Handling Layoffs - Career Counselor

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To the Career Counselor:

Budgets on many campuses are being slashed, and we’re no exception. This is the first time we’ve faced having to lay off several people at once in our organization. What can we do to help those who are being laid off? How do we do this in a way that is sensitive to organizational morale? Help!

— Wants To Do the Right Thing

Dear Right Thing:

You’re not alone in your concerns. The experience of letting employees go is uncomfortable for everyone, even for managers who have been through it before. Layoffs are stressful not only for those who are losing their jobs but also for the remaining staff and the managers who are participating in the layoff process. However, knowing what is involved will help you navigate this difficult and challenging experience.

Some Basics

  • Remember the Golden Rule. Think about how you would like to be treated if you were the individual being laid off.
  • The workplace rumor mill abhors a vacuum. Lacking information, people have a tendency to “Make Stuff Up” that is rarely positive in nature.
  • Don’t forget the management team. The process is also painful for managers involved in administering the layoffs.

Frequently Asked Questions from Managers Administering Layoffs

What should we communicate prior to the layoff process?

Prior to the layoff notifications, try to communicate about the situation facing your institution, decisions that need to be made, and potential actions. Do it early, often, and as honestly as circumstances permit. Employees are well aware of economic conditions and will already be concerned about job security. Besides, do you believe that your confidential memos are really confidential? Communicating as openly as you can will help employees prepare and will help retain trust throughout the process.

How do we prepare for the layoff notifications?

Make sure that the management team is well prepared beforehand. Make sure that you are familiar with the circumstances leading to the layoff decision. Managers involved in handling the layoffs should receive training in how to treat the situation with emotional sensitivity and respect for the employees, while delivering a clear and consistent message.

How should we conduct the layoff notifications?

Layoff notifications should be performed face-to-face in individual meetings. A layoff notification meeting should be held in a location where you will have privacy. It might be advisable to have a human resources representative present at the meeting or on call. Prepare and rehearse scripts to ensure that all the necessary information is conveyed to the employee and to respond appropriately in case the conversation gets sidetracked. Make sure that you are clear about what the employee is expected to do after the layoff notification, and also make sure to provide resources for the employee to consult, such as benefits counseling and employee assistance. Stay on message, and steer the conversation away from back-pedaling, negotiating, arguing, or blaming.

What should we do after the layoff notifications have occurred?

Be highly visible, be approachable even when there is nothing new, and be candid about the state of things. This will build trust and credibility that will be needed to weather the days to come. Follow up with the separating employee(s), provide healing for employees who are staying, and provide healing for managers involved in handling the layoff process.

At higher education institutions, conditions of employment often mandate longer separation dates (often months) than in the private sector. You should supervise the employee just as you would any other employee up until the separation date. Consider conducting a follow-up meeting with the separating employee to see how she or he is coping and to provide any information that you weren’t able to provide during the notification meeting. Contact human resources or your campus’s employee assistance program if you have any concerns about the separating employee.

With layoffs and an unemployment rate at their highest levels in a long time, employees are feeling more insecure and stressed, are experiencing less teamwork and heavier workloads, and are feeling less valued in general. The employees who will be staying will be concerned about their own job security and may feel guilty about colleagues losing their jobs. Communicate openly and honestly with them about what you know and can share. Allow the employees who are staying to discuss their concerns publicly and hear from you directly about what has happened. Make sure to inform them what changes will be occurring in work assignments and workloads, and how work will be covered. Focus on rebuilding their sense of safety and hope going forward. Facilitate ways for workplace social networks to be rebuilt in a positive way. Be accessible to your employees, and listen, listen, listen!

Managers involved in the layoff process may also require assistance after layoff notifications have occurred. Managers often feel guilt, shame, a sense of failure, regret and sadness, and relief. Consider giving these managers a way to discuss their feelings and provide support for them.

Make sure the management team is prepared to answer the following questions from employees who have been laid-off and employees who are staying.

Frequently Asked Questions from Laid-off Employees

  • Why?
  • Why me?
  • How could you do this to me?
  • What assistance will I get?
  • Can I change your mind?
  • Can I get special accommodation?

Frequently Asked Questions from Employees Who Are Staying

  • Is this really over, or just the first round?
  • Will I have to take on extra work?
  • How did you make your decision?
  • Why am I staying and not them?

Things to Remember

Finally, remember that before, during, and after the layoff process, you cannot over-communicate. Leaders and managers must make themselves accessible, and you must seek assistance through this process. Remember to:

  • Focus on the future.
  • Provide positive goals and a sense of safety and hope for the employees who are staying.
  • Above all else, treat everyone involved with respect and dignity.

— The Career Counselor

Links to Other Layoff-Related Topics

"Bad Budget Times: Preparing Yourself, and Your Organization, for Potential Layoffs" - This collection of resources captures quotes, remarks, and references from those who have personally experienced the necessary but stressful and emotional task of restructuring or down-sizing staff.

"Layoffs Pack Punch to 'Surviving' Employees" - Don’t expect employees who survived their organization’s layoff to work harder out of a sense of gratitude. However, managers can take steps to soften the aftermath.

"Surviving a Layoff" - Survival guide for laid-off workers and their families from the Alaska Department of Labor. It won’t get you a new job, but it can make the transition to a new job easier.

This is the first edition of the Career Counselor, a service of the EDUCAUSE Professional Development Committee. If you need help with a challenging situation, have a career quandary, or would otherwise like to seek the confidential advice of your colleagues, send an e-mail with your question to [email protected].