Management Tools

By Paul Falcone Sep 1, 2006

HR Magazine, September 2006When facing a mass layoff that includes you, set aside any bitterness and choose to lead your team.

Downsizing, rightsizing, outsourcing, offshoring, restructuring, reductions in force, you name it—there seems to be no shortage of euphemisms for shedding people in corporate America these days. And maybe that’s understandable seeing that payroll-related expenses still show up as one of the highest costs on a typical corporate profit and loss statement. Intellectually, you can understand that when revenues fall, expenses must fall accordingly—and that means heads must roll.

That is, you can understand it when those heads aren’t yours. But imagine that you’re on the chopping block: In addition to being responsible for your own job loss and career transition, you may find that your staff members are looking up to you for help and guidance as well.

Corporate America expands and contracts almost like an accordion. And if and when the time comes that you find out about your own pending position elimination due to a plant closure, for example, then your responsibility for keeping your team “fired up and on board” through the 60-day notice period provided by the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act may appear a bit too much to bear.

How do you keep yourself and your team motivated through such a devastating period? How do you balance your own needs as well as the career needs of your staff in light of the company’s announcement? Most important, what legacy will you look to leave behind as the manager of a small group of individuals who all face the same fate?

These are not easy questions, and many times the results will vary based on how the company handles delivering the news and caring for its soon-to-be-let-go workforce. Perks like outplacement career services, stay bonuses and generous severance packages certainly help, but even under the best of circumstances, the task looks daunting because it’s not just about you anymore; it’s also about your responsibility to your subordinates.

When it comes down to brass tacks, which comes first—the company or your team?

“The good news is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other; it can be both,” says Larry Comp, principal of the total rewards consulting firm Humanomics Inc. in Valencia, Calif. “Too many times you’ll see employees bear ill will toward senior management for something clearly out of the senior management team’s control, and that resentment will tend to show itself in demonstrations of anger, defiance or apathy.

“Instead, managers and supervisors need to concentrate on keeping their subordinates focused on strengthening their references at work while preparing for their next move in career progression at another company,” he stresses.

Sending the Right Message

Unstable times call for lots of information and communication. Granted, you might not have a tremendous amount of updates on any given day, but when it comes to communicating with your staff, assume that you can’t give enough feedback at times like these.

Keeping a focus on balance—both of the company’s goals and your team members’ personal career needs—will keep everyone calm, in the information loop and objectively focused on executing the appropriate action plan. Remember, where a gap in communication exists, people tend to fill in the hole with assumptions, and those assumptions often lead to misinformation and an over-reactive grapevine.

Your daily, or at least weekly, staff meetings might sound like this:

“We were given 60 days’ notice two weeks ago, which leaves us with about six weeks of work ahead of us while we’re simultaneously pursuing our own career needs. We know that there doesn’t appear to be opportunities at other plants in town or opportunities for transferring to the corporate office, so let’s keep each other informed about any new events. Have any of you heard anything since we met on Monday?

“I’d propose that we strike a balance between the company’s needs and our own. First, remember we have six weeks to find another job, which is better than one day. Second, I’ll need at least 24 hours’ notice if you secure interviews at other companies on your own. This way we will be able to redistribute the work in your absence. We’re a team, and we’re going to stick together and support each other right through to the end, both from a company and individual standpoint.

“Third, this company has kept our families fed and roofs over our head for a number of years, and as much as I’m going to hate seeing this plant close, we’re still obligated to earn a good day’s pay for a good day’s work. That means we still need to meet our production goals and our productivity targets. However, we will get that done in a more flexible manner than has been done in the past. Are you all on board with me? Do I have your support?”

Notice that such informal get-togethers give all members of the team a chance to voice their opinions, share news and ask questions.

What’s in It for Them?

Keeping everyone focused on their efforts (both work- and job search-related) will build camaraderie and a shared sense of accountability. But there’s more to it than that: Loyalty and productivity to the bitter end give individual workers a huge leg up when interviewing at other companies.

