Free Shipping on orders $35+ within the continental US

How to Lead Your Team Through a Layoff

Executive Summary

During times of uncertainty, headcount is typically the first line item to be reduced. A layoff ignited by any reason is not the fault of the business or the employee, so it’s vital that both end the relationship on a positive note.

  • Managers shoulder much of the responsibility in ensuring their team members maintain productivity levels until their last day so that they are well-positioned to take their next career leap following a layoff.
  • Daily or weekly communication focused on sharing potential job opportunities, establishing contingency plans for covering employees absent for job interviews, and reminding the team of their commitment to meeting company objectives for the remainder of their employment.
  • By encouraging employees to be their best through their final days with the company, managers not only give them a positive story to share with interviewers, but they also teach them an important lesson in facing adversity with a positive perspective.

Downsizing, right sizing, outsourcing, offshoring, restructuring, transformation, reductions in force: there’s no shortage of euphemisms for shedding people in corporate America these days. And maybe that’s understandable seeing that payroll-related expenses are one of the highest costs on a typical corporate profit and loss (P&L) statement.

When revenues fall, expenses must fall accordingly. But now you’re responsible not just for your own potential job loss and career transition but also for your staff members, who are looking up to you for help and guidance as well.

How do you keep yourself and your team motivated through such a devastating period? How do you balance your own needs as well as the career needs of your staff in light of the company’s requirement to forge ahead with its mission despite the news of your own pending position elimination? Most importantly, what legacy will you leave behind as the manager of a small group of individuals who may all face the same fate?

These are not easy questions, and the answers vary based on how the company handles delivering the news of a layoff and caring for its soon-to-be-let-go workforce. Perks like outplacement career services, “stay” bonuses, and generous severance packages certainly help, but even under the best of circumstances, the task looks daunting because it’s not just about you anymore—it’s also about your responsibility to your subordinates.

The Right Way to Talk to Employees About a Layoff

Too many times you’ll see employees bear ill will toward senior management for something clearly out of the senior management team’s control, and that resentment will show itself in demonstrations of anger, defiance, or apathy. Instead, managers and supervisors who are about to lose their own jobs and who are saddled with the responsibility of continuing to get work done through their own staff members for a predetermined time period need to concentrate on keeping their subordinates focused on strengthening their references at work while preparing for their next move in their career progression at another company.

layoffs - uncertain times call for certain measures

Here’s how it’s done: Unstable times call for lots of information and communication. Granted, you might not have a tremendous amount of updates on any given day, but when it comes to communicating with your staff, assume that you can’t give enough feedback at times like these. Keeping a focus on balance—both of the company’s goals and your team members’ personal career needs—will keep everyone calm, in the information loop, and objectively focused on executing the appropriate action plan. Remember, where a gap in communication exists, people will tend to fill it with assumptions and misinformation from an overactive grapevine.

Your daily (or at least weekly) staff meetings might sound like this:

“Update time, everyone. We were given sixty days’ notice two weeks ago, which leaves us with about six weeks of work ahead of us while we’re simultaneously pursuing our own career needs. We know that there doesn’t appear to be opportunities at other company locations in town or opportunities for transferring to the corporate office, so let’s keep each other informed about any new events. Have any of you heard anything since we met on Monday?

I’d propose that we strike a balance between the company’s needs and our own. First, thank goodness, we were given sixty days’ notice. I’d much prefer to have that run time than be given same-day notice, which I know is pretty common these days.

Second, remember that I’ll need at least 24 hours’ notice if you need time off for an interview at another company so that we can cover your work while you’re out. We’re a team, and we’re going to stick together and support each other right through to the end, both from a company and team standpoint.

Third, this company has kept our families fed and roofs over our head for a number of years, and as much as I’m going to hate to see this plant close, we’re still obligated to earn a good day’s pay for a good day’s work. That means that our production goals and our productivity targets still need to be met. However, we’ll get that done in a more flexible manner than has been done in the past. Are you all on board with me? Do I have your support?”

Notice that such informal get-togethers give all members of the team a chance to voice their opinions, share news, and ask questions. There’s little more that needs to be done. Keeping everyone focused on their efforts (both work- and job search–related) will build camaraderie and a shared sense of accountability. But there’s more to it than that.

Turning a Negative Event into a Character Strength

Loyalty and productivity to the bitter end give individual workers a huge leg up when interviewing at other companies.

A typical question that arises during an interview is, “What is your reason for leaving your current or last position?” Many job candidates fill out the line on the application form with a simple, one-word response: “Layoff.” While technically true, the value of the answer lies beneath the surface, and your current employees who are about to become job candidates will be better served by amending their response: “Layoff; currently meeting all performance and productivity goals and standards through our sixty-day notice period.”

Such a written response begs for more information and discussion on the interviewer’s part and clearly enables the job candidate to put an unpleasant situation in the most positive light. Furthermore, job candidates should expect interviewers to qualify the layoff by asking for more details about the reasons for the plant closure, the effectiveness of management’s communications, and company expectations regarding individual performance.

