These days, companies seem to be playing musical chairs with their employees. HR is processing the leaving of employees followed by the onboarding of a slate of new hires. Then there are layoffs and open job requirements combined with hiring freezes. When the music stops, the chairs are empty and scattered across the breakroom like an emergency evacuation. And it’s all recorded on social media.
This shuffle is happening across industries and the February 1st Bureau of Labor and Statistics report shows how the nation is fairing. The February report documents numbers from December 2022. As of the end of the year, there were 11 million job openings. The employee quit numbers were at 4.1 million. Both finance and insurance industries reported the largest layoffs at 43,000 while the federal government added 4,000 positions.
Recent layoffs at tech giants, Amazon, Salesforce, Google and Microsoft, are adding to a collective panic among employees. If you’re feeling this in your office, you’re in good company.
How to manage change during layoffs
As an HR professional, part of your job may be to deliver bad news. Telling someone they are losing their job is difficult. You’re not expected to smile and pretend all is well. And if you do, the message is likely to be received even more poorly.
How a company communicates and supports its departing employees and manages the fears of the remaining employees, is essential. Here are steps you can take to help manage change during layoffs:
- Consider the message of a layoff. Before a layoff, HR and management should be in alignment and consider questions from employees both leaving and staying, as well as the perceptions in the community, the media, shareholders, if applicable, and business partners.
When a department is slashed, who will pick up workflow and communication with key stakeholders? While downsizing may be a financial concern and show a strong fiscal response, it may not be the only outcome.
- Communication, compassion and respect are non-negotiable. Employees work to earn a living, but they’re also ambassadors to your products, services and brand. Employees build relationships internally and externally with customers. Respect who they are and what they have done.
While it may be efficient to hand employees notices as they walk through the door with boxes waiting on their desks or have them wake up to an email, consider the reaction and backlash. Don’t forget that the other employees are watching from behind their desks or screens. They’re looking on and thinking, “am I next?”
- Prepare support. An unexpected layoff will send people into a panic. Will they have severance, letters of recommendation, health insurance? What happens to their retirement accounts, professional certifications, security clearances, VISAs, tuition benefits if they are currently taking classes, and many other benefits?
The questions and issues employees have will depend on each organization. Security clearances and VISAs are not applicable to most people, unlike 401Ks and COBRA benefits. More often, employees won’t know what questions they have until they have had time to process the news. HR should prepare a FAQ to be included in separation packages and provide a dedicated HR contact phone number and email for specific questions. This can be considered customer support and will prevent panicked or unhappy employees from turning to social media with their grievances.
- Engage with remaining employees. For those left behind, it’s just as important to prepare for their questions and worries. If an employee loses a manager, who will they report to? What happens if they are up for a review and the person who knows them best is gone? If a department loses key employees, who will manage the extra work?
Now is an excellent time to present possibilities for growth, promotion and job training. While layoffs are painful, they can offer opportunities to those left behind to advance their careers, try new skills and help a company grow through rough times.
No one wants to see people walk out the door but how a company plans and manages the departures, whether it’s through natural attrition or layoffs, will determine how remaining and future employees perform.
In the rush to contain costs, HR has an essential role in advising management to consider layoffs beyond the dollar amount and prevent companies from looking like a disaster zone.