A typical question that surfaces during an interview is, “What is your reason for leaving your current or last position?” Many job candidates fill out the line on the application form with a simple, one-word response: Layoff. While technically true, the value of the answer lies beneath the surface, and your current employees who are about to become job candidates will be better-served to amend their response to: “Layoff—Currently meeting all performance and productivity goals and standards through our 60-day notice period.”

Such a written response begs for more information and discussion on the interviewer’s part and clearly sets up the employee/job candidate to share positive news about an unpleasant situation. Furthermore, job candidates should expect interviewers to qualify the layoff by asking for more details about the reasons for the plant closure, the effectiveness of management’s communications and company expectations regarding individual performance. Watch how this could play itself out in a typical interviewing scenario:

Interviewer: “Rob, I see that you’re looking to leave your current position because you’re in a 60-day notice period, but I really like how you jotted down that you’re meeting all your preassigned performance and productivity goals. Tell me about that.”

Candidate: “Well, our manager came to an agreement with us that we could all work together to find a balance between our job-finding needs and the needs of the company for the two-month notice period. Our manager asked for 24 hours’ notice whenever we line up an interview, but he likewise wants us to protect our references and keep the company’s needs first and foremost in our minds, even as we approach our separation date.”

Interviewer: “Do you feel that’s a fair request on his behalf under the circumstances?”

Candidate: “Absolutely. We’re all sad and anxious about our jobs going away, but I want to be the one who turns the lights off. I want my reference, my official record or legacy at the plant, to say that I worked to the end as a loyal and productive employee. I appreciate the opportunity I’ve been given to work at that plant for so many years, and although I’m sad that it’s ending, I choose to walk away feeling grateful and appreciative for all I’ve been given and for all I’ve had a chance to do there.”

And therein lies the true value of finding that balance between company and career, and encouraging employees to end their employment relationship with their heads held high. The candidate’s response above shows clear business maturity—appreciation, commitment and loyalty despite the pending position elimination.

And as critical as it is to ensure that workers protect their references and turn a negative event like a layoff into such a positive outcome in future interviews, the most important factor is that the manager allowed for healing to take place. Affected workers were given a chance to communicate their frustration, anger, angst, disappointment and anxiety in a safe environment. They were then refocused on their responsibilities in light of the company’s changing needs and allowed to address both issues—career and company—responsibly.

Taking Control

The reality is that companies morph, they shed skins quickly these days, and group layoffs are no one’s fault. Layoffs happen to all of us regardless of our performance level.

But just because the stroke of a pen could end your otherwise safe and secure employment arrangement doesn’t mean that all the good will you have built over time, the positive relationships you have developed, and the on-the-job accomplishments you have earned fall by the wayside.

In fact, it should be just the opposite: Help your subordinates find the cathartic effect and peace of mind that comes with knowing that they worked hard over the years and gave the company their loyalty and commitment. In essence, help them change their perspective so that they can change their perception of what’s happening to them. You will find that both you and they will walk away from a potentially devastating event with a positive attitude and a sense of accomplishment that will help you stand out as a manager and help them stand out as loyal and consistent performers.

The loss of a position is an objective reality that happens to all of us from time to time through no fault of our own. Who you are in light of this position elimination is what’s at stake here. As a manager who balances your staff’s individual needs with those of the company, you will have an opportunity to demonstrate true leadership.

In addition, you will teach those who look up to you how to deal with adversity in their lives from a positive perspective. That gift goes well beyond the scope of the workplace and will do more than anything else to help your staff members come to terms with this unexpected change.

You may also just find that you will have changed your role as supervisor and manager into that of coach and mentor in the eyes of your subordinates—and that your personal stability, consistency and care are critically needed to offset the tremendous changes in our business landscape in this first decade of the new millennium.

Paul Falcone is a human resource executive and a best-selling author of five AMACOM books, including 2,600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews , The Hiring and Firing Question and Answer Book , 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire , and 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline and Termination.

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