Watch how this could play itself out in a typical interviewing scenario:

Interviewer: “Rob, I see that you’re looking to leave your current position because you’re in a sixty-day notice period, but I really like how you jotted down that you’re meeting all your preassigned performance and productivity goals. Tell me about that.”

Candidate: “Well, our manager came to an agreement with us that we could all work together to find a balance between our job-finding needs and the needs of the company for the two-month notice period. Our manager asked for 24 hours’ notice whenever we line up an interview, but he also wants us to ‘protect our references,’ so to speak, and keep the company’s needs first and foremost in our minds, even as we approach our separation date.”

Interviewer: “Do you feel that’s a fair request on his behalf under the circumstances?”

Candidate: “Absolutely. We’re all sad and nervous about our jobs ending, but I want to be the one who turns the lights off. I want my reference and my official record or legacy at the plant to say that I worked to the end as a loyal and productive employee. I appreciate the opportunity I’ve been given to work at that plant for so many years, and although I’m sad that it’s ending, I choose to walk away feeling grateful and appreciative for all I’ve been given and for all I’ve had a chance to do there.”

And therein lies the true value of finding that balance between company and career and encouraging employees to end their employment relationship with their heads held high. The candidate’s response above shows clear business maturity—appreciation, commitment, and loyalty despite the pending position elimination. And as critical as it is to ensure that workers protect their references and turn a negative event like a layoff into a positive outcome in future interviews, the most important factor is that the manager allowed for healing to take place. Affected workers were given a chance to communicate their frustration, anger, angst, disappointment, and anxiety in a safe environment. They were then refocused on their responsibilities in light of the company’s changing needs and allowed to address both issues—career and company—responsibly.

Final Impressions are Just as Important as First Impressions

Remember that anger, disappointment, or apathy expressed in any worker’s notice period—whether two weeks or sixty days—creates the final impression left behind. No one should work for a company for years, only to leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth at the finish

line. The truth is that companies change; they shed employees quickly these days. Group layoffs are no one’s fault; they happen regardless of performance. But a layoff doesn’t mean that all the goodwill you’ve built over time, the positive relationships you’ve developed, and on-the-job accomplishments you’ve earned are forgotten.

In fact, it should be just the opposite: Help your subordinates find the cathartic effect and peace of mind that comes from knowing that they worked hard over the years and gave the company their loyalty and commitment. In essence, help them change their perspective about what’s happening to them. Then all of you will walk away from a potentially devastating event with a positive attitude and a sense of accomplishment that will help you stand out as a leader and help them stand out as loyal and consistent performers.

Would You Choose True Leadership During a Layoff? 

The loss of a position is an objective reality that happens through no fault of our own. Who you are in light of this position elimination is what’s at stake here, and as a manager who balances your staff’s individual needs with those of the company, you’ll have an opportunity to demonstrate true leadership. In addition, you’ll teach those who look up to you how to deal with adversity in their lives from a positive perspective. That gift goes well beyond the scope of the workplace and will do more than anything else to help your staff members come to terms with this unexpected change and gain peace of mind through an otherwise exceptionally trying time. You may also just find that you’ll have changed your role as supervisor and manager into that of coach and mentor in the eyes of your subordinates, and that your personal stability, consistency, and care are critically needed to offset the tremendous changes that unfortunately are part of the new business landscape.

Bring It Home

When we’re discussing people who excel at managing through adversity, the military comes to mind. Life in battle is tough for everyone, from private to 5-star general. Adversity is around every corner, whether it occurs on offense or defense. Hard decisions have to be made, like who lives and dies, which cities will be burned to the ground and which cities will be spared, and to what lengths will we go to win and on what grounds would we stand to lose. The leaders who stand out because of their strategic prowess and ability to command loyalty were guided by clear missions.

Alexander the Great built the largest empire history has ever recorded inspired by the motto: “There is nothing impossible to him who will try.” Napoleon Bonaparte reigned over France as a self-appointed emperor for 52 years under the seemingly contradictory philosophy: “Liberty, public order.” And the Anaconda Plan, which secured victory for the Union in the American Civil War was built from Ulysses S. Grant’s belief that “in every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins.”

You might not equate your workplace to a battlefield, but you should lead your troops with the same fervor and consistency of objective that history’s greatest generals did. If your company is facing adversity, if the future is uncertain, and if your people are scared, how will you motivate them to fight the fight for your company and carve a path of success for themselves? Share your thoughts in the comments. ~ HarperCollins Leadership

Paul Falcone

Paul Falcone is an HR executive who has held senior-level positions with Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, and City of Hope. A long-time contributor to HR Magazine, he is the author of many bestselling books, including 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. He lives in Los Angeles.

Want to read more? Get the book!

Sold out

Additional Resources: Performance Management


Related Posts

Leave a comment

Name .
Message .

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published