CXO

Clear goals and candid communication keep teams focused in wake of layoffs

Are you and your staff facing tough times and possible job cuts? Guest columnist Ken Hardin offers eight pointers IT managers can use to keep their team together in the face of layoffs and financial difficulties.


Editor’s note: Ken Hardin, TechRepublic’s director of editorial development, is filling in for Vice President for Content Development Bob Artner, who is busy this week as a presenter at Gartner’s Symposium/ITxpo in Denver.

I find it difficult to feel bad for IT pros who allowed themselves to be suckered into believing that they were going to get rich by launching a pet food catalog site.

There, I said it.

However, I feel awful for the more than 3,000 Dell employees who are scheduled to lose their jobs this year in what company officials themselves call “ruthless” cost-cutting measures. Dell is a real company that will be making money years from now. Workers caught in Dell’s downsizing helped build something substantial; they did their jobs.

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How do you keep a team together after a round of layoffs? To add to this discussion, post your comment to this article. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback to an Artner's Law column will win a free TechRepublic coffee mug.

But budget cuts and workforce reductions often are unavoidable realities in a business’ lifecycle. IT managers have to find ways to motivate their remaining staff members during the fallout, no matter how awful they may feel personally about the tough choices they’ve had to make.

In a recent column, Bob Artner discussed the inevitable reality of budget cuts and warned our community members that in tough times, their teams may become demoralized and ineffective. Bob also promised advice on motivating your remaining employees in the worst-case scenario of large-scale layoffs.

Believe me, it’s tougher than it sounds. I once managed a production staff through a four-month transition period, during which all the team members’ jobs (including my own) were being moved to another city. We were able to meet our goals and walk away with a sense of accomplishment and a nice severance package. But it wasn’t easy. Here are eight hard-learned pointers on keeping your team focused during the uncertainty that naturally follows a workforce reduction or other dramatic budget cut.
  1. Make sure everybody is working on something meaningful. I can’t stress this one enough. On the day that layoffs are announced, hold a staff meeting to outline general responsibilities in the wake of personnel changes. Be understanding if your team is not at the top of its game for a couple of days following the layoffs. But by day three, it’s time to begin checking up on project punch-lists again.

    The greatest risk you face following a staffing change is that your team will begin to believe the company is just another directionless joke doomed for failure. Give your remaining team members clearly attainable goals and then prove that you’re serious about meeting them.
  2. Stress the business-case benefits of your team’s contributions. At some companies, meetings about staff reductions are the only times IT pros hear their efforts discussed in terms of profit and loss. If you haven’t already done so, develop a brief presentation on the return on investment (ROI) of your team’s current projects. Understanding how their work provides immediate financial upside to the company will help your team members get over the “I’m next” syndrome.
  3. Be respectful of former employees, but don’t dwell on the past. In any layoff, popular and well-respected employees will lose their jobs. Your remaining team members will naturally be saddened and angered at the loss, and who can blame them? You’re probably feeling many of the same emotions.

    In your first team discussion about the layoffs, be sure to clearly outline the business factors that drove the decision-making process and to note that the changes made don’t reflect directly on anyone’s job performance or the contributions they’ve made to the company. Then move on. Don’t give detailed replies about why any particular individual was let go, either publicly or privately.

    Whatever your answer, it can’t change the core reality that even well-justified and well-planned staff reductions are painful, both personally and professionally. So just repeat the root business drivers for the changes, and then make sure the team member who asked the question is working on something meaningful (See Number 1).
  4. Stay focused on your employee’s immediate concerns. As a manager, you’ll probably be involved in strategic planning sessions both before and after a major staff reduction. That’s fascinating, but remember that your junior programmers and admins are far more worried about their health insurance and mortgage payments than about the market outlook for Q4 2003.

    Reassure your team that the work they are doing today (again, see Number 1) has meaningful value to the business, and save the long-range planning sessions for later. In times of uncertainty, pointing out the obvious fact that employees who are still on the payroll must be doing something worthwhile is one of the most tangible comforts you can offer an uneasy team member.
  5. Recruit veteran team members to help keep things on track. No matter how much your team members may like you personally, employees who have just been through a layoff adopt an us-versus-them attitude about management, and you will definitely fall in the “them” category.

    Pinpoint one or two veteran team members with whom you can have candid conversations about morale issues that others employees may be reluctant to share with you. And whatever you do, don’t keep this practice confidential—that strategy just makes it seem as if you’re sending in a management mole. Be sure your staff advisors know they can openly share information they get from you with their teammates.
  6. Remind employees that they get a paycheck. This one may not win you any popularity contests right off the bat. But when long-range commitments are being questioned, it’s a legitimate wake-up call to remind employees that they and the company have immediate commitments to each other—an honest day’s work in exchange for a fair compensation package. This tip works best in one-on-one conversations, of course. I’ve used it myself at least 10 times, and only once have I received a highly negative reaction. I think it’s because amidst the carefully crafted messaging that accompanies a staff reduction, a little jolt of candor is refreshing.
  7. Don’t try to pacify your staff’s concerns with fringe or cosmetic benefits. Sure, a bowling night might be fun, but remember that morale problems in the immediate wake of a layoff probably are not based on team dynamics or communication breakdowns. These people are anxious for a good reason, and fringe benefits aren’t going to change that. During the transition period I mentioned earlier, I tried on two occasions to arrange a full-paid trip to a local amusement park for my team of about 10 people. Only two team members ended up going. It just rang hollow. And in the wake of the dot-com meltdown, fringe benefits have taken on an almost ugly connotation.
  8. Make sure your next project is a success and that everyone in the company knows it. After seeing staff positions eliminated because they did not make business sense for the company, your remaining team members will be apprehensive that the same conclusion may soon be drawn about their own jobs. Be sure that your team’s next big project is a real winner for the company. Shuffle resources, if need be, to ensure a timely launch, and when the project is complete, be sure to publicize the return the company can expect on its investment.

 



You’ll note that my pointers don’t include admonitions to be honest with your staff about the challenging realities your business is facing that forced the layoffs. That’s a given, of course.

And all the clever tactics in the world won’t help you motivate your team if you don’t personally believe that you’ve made the right decisions for both your department and the enterprise as a whole. In a future column, Bob will share his views on the criteria on which you should base these tough calls.

Team player?
What strategies do you use to keep your staff together and focused during tough times? To add to this discussion, post your comment to this article. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback to an Artner's Law column will win a TechRepublic coffee mug.

 

About Ken Hardin

Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRe...

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