April 07, 2020

Pushing forward: Guidelines to keep your team strong after a layoff

Of all the “make-or-break” moments your people will face in their lives at work, the fallout of a layoff or reduction in force (RIF) is one of the most pivotal. Layoffs are undeniably hard on everyone involved, and the focus often naturally lands on those who are being let go. While showing empathy and providing resources for this group is critical to company reputation and the kind thing to do, focus must quickly revert to the “stay team,” the people expected to keep pushing the company forward after their colleagues have been let go. After an RIF, everyone on your team is at risk of disengagement and burnout, and they need your support more than ever. 

If you’re in the challenging position of making layoffs soon, follow these four guidelines to ensure you have proper support in place for your stay team.

#1. Give empathy.

The global health crisis we’re facing is stressful enough as it is — adding downsizing to the mix further elevates the anxiety. As hard as things are for the leaders planning to say goodbye to valued teammates, they’re even harder for the team. Seeing layoffs taking place creates a complicated mix of emotions, including fear, survivor’s guilt, and distrust. In this situation, everyone deserves to know that their feelings are valid, and to have them acknowledged.

Those directly involved in making layoffs can share their own emotions freely and genuinely, but should be cautious about keeping the conversation balanced — it can come across as tone-deaf to focus too much on yourself when some on your team may see you in a negative light after layoffs.

Company leaders are positioned to set an empathetic tone by giving people opportunities to share their emotions: with each other, with their managers, or with a trusted outside resource like an EAP or coach. These conversations should happen in both structured settings, like 1-1s between managers and direct reports, and in unstructured ways, by socializing vulnerability and openness as part of company culture.

Your exited employees undoubtedly contributed a great deal to the company — show the team you respect the impact of their laid-off coworkers by allowing them to grieve, rather than asking them to pretend nothing has changed.

#2. Give information.

Over-communicating is a key strategy for mitigating the risk of losing your team’s trust. RIFs may leave people feeling blindsided, so the more you’re able to share, the better. Consider a group meeting for giving remaining team members the key information — who has been let go, how they’re being supported by the company, and why layoffs were necessary. Explaining why eliminating jobs was unavoidable helps people understand the company’s viewpoint and reassures them that all other alternatives were explored. The way you treat the people you lay off won’t go unnoticed or unconsidered.

Conversely, when people lack information, they’re likely to make assumptions, and rumors start to spread. Get in front of this by being forthcoming about the company’s situation and outlook. Encourage them to ask questions, and explain that this is the time for candid conversations and honesty. You may not have all the answers right away — if that’s the case, share when and how new information will be communicated as it comes. In times of uncertainty, there’s comfort in just knowing more communication is coming.

#3. Give space. 

The weeks and months after a layoff are an adjustment period. In addition to assuming new responsibilities, your people will be getting used to not seeing colleagues they may have had strong relationships with. Adapting to change in a period of immense stress takes time. As a leader, you have to allow time for people to get back into their usual rhythms, and for the company culture to mend and take on its new shape.

#4. Give support.

Reductions in force place a burden on people, as your staff scrambles to fill in gaps and pick up slack with fewer resources. Some may find themselves doing work they’ve never done before, and they’ll need to know they’re supported throughout the learning process — both in terms of the understanding they’re granted and the resources in place to help them to upskill or reskill.

The company will succeed or fail on the strength of the “stay team,” and high performers who no longer feel supported will be the first to look elsewhere. It’s one thing to tell them they were chosen to stay for a reason, it’s another to demonstrate that you see their value by continuing to invest in their growth.

Engage in career development conversations with your people — find out what training and resources they need in order to feel equipped to do their jobs well. Enable them to see this as an opportunity for their long-term growth.

Layoffs happen when they’re necessary to the survival of the company. Keep fighting for that survival by nurturing your stay team.

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