Most employers don’t think that an organizational change can hurt not just their product or business brand, but also their recruiting funnel and employment brand, causing potential great employees to search elsewhere for job opportunities and your candidate funnel to shrink.

And research supports these assumptions. A 2018 employer study by Indeed found 61% of employer respondents expect to hire more people this year than previous years, making the market for qualified and experienced candidates more challenging than ever.

Because of that, it’s important to maintain your brand reputation and keep your candidate funnel active even during an organizational restructure, allowing you to continue to grow other areas of your business and meet talent demands.

Today’s candidate is super savvy, meaning that by the time they apply for a position with your company, they’ve already done their research which according to the most recent Candidate Experience Report by the Talent Board, the average candidate spends 1-2 hours researching jobs and a company. Additionally, 46 percent said they needed to do more research and learn additional information about the company before they apply. This research includes reading online reviews and social media mentions about your company from employees impacted by layoffs or downsizing. It is also important to note that the value in review sites like Glassdoor have increased over the past four years from 20 to 29 percent.

No one looks forward to downsizing, which is why so many CEOs and executives struggle with the process. Having a clear process and plan is critical to help you execute layoffs with dignity and grace, resulting in little to no damage to your digital reputation.

The Layoffs

The critical decisions of who will be laid off, when it will happen, how much severance will be offered, and how much assistance to find a new job will be available is often left to the legal department, for good reason. The problem with that is the legal department’s job is to protect the company from litigation, not the morale of the company. We recommend partnering your HR leadership team with your legal department and a contemporary outplacement provide to make sure you put best practices into place.

Typically, when planned strictly by your legal department, companies tend to lean towards a last hired, first fired (laid off) approach. This is to protect your company from claims that an employee was dismissed for discriminatory reasons. There’s a better way to handle this, and remain legally protected.

The choice of employees for a layoff should be based on a redistribution of the work, not the date the individual employee was hired. Sometimes an employee of 10 months has a skill far more valuable than one with 10 years' seniority. Can this be done without fear of discrimination lawsuits? Absolutely, but it requires a great deal of transparency, conversations, and planning with your legal team as well as leadership and outside experts.

Know that you cannot talk outgoing employees into not writing reviews on Glassdoor or other employer sites, but you can give them everything they need to make a smooth transition to a new job, which can take the sting out of being laid off. With empathy, put yourself in the employee’s seat for a moment. They may be angry, hurt, confused, and caught off guard. They’re wondering “why” when you’re focused on the “how.” Address their concerns, give them time to ask questions instead of rushing them to pack up their desks.

It’s important to have frequently asked questions and resources handy. Displaced employees should receive a packet of information to help in planning and discussions for themselves and their family. These should include:

  • COBRA and benefits information and costs
  • Benefits end date including health insurance, dental, vision, and flexible spending account
  • Outplacement services and resources for career support
  • Employee information change form (for addresses and other contact information)
  • A letter of recommendation.

Your Human Resources team are experts when it comes to softening the blow of getting laid off. Keep legal in the background, absolutely protect your company from litigation, but let HR lead the actual layoffs.

Be Transparent

It is scary to have to restructure or lay off employees so that your company can continue to operate. But even your legal department can get on board with a “this is what’s happening and we all hate it, but we’re here to help you” approach.

If your company isn’t already having quarterly all-staff meetings about its fiscal health, now is the time to start, whether you see layoffs coming down the road or not. Your staff members are the core of your company. Keeping secrets leads to rumors, which leads to people jumping ship. A simple overview of departmental revenue, profit and loss, is sufficient. Be sure to allow time for your employees to ask questions. And if your CEO is presenting, make sure he or she is briefed on how to answer them. If an employee asks “are we restructuring or going to lay off staff?” (and you know that you might have to in the future), be honest. Gentle, but honest. You’d be surprised how many staff members appreciate honesty and how quickly it can stave off the rumors. Sure, you might have a few employees start looking elsewhere, but they’re likely to be employees that know their performance hasn’t been stellar and already marked for layoff.

Go beyond the standard company all-staff meeting and allow for rebroadcasts of the CEO’s presentation or upload his/her video on the company intranet or make it available in social media groups on sites like Facebook, Slack, and other online collaboration technologies. Companies like Wal-Mart and Southwest have seen great success in leveraging social media to enhance employee communication and reinforce CEO and leadership messaging.

