All Hands on Deck: Slow-Motion Layoffs Ahead

[Our Perspective by Michael Voss and Jennifer Rock]

Layoffs were high on radar screens throughout the upper Midwest this week as two Minneapolis-based Fortune 500 companies made headlines with similar stories. Target Corp. registered the biggest hit on the headcount Richter scale, announcing several thousand job cuts in the next two years. Meanwhile, food manufacturer General Mills revealed it has gradually laid off 1,500 employees over the last 30 months.

Slow-motion layoffs are not entirely uncommon, of course. A former employer of ours once took the same approach. Like these companies, Best Buy had a variety of legitimate reasons for announcing an unspecified number of cuts that would take place over time as various business units and strategies were reviewed for alignment with the company’s new direction. This trickle-down approach, however, came with a number of pitfalls: employee morale and productivity plummeted; execs scrambled to defend turf and justify pet projects; and the media circled constantly in search of any bit of news or gossip to give the story legs.

It didn’t take long for headline writers to find their hook. To effectively manage the ongoing series of employee departures, the company began to notify impacted individuals on a regular, weekly schedule. Mondays proved difficult to execute, so layoff conversations were typically scheduled on day two of the workweek. Employees soon dubbed the cadence “Termination Tuesdays,” a term reporters liberally sprinkled throughout their coverage.

This article isn’t intended to debate the merits of layoffs that stretch over an extended timeframe – as we noted, companies often have legitimate reasons for taking a measured approach to restructuring plans. Rather, our intent is to discuss what happens after the strategy is announced.

The environment changes. It’s excruciating for employees to make the cut one week – then experience the instant-replay effect when the cycle begins again the following Monday. Rumors, decision paralysis and fear creep in. Employees struggle to stay productive and focused, while well-intentioned executives and communicators deliver messages about brighter days to come.

In our experience with slow-motion staff reductions, seemingly small actions can have a major impact on employee sanity and company reputation. Senior leaders, HR departments and Communications teams all have pivotal roles to play.

HR: Accentuate the “Human” in Human Resources

During any layoff sequence, HR professionals are likely to emphasize an important key message – usually a reference to departing employees being treated with respect and provided support during this difficult time. Good companies attempt to deliver on this promise through some combination of severance plans and career transition assistance. But the best HR teams find a way to go above and beyond the standard company programs, developing no- or low-cost options to give the situation a human touch.

Consider the following tactics to help your company’s leaders and employees deal with the difficulty and uncertainty. Develop tip sheets and training sessions for managers who need to let employees go. Hold open office hours in which HR professionals are on hand to help departing employees fill out necessary (and often complex) paperwork. Offer assistance in updating résumés and LinkedIn profiles. Provide interviewing tips and networking opportunities. Consider a private group on a social media site for company alumni to support each other during their job searches. In short, do the right thing for your soon-to-be former employees – an effort everyone involved will appreciate.

Managers: Contribute to the Calm

Publicly announced layoff plans often foster a culture of uncertainty, which causes employees to become hyper-aware of even the smallest communication nuances. They look for cues to feed or quell their fears. Managers, in turn, must be sensitive to the environment and respectful of their employees’ emotions. This is the time for team leaders to establish a clear vision for the future and regular, face-to-face dialogue opportunities with their employees.

The most critical communication at this time, however, may not be verbal. Anxious employees study their managers’ actions, a fact leaders need to be cognizant of every day. For example, any closed-door meetings with HR reps – a possible signal for impending team layoffs – should be held away from the team’s work area. If your layoff notification meetings occur on a particular day of the week or month, avoid scheduling last-minute meetings with vague descriptions or unclear purpose during these times (employees will assume the worst). And keep in mind that sometimes the most basic leadership principles can be the most powerful: be visible, accessible and kind.

Communicators: Elevate the Voice of Employees

As the company transforms, the Communications team plays a critical role in connecting senior executives with their employees. Communicators should provide the top-of-the-house with regular “employee landscape” updates – a snapshot of what employees are thinking, feeling and saying. Then use the conversation as a window to nudge your senior team to provide answers and improvements to the process.

Start by going where employees are talking about the layoffs and company environment. Respectfully monitor social media sites, team meetings and other company conversation forums to gather concerns, ideas and questions. Give your execs ongoing reports on media coverage, employee morale and productivity – and encourage them to be expedient with responses and actions. Assist senior leaders in getting in front of employees regularly (live events are best) to address employees’ concerns head-on and to provide timely business updates.

Update: On March 10 Target announced the elimination of 1,700 jobs and the permanent closure of 1,400 open positions. Our thoughts are with everyone affected.

Related content from an earlier Perspective: Five Elements of a Good Layoff Announcement

© rockdotvoss.com 2015



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