I am a talent acquisition leader with a midsize tech company. I built my team from scratch in the past year. We are a high performing team that is greatly appreciated by our stakeholders.
Like many companies out there, ours is seeing the impact of inflation and economic downturn. Many organizations are putting a freeze on hiring. This means, as the TA leader, I soon may have to make selective layoffs on my team.
I went through a similar scenario during the pandemic, but it is different this time around. I am feeling emotionally burdened and wondering where to find my resilience. Our company might take the last-person-first approach when deciding who to lay off. Currently there is no underperformer on my team, even though each person is at a different level in their career.
What advice do you have for people leaders having to navigate this layoff time? Is there a framework that could be helpful? It feels too soon after what we went through as an industry during the pandemic.
Leader Finding Resilience
Dear Leader Finding Resilience,
First, congratulations on building your amazing team. I acknowledge how much it must stink to have to let some of them go, first because it is hot on the heels of your last layoff due to the pandemic and then because it will almost certainly take a toll on your great team, both those who are asked to leave and those who stay. There is no question that everyone will be affected and the careful balance you have achieved will need to be rebuilt. It is a lot.
I have spoken to a few people who have a lot of experience with this (sadly, quite a large community) and have come up with a few ideas for you.
In my initial Googling around I found some potentially useful research: “Developing a framework for responsible downsizing through best fit: the importance of regulatory, procedural, communication and employment responsibilities” by Christopher J. McLachlan. It isn’t a meta study but it does have a solid literature review on the topic of responsible downsizing and, astonishingly, it provides exactly what you asked for: a framework. It hurt my brain a little to digest it, but I think will be worth your while.
The article covers the four areas of responsibility to consider as you think through your plan: regulatory, procedural, communication, and employment. One highlight that stood out, and one of the most critical things to keep in mind, is the importance of procedural, distributive, informational, and interactional justice in the course downsizing:
“… employees and stakeholders are more likely to perceive the process fair if ‘proper’ procedures have been seen to be followed. Heightened perceptions of responsibility amongst employees and stakeholders can be generated if procedural aspects such as selection criteria, transparency and accuracy of information, sufficient compensation policies and employee involvement are seen to be delivered equitably. Subsequently, perceptions of fairness can enhance the motivation and commitment of the post-downsizing workforce.”
You will definitely want to seek guidance from your HR partners to:
- Formulate the plan according to company procedures and cultural values;
- Ensure that your people are involved in the process, and
- Ensure that decision-making criteria are clearly communicated.
As you begin thinking about who stays, who goes, and why, here are a few other things to consider—all from leaders who have recently been through this exact challenge.
- Yes, all of your folks are high performers—as far as you know. If you have not been getting clear feedback from their clients to assess who is demonstrating the most engagement, customer service, and cultural fit, now may be the time to do that. Pick up the phone and call your most active customers to assess their satisfaction level with the service they have been getting.
- First in/ first out is rarely the best way to go. It’s possible that it could work from a procedural fairness standpoint, but it won’t necessarily serve you, your team, or your long-term goals. It might also set a precedent you don’t want when the time comes to rebuild your team to full capacity. I hate to say it, but sometimes the most tenured people with the highest salaries have the lowest amount of flexibility and eagerness to jump in with both feet on new systems and processes, or the willingness to go the extra mile on a Friday afternoon. This is tricky to navigate but it will certainly contribute to every single remaining team member’s desire to stay relevant and add value.
- Consider speaking candidly with each person on the team to assess career goals and dreams. You might have someone who wants to retire and will be okay with going earlier than planned (with a generous severance). Or maybe you have team members who would prefer part-time work, or who would be willing to go part-time for a while as they are busy with a sick family member, or who need to take some time for their own self-care. You’ll never know if a creative compromise could serve both parties until you go looking.
In our company, at the beginning of Covid, every single employee who made over base salary took a 20% salary cut. It was a shared pain for all, but it worked.
- Possibly some of your people might find an opportunity elsewhere in the organization? This is obvious, low-hanging fruit, but an idea anyway.
- What skill sets, traits, and attributes are most important to me and to the success of this team? In the end, you want to end up with most capable team. It will depend on your own internal calculations of ROI for each person. This is cold, but true.
- Who are the fast and willing learners who will be better utility players—willing and able to cross train, to widen scope? These will be the ones to keep for the long-term roller coaster. Because it is a solid bet that the turbulence is going to continue.
Once you have formulated your approach and built your communication plan, you will need to be clear and strong. Key points here:
- Take personal responsibility for all decisions, once made, and stand by them.
- Don’t waiver. Be brief, kind, and to the point. Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into a debate. Just stick to the facts and the next steps. If you need to write out your script, do it.
- Acknowledge the difficulty, the pain, and the sadness, but don’t dwell on it. Be prepared with tissues if you think they might be needed. I never have them when I need them, so now I keep a stash in my office. Having emotions is just part of being human.
In terms of taking care of yourself, I encourage you to engage in activities that bring you joy. And make sure you get enough rest, proper nutrition, and sleep. Those are the first to go under stress—and, of course, they are what you most need as you face this challenge. Here is an excellent Whitepaper: Building Resilience in Times of Crisis by Melaina Spitzer. It will provide you with more tips and the neuroscience behind them. Ultimately, you will have to step up and do your best with the things you can control and find ways to let go of the things you can’t. The madness and upheaval doesn’t seem to be slowing down, and it is exhausting. Anything you can do to take care of yourself so you can take care of your people will be good.
Thank you for sending in the question and sharing your situation. It is quite common. I hope the conversation will help our readers feel less alone and provide real value.
You are clearly thoughtful and caring. I am confident that you will make the best of these rotten circumstances while building your own resilience and that of your team. That is really all you can do.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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