Once your legal and HR departments are on the same page with regards to transparency, let your HR leadership team take the lead with individual layoffs. Be prepared to answer ANY question, and don’t just offer a severance package. There are companies that specialize in transitioning laid off employees. Hire one and offer their services to your outgoing employees.

As a best practice, provide your managers of all levels, especially frontline managers, talking points to reference and use during one on one employee conversations and team meetings. These talking points can be repurposed from the FAQ’s you provided employees.

Be Sincere, Be Apologetic

Once again, put yourself in your (soon to be former) employee’s shoes. If you’ve been transparent, the layoff meeting should not be a surprise. It’s OK to tell them how much it sucks. You’re human and receiving and/or giving news like this is unpleasant and emotional for everyone involved. Work with your legal team and the experts from your outplacement services team on talking points, including verbiage and messaging that is approved for the impacted team members and the rest of the employee population.

Tell employees the WHY and be sincere. The company is losing money. Your CEO has been honest in quarterly meetings (hopefully). In order to survive, restructuring must take place. Make sure you know the employee sitting in front of you and what he or she does. Thank them for their contribution and be as specific as you can. Explain the benefits and severance offered and be sure to communicate the availabiltiy of career transition services. Tell them the severance is the company’s way of showing its appreciation for their work. And explain how working with a contemporary outplacement provider (who will help them with resume, contacts, and anything else job seeking related) will help them quickly find a position at a more stable company.

Finally, offer a letter of reference before being asked. This is a gift and will go a long way towards your offboarded employee’s morale.

Expect Bad Reviews

And yes, respond to them. If you work for a large company, it’s likely your layoffs made the business or industry news. Your marketing department can help with how to keep it kind and simple. Your legal department can approve your responses. You might actually be surprised to see a GOOD review from a laid off employee. It’s happened. Why? Because your HR and  leadership team was transparent, generous, and warm. Layoffs and restructuring can be cold-hearted processes. Do them differently and you minimize the number of disgruntled laid off employees.

You should also consider your remaining staff, as they are affected by layoffs either through redistribution of work or morale. Current employees can leave anonymous reviews too, and even in large cities (this is true particularly in the tech community), people talk. You don’t want your company’s reputation to be marred by poor morale, hence the next section.

The Rest of Your Staff

Recovery from a layoff is faster and easier if managers and employees are allowed to speak their minds freely about what's happened. Hold focus groups and employee meetings to help facilitate employee conversations. Don’t forget to remind employees of your company’s open door policies with a gentle reminder to leaders of their obligation to follow the guidelines. In fact, it can be a great opportunity for the team of surviving employees to pull together and renew ties. Make sure your managers are enabled and are enabling their staff to talk about the restructure.

What can you do as an HR leader in this position?

  1. Check in with every single remaining employee to make sure they understand the what and the why.
  2. Do a morale check.
  3. Find out if anything has impacted their role as a result of the layoffs, such as double the workload if they lost staff members in their department.
  4. Address work impacts swiftly with the employee’s direct supervisor and ensure that the additional work is distributed fairly.

The primary difference in what you’re doing here is this: Most companies perform layoffs, then never speak of it again. These companies are left with employees with increased workloads and gradually decreasing morale. Have you ever worked for a company who met individually with employees who were NOT laid off after a layoff? Most haven’t, and it’s one thing you can do to differentiate your company’s brand from every company that has had to lay off staff.

Consider employee referrals. If one department at your company is impacted by restructuring, every employee in other departments are going to suspect they might be next. Will those employees continue to refer top talent to your company? Unlikely, unless they understand exactly what happened and why. This is also why transparency is important. Keeping the remaining staff in the dark about what may or may not happen in the future is bad for your brand and your recruiting funnel.

The Wrap Up

Restructuring and layoffs are unavoidable in almost every industry. By following these careful steps and with some planning, you can help maintain a positive and meaningful employment brand on employee review sites, blogs, social media and other digital properties.

Jessica Miller-Merrell is a workplace change agent and author focused on human resources and talent acquisition. She lives in Austin, TX and is recognized by Forbes as a top 50 social media influencer. She's the founder of Workology.