Downsizing with Dignity: Don't Forget the Survivors
When considering a layoff, employers and HR leaders often miss an opportunity to increase employee engagement and improve productivity by failing to recognize the importance of supporting and engaging the employees not directly impacted by the layoff - the survivors. Understandably, employers tend to focus their attention on planning notifications and severance packages designed to ease exiting employees’ transitions into the next phase of their careers, however they often underestimate the importance of creating a detailed plan to ease remaining employees back to productivity by rebuilding a positive workplace environment.
To minimize the impact of a reduction in force, HR leaders and managers should be coached about how to approach and communicate with survivors, as well as with impacted employees. Here are five simple actions managers and HR leaders can take to minimize the impact of a layoff event on remaining employees:
#1: CREATE A LAYOFF PLAN
Delivering notifications to transitioning employees is one of the most difficult tasks during a layoff. No matter how experienced or effective a manager is, most are unprepared to inform employees they’re being let go through no fault of their own. Communication is made even more difficult if you fail to implement a proper communication strategy and provide proper notification training for your managers. Your outplacement provider should be able to help you create a layoff plan that includes messaging for impacted employees and clearly communicates the impact of the changes on the survivors.
Creating and following through on a layoff plan is crucial to the emotional state of your remaining employees. As they face feelings of sadness, relief, guilt, victimization, and uncertainty, a well-communicated and transparent layoff plan keeps operations consistent from department to department, and ensures all managers are communicating the news and next steps in a similar way. In other words, it gives executives, managers, and survivors a clear direction to follow. Your layoff plan should detail risk mitigation, the long-term impact to your company brand, and how you’ll keep up the morale of employees who are staying. Taking care of your people should be your organization’s number one priority, as reflected by a layoff plan. For more ideas for creating a layoff plan, check out: How to Communicate During a Layoff.
#2: COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE
It goes without saying that communication is critical following a layoff. If you give in to the temptation to run and hide or ignore the survivors, negative employee sentiment will impact your employer brand and your ability to reassemble and move forward.
During a layoff, make helping your managers to communicate with remaining employees a priority. When managers are fully prepared to communicate company news with properly prepared messaging and responses, the bad news will seem less personal and will be easier for both exiting and remaining employees to accept.
Arm your managers with information so they can communicate as much about the layoff, and the business decisions behind it, as possible. To keep motivation and morale high, managers should inform employees about any plans or changes that will be put in place to return the company to profitability. The more managers are encouraged and given the messaging to openly and proactively communicate with employees, the less likely remaining employees are to lose trust in the leadership - and in the company.
#3: LET GO OF ASSUMPTIONS
Layoffs are an emotional time for the impacted employees, managers giving the notifications, and the surviving employees. Be prepared to offer support for remaining employees and managers, even as you are supporting exiting employees. Expect a range of reactions from survivors, including:
- Anxiety that they will be next
- Sadness over loss of colleagues and friends
- Guilt for still having a job
- Anger over the additional job stress and increased workload
- Fear about job performance
Since survivors aren’t losing their jobs, manager and HR leaders have a tendency to assume remaining employees will feel relieved and easily adjust to workplace changes. Instead of assuming survivors haven’t lost anything, consider everything they have lost. Maybe they witnessed some of their closest friends and colleagues lose their jobs. Maybe they were forced to let go of consistency in their reporting structure or adapt to a new group of faces in a weekly meeting.
HR industry expert Susan Healthfield put together a list of ideas for coping techniques following a layoff for her readers at The Balance. As she mentioned, the majority of research on the response of employees to downsizing and layoffs has focused on layoff victims. There are very few studies that tell us about the emotional state of survivors of a layoff. With so little information, it’s important to keep an open mind. Managers should be ready to answer questions and support individual employees as needs arise.
#4: FIND WAYS TO MOTIVATE SURVIVORS
Internal morale will most likely be down following a layoff, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. For many survivors, knowing that their colleagues are well taken care of helps to calm their anxiety and assuage their guilt. Providing exiting employees with contemporary outplacement services helps remaining employees to return to work- knowing that if there is another round of layoffs they will be taken care of, and knowing that their friends and colleagues have been given the support they need to move forward quickly.
While managers should stay attuned to the emotional state of their employees following a layoff, it’s equally as important to be consistent with expectations. Employees are often motivated when their work has a sense of purpose and they understand how their contribution is impacting their goals and the goals of the company. Managers who are transparent with employees about their expectations often motivate employees to improve their productivity and find meaning in the work they do, bringing back a sense of normalcy to the workplace. Now is not the time to stop investing in your remaining employees. Staying focused on their career development and short and long-term goals, especially following a layoff, can bring a renewed sense of focus and engagement to the survivors.
#5: SEND A POSITIVE MESSAGE TO MAINTAIN TRUST
Survivors are always watching how their employers treat exiting and remaining employees. When we treat all employees—regardless of their position, tenure, or background—with respect and dignity, exiting employees are more likely to remain brand advocates, and survivors are less likely to lose faith in their employer. Strike the balance between supporting exiting employees through a career transition program and keeping survivor morale high to avoid the negative ripple effects of a layoff.
Just as offering a comprehensive outplacement program can help to protect the employer brand, limit liability, and communicate your commitment to corporate values, taking care of your remaining employees will make an impact on employer brand, employee loyalty, trust, future productivity, and workplace culture. Waiting to address the needs and concerns of remaining employees until after the layoff event has occurred and notifications have been delivered, creates unnecessary anxiety and mistrust among surviving employees. Get in front of “survivor syndrome” by openly communicating the decision to lay off and clearly explain the changes that remaining employees can expect.