Tech managers everywhere are finding themselves stuck with decisions that nobody wants to have to make. Job insecurity is a given in a lagging economy, and layoffs are a necessary evil. For managers, the only thing worse than letting people go is knowing what’s coming but being unable to discuss it with their teams. How do managers reconcile loyalty to the company with the guilt and pressure that comes with foreknowledge of an unpleasant situation?
There’s abundant information to help laid-off employees cope and get their careers back on track. There’s also quite a bit of information available to companies on dealing with the aftermath of downsizing. Unfortunately, there’s a shortage of information on how to deal with impending doom.
In light of this lack of support, I’d like to offer my own experiences in the hope that they might comfort a few managers in this unhappy position. I encourage you to post your thoughts on this issue in the discussion below.
I’ve been through more layoffs than I care to count. In most cases, I was left unscathed, but twice I’ve been involved in deciding who would lose their jobs. To make matters worse, I was responsible for carrying out the orders.
I learned a lot the first time I found myself in this situation, and I decided not to have a repeat performance when I had to do it again. These were the two most grueling management experiences I’ve had, but I learned there’s a right way and a wrong way to deal with such situations.
The wrong way
The first time I had to decide who to lay off, I wasn’t included in the actual decision to downsize. The board of directors decided this was the proper route, but I felt that not enough analysis on cost centers had been done to support their decision. That was strike one—I didn’t trust the company’s decision.
I was asked to evaluate employees and their roles in three departments without tipping them off. We were a small company, so I didn’t have to conduct interviews, but over the next two weeks I had a hard time reviewing reports and facing my teams in meetings. The further I got down the list, the worse this situation became. I felt like I was no longer a member of the team. Strike two—I alienated myself from my employees.
Once a plan to reduce staff was in place, things got worse every day. At first I felt like taking vacation or sick time, but I knew that would be a dead giveaway. I also had a hard time handling management issues with employees who I knew wouldn’t be around for long. Feeling like a traitor, I went through the motions anyway.
With about 10 days to go, rumors started flying. I’ve always tried to maintain solid relationships with the people on my teams, and I was asked several times by different people what I knew about the situation. Lying made me uncomfortable, and I felt it to be unethical, no matter what the directive from upper management, so when asked about layoffs I merely stated that I couldn’t say anything. That was strike three. While some people were sympathetic, others felt I was betraying them, and so did I.
My problem was allowing myself to be overcome by the situation. I took it personally. I became cynical about the company and disagreed with their methods. The people who were laid off were given no notice, and only two weeks of severance, regardless of seniority. From that point forward, I had no faith in the company’s recovery. Shortly after this experience, I moved to another company, where I’d be asked to do it all again.
Make the best of a bad situation
I have to admit that in my new position I had much more control over the situation. I was actually a part of the decision to downsize. I didn’t enjoy that role, but at least I knew that I’d tried everything in my power to avoid layoffs.
I kept my teams informed of the company’s problems and what measures were being taken. I made progress reports and financial information available, something my previous company had never done. I delivered the information myself to avoid putting managers in the unpleasant situation I had so recently experienced. When the inevitable decision finally came, at least my teams and I trusted that everything possibility had been tried. While it still left me in a regrettable situation, everyone understood why it was happening.
This made my job easier. I didn’t feel like I had to go through the motions. My teams and I felt a renewed urgency to improve our situation in the time remaining. I was left to handle the situation as I saw fit, and I decided there would be no secrets. When positions had to be eliminated, I informed my teams before we had a solid date, but only after a definitive decision had been made. I encouraged people to take sick time for job interviews, and I offered outplacement services whenever possible.
I knew I was taking a risk in being so open about layoffs, but I was pleasantly surprised by my employees’ reactions. People offered to work part time, and some even came in and worked for free after D-Day.
Open communication with employees proved the best possible route. In the end, the fear of conflict was always greater than the reality. I still had sleepless nights, but instead of worrying about how my people would cope with the bombshell, I was able to focus on how to fix the situation. Ultimately, I learned not to be a victim of the bad news I was delivering.
Don’t grieve for the living
It’s up to you as a manager to set an example and keep faith in the fact that eliminating jobs for some is saving jobs for others—and maybe even saving the whole company. Dealing with layoffs, bad morale, and job insecurity while still living up to corporate responsibilities is taxing, no matter what your approach. For me the answer was to facilitate communication and be open with my teams.
Bury the axe
Are you having a hard time dealing with impending layoffs? Have you had to reduce your staff? How did you cope? Post your advice and comments to the community in the discussion below, or send us an e-mail.