest mistake most managers make.

Typical excuses for poor communication lack originality – not enough time, forgot, assumed everyone knew the latest, felt uncomfortable talking to the team, didn’t know what to say, and so on. That’s a bunch of you-know-what, and you know it. You’re the manager; it’s your job and priority to communicate with class and confidence. Deliver business updates, tell people what’s expected and what you’re doing to help generate success. Communicate – do it now, do it often.

Layoffs run the gamut when it comes to extremes. Similar to extreme makeovers on television, major changes and business transformations must be approached as new challenges that merit intense focus and careful consideration of all variables. As a manager, that’s exactly what you’re doing when you lead your team through the layoff landscape of mental and emotional extremes. You’re taking into account feelings and concerns while communicating and encouraging employees to work as a team and deliver their best. Yes, it’s a tall order. I know you’re the kind of manager who will deliver.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at mary@masteryoursuccess.com.

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.

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