Layoffs are stressful for everyone involved. No matter how much you prepare, workforce transformations will always be a shock to organizational systems. The more an organization is prepared to communicate, help employees find and transition to new jobs, and provide support to remaining employees, the lesser a toll the layoff will take on individuals, company culture, and employer brand.
While good intentions may be in play, without the proper guidance and best practices, good intentions often lead to actions that backfire on organizations and result in undesirable outcomes. In a classic case of overstepping the boundaries of an employer and stepping into the realm of a psychologist, Walmart provided 2,200 former employees a handbook during a 2015 layoff. The guide, “Coping with transition”, according to Business Insider, was meant as a guidebook for helping employees deal with the stress of being laid off through methods of self-care, counseling, and conflict resolution. As a few reporters pointed out, some of Walmart’s tactics following the layoff seemed a little tone-deaf given what employees were going through. While Walmart had good intentions, they may have said too much.
It’s easy to point fingers when companies fall prey to tactical blunders—but it happens all the time. When layoffs are simply unavoidable, don’t give into the temptation to be overly helpful or make promises you can’t keep.
To keep you from making the news as part of a layoff blunder, here are five layoff blunders that begin as good intentions and end with poor alumni sentiment and damaged employer brands to avoid:
#1: Don’t promise a rehire
Managers are often the people charged with notifying employees that they no longer have a job. Without the proper training, these unwitting victims may overcompensate for their guilt by making promises to transitioning employees that they can’t keep. To appease their negative emotions and in an attempt to avoid an uncomfortable situation, managers may end up overpromising what they can offer to employees, even saying that a rehire is feasible in the future.
Promising you will be able to hire employees in the future is, in most cases, more than stretching the truth. While it seems like an act of kindness at the time, making these kinds of promises can actually put the employee at a disadvantage. It creates a false hope for the person and might even discourage them from pursuing additional training or education. When employees hang on to the hope of being rehired, they are likely to miss out on opportunities to grow because they are sitting around and waiting for an opportunity to return. Managers don’t have a crystal ball and it’s difficult to predict what hiring will be like in the future, especially since the demand for various skillsets is always changing.
What should managers say instead? Be honest. Tell the employee they can always reapply, but that rehiring is not guaranteed. Ensure them their past experience will be taken into consideration by the hiring team, but it’s ultimately out of your control.
#2: Don’t discuss performance during layoff exit meeting.
A layoff conversation should simply be a conversation about the state of the company and how it impacts the employee’s job. It’s important to avoid discussions of performance during exit meetings because the layoff quickly becomes about something else entirely. Managers - don’t use layoffs as an excuse to deal with performance management issues that you should have dealt with previously. Always stick with preapproved layoff facts and messages provided by your company.
Managers - don’t use layoffs as an excuse to deal with performance management issues that you should have dealt with previously. @EmilyM_Elder #SmartTalkHR @RiseSmart https://bit.ly/2LGpaUa
By avoiding performance conversations, managers ensure the layoff remains about the state of the company and not personal matters. As RiseSmart career coach Kathleen Marvin states in her blog, How to Navigate Change and Job Loss and Come Out Ahead, “Most people experience difficult emotions and psychological reactions to losing a job, at least at first.” By bringing up situations and performance matters that have been left unaddressed, managers don’t improve the situation and simply add anxiety and negative emotions to this difficult time.
In addition, bringing up performance reviews during a layoff conversation deters from the concise message employees need to hear to move on to their next career or role. Additionally, you want to give the employee mental capacity to hear about the help you’re providing through things like severance and outplacement. During notifications, your top priority should be to give employees the opportunity to walk away with dignity.
#3: Don’t play the blame game
Managers are often uncomfortable with the layoff decision, so they blame the company by making claims like, “If I had any choice in this situation I wouldn’t be laying you off,” or “You know this wasn’t my decision.” These types of statements are confusing to employees who want to know why they were the ones let go.
