Meeting the challenge of a reduction
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, in December 2008, more than a half-million people lost their jobs, resulting in an unemployment rate of 7.2%. Those actions pushed the U.S. jobless total to a staggering 11.1 million—the highest total in more than a decade. And job losses crossed all industry sectors.
2009 projections by the Bureau showed continuation of the trend as the economy struggles to find a foothold.
For managers in companies big and small, the trend is doubly worrisome. There’s the “me” factor to wrestle with: “Is my job safe?” Simultaneously, there’s a we factor to address: that is, the responsibility to clearly and simply communicate the business need for a reduction, outline the path forward for the continuing members of the team, and treat the laid off employees with respect and compassion.
A tall order, indeed. Where to start? Here are some important actions to take.
Bring the outside inside.
As a manager, your first communication challenge is to understand the external business scenario that your company faces—and the implications those external factors will have on internal dynamics, particularly jobs. What are the projections for the year? If reductions are anticipated, when will they occur? What areas will be involved and why? Your ability to effectively communicate clearly and confidently about a tough subject will improve significantly as your knowledge of the subject grows. So expand your perspective beyond your own department. Even if your department’s future looks sound, understand the big picture of your organization—as other departments may face cutbacks, and those actions, while not a direct hit to your workforce, will influence the perspective and thinking of employees. Realize: your department or team is NOT an island, but part of a larger entity. Understanding that larger group—the WE of your organization—will shed more light on the reality and status of ME.
Avoid blaming the HR folks.
One of the most important things to remember is that a reduction is a business decision, not an HR decision. Treat it that way. Don’t point the finger of blame to any functional group or person. There are multiple factors influencing the decision to reduce a workforce. Help employees see this bigger picture.
Clearly understand your role and responsibility as a communicator. Schedule additional time for both formal and informal communications actions. In addition to team meetings, make time for one-on-one conversations and walk-arounds in workplace areas. Get into the practice of bringing a small notepad with you to write down questions—particularly those that you can’t answer and require follow-up by others—and comments. Schedule time with your direct boss to share this unfiltered feedback so that he or she can expand their view and understanding of employees’ perspective. Calibration with reality is a priceless practice for managers at all levels.
Know the timing of key announcements.
If reductions are planned, make sure that you’re informed on when the communication will begin and who will serve as the first spokesperson. Be clear on who has responsibility for speaking first to affected employees, and where—within your facility—these conversations will occur. If business executives and/or Human Resources leaders are conducting communications about reductions by teleconferences or webcasts with remote locations, find out when those sessions will be held. Plan to participate in them. Build open time in your schedule in the aftermath of those sessions for follow-up calls with your team members who work remotely or are on travel. Remember the grapevine buzz travels at the speed of text. Your availability to listen to questions and concerns and provide any clarification to announcements will speak volumes, about your role as a leader and your respect for your team members.
Keep 2-way communication mechanisms vibrant.
The initial announcement of a workforce reduction is only one element of the process and too often is the one that receives the most attention. Once the affected people have been notified, the continuing employees will have a myriad of questions about what just happened. Continue to make time in the weeks after an announcement for small-group sessions, face-to-face meetings and phone conversations. Use open-ended questions in your conversations to encourage dialogue and enable you to get insight into others’ perspectives. Continue to build your team by sharing information with them.
Assess the experience.
A month after the initial announcement, plan to assemble your team for an honest assessment of the overall experience. What went well? What didn’t? Where are the improvement opportunities and who is responsible for making them? Unfortunately, the need for further reductions in the future may be necessary. Learn from mistakes so they aren’t repeated; elevate practices that worked for others to use.