Downsize with heart, not hurt


The task of those who must inform staff members that they have been laid off is incredibly difficult. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

Around the world organisations are downsizing, whether because of the generally tough economic times or for other reasons. And as we observe how this is being handled we see a whole spectrum of employer behaviour, from the brutal to the caring.

Some have simply sent texts to staff, informing them that they are being laid off. How cruel that is! No wonder, as I wrote in an earlier article, leaders like Jack Welch felt one of the most important and challenging skills for managers to develop is holding difficult conversations, such as ones to do with downsizing inevitably are.

The task of those who must inform staff members that they have been laid off is incredibly difficult, admitted Welch.

They feel guilt and anxiety before, during and after. And he was surprised that he couldn’t identify any programmes that helped people develop the skills needed to conduct such meetings.

I decided to write this column as I was recently exposed to a manufacturing company that needed to downsize its staff and made the hard decision to do so.

Despite the difficult financial situation in which it found itself, the board and management were clear that they would provide those leaving with as soft a landing as possible.

Their approach was to offer voluntary early retirement to staff, with reasonable benefits beyond the payment of their notice period, in the hope that no one would have to be asked to leave against their wishes.

A considerable number applied, including a few senior staff who’d been with the company for many years – which gave an opportunity to younger employees to inherit their responsibilities.

Those leaving were offered training sessions that prepared them for seeking new opportunities, and as Welch recommended, they were encouraged to believe that there was a better life ahead of them, aligned with their interests and aptitudes.

As I wrote in another of my articles, about directors reaching the end of their terms, when people retire they go through a grieving process, with the usual steps of denial followed by acceptance, mourning and eventual healing.

I was referring to a different kind of situation, but my point there is valid here too, finding ways of helping the leavers to deal with their loss, while those remaining make their exit much smoother and more graceful than many turn out to be.

The advice I gave to the retiring directors was to accept that their positions were never meant to be for life, and that as one door closes others may open. Keep giving your utmost till the last day of your term, I insisted, and hand over on the due day with no regrets.

Your inner motivation and sense of commitment may have dimmed somewhat, but let this in no way affect how you perform your duties. Be proud of your legacy, and have others speak well of you.

As for those remaining, they should understand that their departing colleagues are likely to be indeed grieving, however stoic they may appear. Therefore, show generous appreciation for where and how they have made a difference.

We are all in need of empathy and appreciation, so say farewell nicely, and have them continue to speak well of the place they are about to leave.

Farewell lunch

The organisation that I witnessed going through downsizing hosted a farewell lunch for the retirees, giving them an honourable send-off. The CEO invited each of the newly promoted team members – also present – to say a few words, before asking those who were leaving to speak. Without exception, everyone was positive and appreciative of their time with the company, whether it had come to an end or not.

And the retirees were also exceptionlessly optimistic about the company’s future, saying they were leaving it in safe hands to deal with the present challenges.

Several of the leavers stated that they could always be called upon for support and one, with a light touch, suggested if their younger replacements came across a problem they could blame him!

Several directors were also present, and when they spoke some expressed how moved and encouraged they felt, saying they would miss those who were leaving.

The retirees were wished well in the next stage of their lives, and the “youngsters” who were taking over were assured that they had the full support of the board.

My strong sense was that here the grieving was much milder than usual. Indeed the whole spirit was an uplifting one. So if you are having to downsize, do also behave humanely with those who will be leaving.

Eldon is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT, co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadership and member of the Kepsa Advisory Council. [email protected]

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