Avoid putting the blame on any individuals and instead stick to the business facts of the reduction in force. Explain why the company and its leadership team had to make the difficult decision to let their employees go. When managers do play the blame game, it creates a state of confusion and the employee may wonder why their managers didn’t fight harder for them to stay. While the intention of the blame game was to shift the focus of emotion and anger from the manager to others who are not in the room, this blunder often backfires with the employee blames the manager for not fighting harder to save the position. These statements can also create legal issues and lead to disgruntled individuals who leave the company thinking that the layoffs were based on personal bias. When people question the motivation for the layoff, they may not move forward as quickly, they are holding onto the belief that their manager didn’t agree with how the cuts were made and they are spending time thinking about how the company “did them wrong” verses moving forward.
#4: Don’t be tone deaf
Walmart was widely scrutinized for one specific suggestion it made in its post-layoff handout for employees. The employer suggested employees avoid chocolate and alcohol as a way to limit additional stress brought on by the layoff. Even a subtle suggestion or otherwise relevant tip like this seemed heavy handed given the situation. In the public eye, this tip for employees seemed to downplay the layoff altogether and sent a message that some of the negative ramifications of a layoff (e.g. anxiety and stress) are simply avoidable and manageable with a few quick tricks.
Avoid sounding tone deaf by ensuring your message is sensitive to the unique situation your company faces. Empathy for what employees are going through, such as losing income and being forced to find a new job, can go a long way, especially if it shines through in your communication materials, which brings me to my next point….
#5: Don’t just hand employees a packet of information
Walmart obviously had good intentions of taking care of employees, building resiliency, and helping individuals through the layoff process. But it backfired. Why? Their tactical strategy for giving advice to employees on how to manage through the change and build to resiliency was off.
Bottom line, resiliency is never going to translate perfectly to a piece of paper. It requires a conversation and training. Companies need qualified training professionals who can walk employees through tips and techniques. Giving employees packets of information is not always helpful, especially when emotions are high, and workers are disgruntled.
Bottom line, resiliency after a layoff is never going to translate perfectly to a piece of paper. It requires a conversation and training. @EmilyM_Elder #SmartTalkHR @RiseSmart https://bit.ly/2LGpaUa
Here’s how to build a resiliency strategy that will work. First, check out the RiseSmart “Layoff and Career Transition Guide” for a complete checklist. Second, be extremely cautious about your strategy for communicating information following a layoff. If you’re laying off 22,000 people, it might require an email to distribute information broadly and consistently before rumors fly. A lesser number of impacted individuals might require one on one conversations. In addition, build a packet of hand-outs for both groups impacted employees—whether they’re staying or leaving. This packet should be full of factual resources to help employees, and should include, at a minimum, an outline of immediate next steps for employees that cover all of the areas employees are most commonly concerned about: pay, severance, medical benefits, other benefits, and outplacement services.
Handing employees a packet of disorganized, or insensitive information is bound to hurt—and not help—them. If you’re worried about your employees’ emotional state, go deeper with an assistance program designed to partner with employees through this difficult transition time. Similarly, outplacement and job transition providers provide the guidance and support your impacted employees need most.
Bonus: Don’t play psychologist!
Last, but not least, there’s one mistake to avoid that transcends them all. As cold as it may sound, layoffs aren’t a time for managers to suddenly talk with employees about their feelings. Transitioning employees are going to feel awful because they were just laid off and it’s not helpful when peers, managers, and coworkers ask them how they’re doing, how they feel or even if they’re hanging in there – they’re not, yet.
When you bring emotions into the conversation, it’s usually in an attempt to make yourself feel better. Leave the analysis of employees’ feelings to the professionals. It’s the organization’s job to equip leaders and managers to deal with the logistics of a layoff, from communication to executing an outplacement strategy, to conducting check-in meetings and more (see full list here). When layoffs happen, focus on providing employees with a customized roadmap and as much transition support as possible. This will ensure workforce reshaping happens with as little negative impact as possible.