how can I manage my team in the aftermath of layoffs?

A reader writes:

In the last month, my team has been reorganized and cut by 25%, as part of overall company layoffs. My staff members are, understandably, freaking out and wondering if more cuts are coming. It’s more important than ever that we keep productivity up, but how do I ensure that we keep work moving forward while keeping morale up as well?

There are a few keys to managing when your team is literally being torn apart around you – and they all start with recognizing that this isn’t business as usual.

1. Be as transparent as you can. The number one thing you can do in this situation is to be open and candid. Too often, companies try to hold information close and carefully control what gets out, but that leads to two bad outcomes: First, employees can tell that they’re being left in the dark, and the natural anxiety of the situation turns into real alarm. Second, information gets out anyway. And because it’s coming out through unofficial channels, it gets mangled in the telling and/or comes without the sense of perspective that could have been attached had it come out more openly.

But if you’re open and candid with employees about the company’s situation, worries, and future plans, you can avoid the worst of that and often build good will. So talk to people about what’s going on and why, and what it means for them.

2. Be visible. Don’t hide in your office – even if on some days you’d like nothing more. Your team needs to see you right now. That doesn’t mean that you need to show false bravado; in fact, to the contrary, what people will generally want is to see you being authentic. You’re managing in a time of crisis here, and it’s not all that different than being the authority figure at a funeral. Talk with people, be empathetic, and acknowledge that what’s happening is tough.

3. Give special attention to your top performers. Your team just received a clear and unmistakable signals that their jobs might not be as secure as they’d previously thought, and many are going to be looking around at other prospects. Your top performers, being top performers, are the ones who are most likely to find new jobs quickly. So if you want to keep them, you need to be having direct conversations with them about their futures on your team.

4. Lead by example. You’re on a stage right now, and staff members are going to take a lot of cues from you. If you seem freaked out, pessimistic, distant, or distracted, your team is likely to follow suit. But if you show authentic concern and empathy while also focusing on moving work forward, you’ll provide a model of “how we get through this” to people who are probably struggling to figure that out.

That might mean taking time to talk with people individually and as a group about their concerns, as well as cutting people a bit of slack if they’re having trouble being as focused as usual, but also laying out clear goals for the coming quarter and year and making sure everyone is on the same page about the plans to achieve those goals.

5. Be a really good manager. Now’s the time to pay special attention to the things that are always important but which plenty of us don’t get right every day – like making sure people feel valued, get recognized for good work, have clear goals, and have the resources they need to do their jobs. This stuff always matters, but it can be the glue that holds your staff together when other pieces of their work world have just been destabilized.

This post originally appeared at  DailyWorth.

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. K-Anon

    Very good advice. Several people on a team I just left were eliminated by their new management and it seems to have been handled very poorly. My ex-employees are all reaching out to me freaking out and it’s a tough situation.

    These are the situations that really separates Managers from Leaders in my opinion.

    1. Jen in RO

      About 30% of employees were supposed to be laid off in my company. (In the end, they settled for ~15%.) It was handled very poorly and I was just doing the math this morning: out of the remaining people (~40), 6 already resigned, 1 is considering an offer, and almost everyone else is job searching, with 4-5 in advanced stages of interviewing (myself included). Senior management definitely wasn’t expecting this, but, well, they are the ones who decided to ignore all advice and handle this like they did. Serves them right, and my potential new company is looking better and better with each interview.

  2. thenoiseinspace

    Whoa, 25%? Geez. Honestly, in this situation, I think you’ve got to assume that every remaining employee is dusting off their resume and, at the very least, glancing at a few job boards. I’ve only experienced layoffs once, but everyone left had “ran from a burning ship” complex and a few left the company soon after. If you don’t make your employees feel secure, they will assume they might be cut next and you will be left with even fewer employees, which is why #3 is so important.

  3. B

    Be prepared for resentment that people now have to take on a lot more work while still performing at a high level. Make them feel appreciated and if they need to come in late, leave a little early you do not give them grief about it.

    1. HR lady

      Yes, B. In fact, be aware that some people might go through the stages of grief. In time, things will get easier though.

  4. EngineerGirl

    You need to go back to your management and find out why this occurred. Is it because business has declined and therefore there is potential for more layoffs? Or is it because one company bought out another and they eliminated the overlaps, resulting in a stable size for the merged company? The uncertainty is what is going to drive your performers out the door.

    Also, can you cross train your people with marketable skill sets? This will make them less likely to leave immediately if they are getting “free” training in something that could help get them a job later.

    1. some1

      “You need to go back to your management and find out why this occurred.”

      Sometimes you just won’t get the real answer, especially at orgs that use layoffs to get rid of low performers or employees who aren’t good fits.

      Someone will tell you Rachel has been let go because the Teapot Designer position has been eliminated with a straight face. Two weeks later, they will hire Monica under the title “Designer of Teapots”

      1. NK

        A 25% layoff isn’t just getting rid of poor performers or bad fits (though obviously those people will generally be at the top of the list to go). I think for layoffs this widespread, people have at least a general idea of what’s going on at the company. That said, if the company can give any reassurance that massive cuts aren’t going to continue, they should. But sometimes you just don’t know. I was part of a 20% layoff in 2009, which wasn’t a huge shock because I was working in financial services. I think further (though smaller) cuts were made because the company continued to not do so well, but they really didn’t know how things were going to shake out with the market.

