Layoffs with Dignity: Preserving Employee Relationships and Easing Transitions
“Employees engage with employers and brands when they are treated as humans.” – Meghan Biro
The decisions that executives and HR leaders make when they find themselves at cross-roads not only impacts the future of their organizations, but it can also have life-altering effects on the individuals who make up the workforce. While the people factor may not be top of mind when business decisions are made, employees often become the asset most impacted by these decisions. In the words of Jack Welch, “Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy. Your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products.” They are the building blocks of any business. Sometimes there are no other remedies but to reduce the workforce. When the difficult decision to lay off is made, employers who provide support for those impacted as well as those remaining, are employers who will be regarded as some of the best places to work when the time comes to hire again.
Once the decision is made to lay off employees, HR staff are suddenly on the front lines as they must be the ones to carry out these tough organizational decisions. Faced with the difficult task of notifying employees, many HR professionals find themselves in unknown territory. They are torn between disliking letting people go and understanding that this is part of their job. Instead of making a moral decision about the necessity of layoffs, HR professionals can make sure their actions ease the transition when they approach the job with a high level of empathy and dignity.
Gone are the days when only a current employee is considered an integral part of an organization’s success. These days, organizations understand that everyone who interacts with the company—from the recruiting process through exit—either indirectly or directly impacts the employer brand and the acceptability of the organization in the job market. Today’s organizations understand that success is tied to not just those they want to hire, but largely on a candidate’s desire to work for the company. If you really want to attract great talent and garner great referrals, you must engage with prospects and exiting employees alike. Best-in-class employers give employees a ‘wow’ experience—not out of sheer intent to attract them, but because of the desire to shape the right organizational culture and initiate long-term growth and success.
The emotional realities of a layoff
After having coached so many transitioning professionals, the one thing that nearly everyone expresses is a range of emotions that follow being let go. Much like the emotions associated with any loss, people experience anger, resentment, and sadness upon losing their jobs and the security and self-esteem associated with working. This is quite a natural reaction to such a dramatic and sudden life change. Often, the anger people feel is less about the business decision and more about the manner in which the news was broken to them, the way in which they were treated during their last days in the office, and their perceived loss of dignity and respect.
Maya Angelou rightly said, “I have learnt that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
HR takes the lead in positive employee transitions
While the situation may be unavoidable, each person’s actions and attitudes contribute to whether or not the changes are met with anger and resentment or with acceptance and calmness. Enabling the transitioning employees to view their circumstances not as victims of the situation, but as creators of their own destinies is a role the HR professional can choose to accept. Naturally, this is easier said than done. While you might not be able to reach your goal at 100 percent, there are techniques and strategies for turning the conversation from one strictly about the compensation and impact benefits of the employees to the finer points that will ensure psychological safety, reduce stress, and begin to turn denial into acceptance.
Here are ten things HR professionals can do to smooth the transition for employees impacted by a layoff:
#1 Show a high level of empathy
HR professionals must show a high level of empathy for these affected employees. Beyond empathizing verbally, take action to help the person move forward from the notification by allowing them to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Along with empathy, provide actionable solutions that you can stand by and deliver. True empathy goes beyond just feeling for the person. It requires you to genuinely help the person by enabling his/her well-being. Through empathy and understanding, HR professionals can ignite the leadership qualities in others and help them shine during this this troublesome time. Brene Brown tells that empathy is communicating that incredibly healing message of, “You are not alone.” This is the message that HR needs to convey to the impacted employees. They need to hear it from you more than anyone else. Remember, when employees first joined the company, you were one of the people that welcomed them and made them feel comfortable. You can play that role again by making them feel confident in their futures.
#2 Stay professional
This is a powerful space to be in because in critical situations like this, you can deeply feel the pain that the employees are going through, yet maintain your professional cool and detachment. While this combination of empathy and detachment may seem unnatural, those in the healing and professional care services have made it an art. This doesn't mean that they don't care or that they don't have a heart. Although they are deeply involved in their patient’s well-being, they are simultaneously able to refrain from overtly showing their emotions in order to do what they must to help them get through the pain and heal. The same can be said for a practiced HR professional. If you haven’t mastered the art of empathy and detachment, spend some time developing your emotional intelligence quotient.
#3 Create psychological safety
During notifications, encourage impacted employees to speak their heart—express their feelings and grieve. Listen deeply and carefully to how they are feeling about their loss and their personal concerns. Employees feel respected and accepted when they are heard and allowed to let out their emotions. After all, these individuals have developed an emotional bonding with the organization during the years that they have devoted to its service. This is the bare minimum that employees expect: To be heard. Many a times, a solution is provided which may not be acceptable to the employees. Only when they are heard, can you provide a concrete solution that they will genuinely accept.
#4 Provide positive feedback
This is not an opportunity to point figures and blame, but to share positive and constructive feedback so that they don’t lose their confidence in their abilities and potential. This is a time when the best of the employees can lose their self-esteem, feel devalued, demotivated, and when their confidence level drops down. They take this transition personally. So, it is very important to not use this as an opportunity to point out mistakes but rather appreciate and value their service to the organization.
#5 Form personal connections
Be vulnerable and share the truth, as much as you can. Prior to the notifications, your outplacement provider can help you to craft a consistent message that will be delivered fairly to every impacted employee and to every remaining employee once the layoff has been completed. The communication should be transparent and not involve a lot of excused about why the business decision was made. In the end, employees will figure out what’s happening and will be able to ascertain the honesty of your communication. So, it is prudent to share the honest story and enable employees to understand the logic behind the decision.
#6 Be a coach
A coach enables coachees to see the bright side, be creative to dig the diamond out, broaden their vision, and discover the doors to possibilities. An HR professional can provide value to employees by developing their coaching skills and creating a coaching culture in the organization. In a coaching environment, employees are likely to be more open and willing to accept and trust the process.
#7 Partner with a contemporary outplacement services organization
Form a partnership with an outplacement provider well before the layoff event. This will ensure that professionally trained coaches and experts will be on hand to help with the planning and preparation, including manager notification training to ensure smooth transitions for the company and the impacted employees.
#8 Offer skills development options
Have a list of skills development providers to share with your impacted employees. Be sure to include links to free or inexpensive sources of upskilling and reskilling. Give your employees every opportunity to find ways to reskill, reinvent and upskill in areas that will enable them to get a job faster.
#9 Share your professional network
If you have contacts in the industry where your employees would like to work, offer to share contacts and make introductions to help the affected employees network and find job openings. A contemporary outplacement provider will also be able to help your employees find the appropriate people to contact and provide relevant job openings.
#10 Remember: Impacted employees are human beings
Remembering that the employees who are losing their jobs are human beings, with all the flaws and emotions that come with that. If you don’t do anything else, simply show compassion and care for them.
Layoffs are business decisions. As an HR professional, you aren’t to be blamed and you are not responsible for these types of decisions. So, there’s no point taking it personally and feeling guilty about it. The best you can do is to influence the decision-makers to consider the employees situation from a rational, logical and humanistic approach. And that’s where you can make a difference. I acknowledge all the HR professionals and people leaders who have to go through emotional labour in one or the other form. It takes a lot of courage and real compassion to do that. If you can connect to the other being at a level which will evoke emotional response and authentic genuine care, you have tapped into the abundance inside you.