Tech & Work

What to do when you have to lay off staff

Layoffs are all over the news. Anyone who has ever experienced a layoff know all too well the pain involved. This column,however, is about the flip side of the layoff situation - having to be the one who has to decide who to layoff and then performing the unseemly deed.

I have been seeing that word quite a bit in the papers these days and frankly it bothers me. Having been the victim of a reduction in force, I know all too well the pain of sudden unemployment and all that can go with it. However this column is about the flip side of the layoff situation - having to be the one who has to decide who to layoff and then performing the unseemly deed.

Layoff from a manager's perspective is much more difficult than a firing - at least emotionally speaking. With a firing there usually is a justification that the person being fired is not performing up to standards or has done something to warrant termination. Not so with a layoff. The victim of a layoff generally has committed no crime other than to be less senior than others in the organization or perhaps more senior and earning more than his or her colleagues, or just bad luck. Because of this, there can be a sense of guilt on the manager's part when it comes to layoffs. I'm here to tell you that unless you had a strong hand in the performance of the organization - it's not your fault. I know that doesn't make it easier, but hopefully gives you a sense of perspective for your actions.

Another difficult aspect of layoffs is choosing who has to go. This is usually coupled with numerous exercises done in secrecy in which you have to determine layoffs based on a series of what if percentage budget cuts. How many do you have to lose if your budget was cut 5%, 10%, 15% or perhaps more? These exercises can eat away at you if you let them.

Then there is the "how in the world do they expect me to keep things running when we barely have enough staff as it is scenario?" This is usually accompanied by the "we have to do more with less" song and dance given by management who does not have a clue in the first place and thinks that everything can run just the way it is with fewer people. Having management that is insensitive to the fact that cuts in service need to go along with cuts in staffing can be particularly stressful. It may sound crazy, but I have gone through budget scenarios in the past where I have written myself out of the budget, leaving more staff in place to get the work done. This to me was more palatable than trying to manage an environment that clearly would not have enough human resources to perform meaningfully and the expectation that nothing was going to change.

So how do you choose who has to go? This can be very complex and not entirely under your control. Let's look at one of the more difficult scenarios - layoffs with "bumping." This usually occurs in an environment that has collective bargaining and involves senior people being laid off in higher-level positions and having the "right" to bump across to a position that has someone less senior in it or bump down into a lower-level position with someone in it - assuming they have the "qualifications" to meet the job requirements they are bumping into.

This type of exercise is a nightmare to perform and can take weeks or months to determine all the bumping paths that may exist. Worse still is the fact that depending on where the job functions of your unit sits in the organization, you may have to perform no layoffs but still end up with an entirely new staff through bumping. These new staff members are theoretically capable of doing the job they bumped into (at least according to Human Resources) and are "thrilled" to be there. This is one of those situations in which you have the least control over the final composition of your unit and the real lesson learned here is this: Make sure the job descriptions and qualifications for the jobs under your management accurately portray what it takes to get the job done. It will come back to haunt you if you let job descriptions get out of sync with reality and layoffs with bumping come around. BTW, it's usually too late to try to fix them once the bumping exercises have started as these will be seen as efforts to keep specific people in their jobs.

The next hardest layoff situation in my mind at least, is the general cut across the board scenario in which the cuts are spread evenly across the organization with little thought to how business gets done. In this situation you may end up having to cut less people but still be left with the expectation that nothing is going to change in regards to the work your unit gets done. This is in direct opposition to being able to say "We will no longer provide 24/7 coverage and thus we are cutting everyone that works midnight to 8:00 AM. Undoubtedly the second situation makes it clearer whom to cut and the consequences of those cuts than the first.

Obviously as a manager, your ultimate goal is to keep your operation running as smoothly and effectively as possible. I almost typed "your ultimate goal is to keep your best people" but that may not be realistic. Sometimes your best people are also your highest paid people. That would make sense right? Paying people for what they are worth? Yes, I realize that doesn't always happen - which is why I said sometimes. When you do happen to find yourself paying your best people more - you may have to choose between having a few good people or more average people. In these cases you will have to decide what gives your unit the best chance to succeed. I always feel that having fewer competent and hard working people is better than having lots of less competent employees, but there does come a tipping point in that equation. Sometimes it's better to have more bodies to throw at the work than to not have enough bodies at all. These are hard decisions.

Ultimately there is no cut-and-dried formula for determining who gets laid off. Office politics, senior management decision-making, self termination (people getting out on their own), seniority, and union bumping rules along with a plethora of other factors usually make each layoff situation unique unto itself. The only thing I can guarantee is that it is unpleasant, demoralizing, and no matter how hard you try the final result will leave you unsatisfied.

Having said all that, I do feel your pain. Laying people off comes with the territory if you want to be in management but that doesn't mean it doesn't take a toll on you. While the focus of the pain in a layoff is understandably with those who are losing their jobs, those who are left behind and those that are a part of the decision making suffer as well. It is in times like these that you must seek some solace. Do not be afraid to seek it from friends and loved ones, and talk out your feelings. Carrying this burden around by yourself is neither deserved nor healthy. Best of luck to any and all that find themselves on either side of the layoff table. May your difficulties be short lived and your situation turn positive as soon as possible.

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