Not long ago I got the chance to talk to an employee who is in the middle of a layoff cycle; he was angry, fearful and disappointed.  The events surrounding a layoff are, sadly, well known, but we rarely see leaders who understand how to effectively help their people through the layoff and even take advantage of it.   In this economy companies are many times forced to layoff people, sometimes in waves.  When employees are spared, they feel relieved for a little bit, before they start thinking and worrying about the next wave.  Will I be next?  I better start looking for a job elsewhere; What am I going to do?   Thoughts like these are the symptoms of a syndrome, the survivor syndrome.  The effects of this syndrome will cause a sharp decrease in employee engagement and productivity.  Recent research has shown that after layoffs, employees often report reduced commitment and performance.

As a leader you probably are asking yourself ; what can do to help my team goes thru that dreadful layoff cycle?  Here are three suggestions:

1- Before the layoff cycle starts – Fight for your team

You probably have heard the story of Bob Chapman the former CEO of  Barry-Wehmiller, a family own company.  In 2008 at the bottom of the recession, the company was hit very hard, and they lost 30% of their orders very fast.  The board decided that they needed to save money and pushed for layoffs.  Bob refused,  so he came up with an idea, a furloughs program.  Everyone was going to take an unpaid vacation so everybody will suffer a little as opposed to a few to suffer a lot.  Guess what happened to moral of the employees?;  it went to the roof.  If you have the chance, protect your team at all costs and make sure they know you are doing it.  

2- During the layoff cycle – Conduct them with empathy

As employees process the layoff cycle, they start to believe that the company they work for does not care about them, that they are pawns, merely a piece that can be easily sacrificed for the company’s sake. But it doesn’t have to be this way. As a leader, your ability to communicate effectively and regularly with your employees is invaluable in the long term. Much of how employees perceive a layoff depends on how much information is shared, and where is it coming from; it should come from you.

  • You must listen and listen often
  • Acknowledge their fears
  • Ask how your employees are doing and respond with empathy
  • Make sure you validate or dispel the “rumors” out there, fast
  • Make sure you are available, open door policy
  • Don’t hide the truth

3- After the layoff – Lead by example

When you perform a layoff, you’ve probably harbored feelings of regret for having to lose members of your team and feel anxious about the light in which survivors see you. Now you are managing a team of survivors, the lucky ones who didn’t get laid off. Therefore, you need to set a positive tone but also realistic. Good fortune doesn’t make good performance. Kick your leadership skills into high gear and focus on transitioning your surviving employees toward a new brighter future. Make employee engagement your number one priority, creating a safe space for your employees to succeed.

Organizations invest time and money helping the downside employees to move on, as a leader you probably are going to be part of that effort. This is ethical and positive especially because the survivor employees are watching. How they perceive you are handling the process will set up the tone for a renewed trust relationship. If you handled it with integrity and empathy, you will minimize and perhaps eliminate adverse impacts of the survivor syndrome on your team.

Luis Velasquez is an executive coach with many years of professional experience in the field. He is a research scientist, international business consultant and entrepreneur.
Luis is an avid endurance athlete. Having completed many marathons and ultra marathons some at the 100 mile range, several ironman triathlons and cycling events, he is able to share valuable lessons with his clients i.e. work ethic, preparation, focus, determination, commitment, success and failure for their benefit
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