  5. some1

    Try to be as transparent as you can. Yes, there are some details you probably won’t be able to give your team, but don’t knowingly lie to them, or no one will ever trust you again.

  6. HR lady

    GREAT article, AAM. I’m going to print it out so that I can give it to managers if/when I’m ever involved in layoffs again.

    I’ve often coached managers to be visible after layoffs (and after firing someone, too). It’s not always their first instinct, but it’s so important that they are.

    I’d add, just to be clear, that AAM’s advice in item #1 about being transparent is because the layoffs have already happened. There are often important reasons to keep things confidential BEFORE a layoff has happened. (For example, sometimes a person is selected to be laid off and then the decision changes and someone else is selected. No one should ever know that they were ALMOST laid off. Only the ones who were actually selected.)

    1. some1

      “No one should ever know that they were ALMOST laid off.”

      Good lord, who would ever reveal this to anyone?

      1. AdAgencyChick

        I can see a well-meaning manager trying to pose it as, “It was going to be you, but because you did well on ABC project/I went to bat for you/you’ve been working 80 hours a week lately, we went with letting Wakeen go instead.”

        Not that this is a wise thing to do, just that I can see it happening.

      2. Joey

        Well when it’s based on seniority the folks who are calculating in their head may incorrectly calculate that they’re on the list.

      3. AVP

        I had a friend who made the “layoff list” 4 times in a row but was saved by her manager every time. She was very close with her manager, and they both hated the company, so the manager told her in case she was weighing other offers or for some reason wasn’t reading the writing on the wall and job searching.

        Still, it made her SUPER paranoid until she was able to leave (on her own volition).

      4. Pennalynn Lott

        Ha! When I was a contractor at a global software company, my manager *loved* to tell everyone where they stood each time we had to let people go because the software company cut our budget. (They were constantly cutting and then reinstating/expanding it). She thought it was a fantastic motivator to work harder. She also loved telling everyone how lucky they were to just have jobs at all, especially when anyone brought up any ideas for improvements. Thankfully, she was ultimately “promoted” to managing data, not people.

  7. Anonymous

    I think there’s some advice that has been left out. This advice assumes that front line managers have reasonable insight as to what is going on.

    At my previous employer, there had been two rounds of layoffs and front line management was telling people who they felt were strong performers not to worry. Then, two of us got caught up in the next round.

    The manager who told us not to worry had the best of intentions, knew what our performances was, and knew what our place on the team was. Yet, these decisions were still made above his head with no warning to him.

    So now he’s got senior management who won’t tell him squat, still has to do performance reviews for his employees, but can’t tell strong performers not to worry because he actually has no idea what senior management will do next.

    The worst part is that for the little communication they would do with us, all they would say is “there was a round of layoffs. We believe we are currently at the right size.” And then they’d do another one…

    Go senior management! I’m glad they got rid of me, because I’m tired of dealing with their crap. I got to move on to much greener pastures.

  8. Rebecca

    Here’s a hint: when you start cross training, don’t use the excuse about having backups for key people, lay off the senior, better paid person, give all their work to the junior, not so trained or highly paid person — AND — fast forward a year or so and give the same exact manager speech to the junior person with an even more junior/lower paid person sitting there. People tend to remember this.

    This happened to me at my first job. Thankfully, it was many years ago and I was able to go out and get a better job with similar pay and better benefits before they got rid of me, too.

    I went through this whole layoff thing in the 90’s. It was awful! You felt like every day could be your day, and you never knew when you’d see someone being walked out with a cardboard box. Ugh.

    1. Yup

      “I went through this whole layoff thing in the 90′s. It was awful!”

      Word. I had one job in the late 90s were I kept an empty box under my box for 2 years because you just never knew when the axe would fall.

  9. CAndy

    It’s an awful situation, but one that is a reality of business.

    I think it’s important for a manager to show empathy with their team and acknowledge that yeah, this is shit. Certainly in the initial period. Then it’s up to a manager to lead the process of moving on.

    I’ve been in this situation a few times, even once when as a manager I had been ‘at risk’ myself and found myself having to sell the company’s explanation for doing what they did to staff through team briefings. At some of these meetings I was close to tears, but I knew I couldn’t show it. Even though I completely disagreed with most of what the company was doing and how they did it, my personal opinion was only for private discussion with family, friends and a few peers.

    There’s no easy way about it and you might not agree with it, but as a manager your job is to be a manager for the company you work for.

  10. CubeKitteh

    Speaking as someone who has gone through two rounds of layoffs in the past three months including very recently, this is never easy. But as others have said: be visible and as transparent as possible. My industry is one in which we really don’t think our volume of the past few years will return, so there is some job security questions already in the staff’s mind. I have found that not only being visible and empathetic, but also encouraging them to ask questions – even if I can’t answer or don’t have the answer – means the world to those who were uneasy beforehand and now are downright panicking.

  11. Dani

    And if the rumor mill is churning and people are wishing that the ax would just fall already because the uncertainty is killing them don’t tell them that if you don’t like living under the threat of lay offs then you shouldn’t be working for corporate America.

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