How to Make Layoffs Suck LessBy Matt Ridings

Whenever people ask me what my worst day in business was, without hesitation I say it was the day I had to lay off a very large group of people.

A group large enough that we couldn’t fit them all into our conference space.

We had to do the layoffs in a couple of batches.

Surprisingly, it’s also the day I’m most proud of.

It was my worst day for obvious reasons.

You feel as if you’ve let all these people down—that it’s your fault.

Layoffs Suck

I knew them all. I knew most of their families. I had been a part of hiring most of them and convincing them our company was their future.

We had families with children that were in the United States because we were their sponsor, and who were now going to have to leave the country.

Many of them I considered true friends, and now I had to walk into a room and tell them we were letting them go.

The guilt still haunts me.

It was my proudest day for less obvious reasons.

At the end of my speech to each group explaining the layoffs, there were people who came up thanking me.

One group applauded.

This was not the reaction I was expecting. I think about that day all the time.

In my work at SideraWorks, we help organizations shift their culture to improve collaboration and innovation through carefully planned change management programs.

One of the most difficult barriers to overcome is when an organization has recently had a ‘reorg’ or layoffs.

The level of resentment and repressed anger is palpable.

Any money that is spent by management, even if it is to improve their working environment, is viewed through a tainted lens of, “Well maybe if you didn’t buy x item we wouldn’t have had to lay off Joey”.

It is a very, very difficult mindset to break loose, and it can destroy a company from the inside out.

Why Were Our Layoffs Different?

I had my own theories as to what made these organizations’ reactions to layoffs so different than my own, but they were little more than that—theories.

So, before writing this piece, I contacted a lot of my old employees (who I’m extremely proud to say have become the rockstars they deserved to be) and simply asked them, “Why?”

The results:

  • Trust: They knew everything feasibly possible had been done to avoid the layoffs. They didn’t know what, but they trusted that was the case. You don’t ask for trust on the day of the bad news, you build it far in advance.
  • Empathy: Those of us responsible for delivering this news were crushed to have to do so. We felt for each and every one of them, and they knew it. We didn’t treat it as business as usual or with some crafted speech someone else had written for us. It was personal, both for me and for them. Locking down all emotion and saying ‘this is just business’ is a copout.
  • Transparency: Any question asked, any question, received a straightforward answer in front of everyone.
  • Culture: We had a corporate culture with very little isolation between management and everyone else. People had complete access to my partner and me every day. Sometimes those conversations were very personal in nature. And while it’s not my role to play therapist, I think many organizations discount those conversations as detracting from business when, in reality, they often provide the foundation for the rest of the elements listed above.

Careful What You Assume

Most of these items I had a sense of, but it was good to validate them.

There were also a couple of comments I received that surprised me.

Namely this one from Miriam Warren, a great friend still, and someone who was intimately involved in the logistics of the layoffs that day.

She also went on to become vice president of new markets for Yelp, which makes me extremely proud.

I’ve thought about that time a lot over the years. I suspect the reason why people felt the way they did is multi-fold. First, I think people knew we were in trouble and were relieved to have clarity for themselves (to know what’s next, to not have to keep going through the motions anymore). Second, people appreciated your no bullsh*t approach. You told it like it was. And finally, I think doing it in groups made people feel like it wasn’t personal to them as individuals.

That last sentence surprised me.

I’d always felt guilty that we had to do them in groups. It felt like a very impersonal way of going about it.

I wanted to talk to each individual, to look them in the eyes and own it.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with doing it that way, but I am saying that Miriam makes a great point about making sure people don’t have to carry with them the thought that it’s something they did personally.

It’s hard enough for them already. So just be careful with your assumptions.

Don’t Wait for a Fire to Buy a Fire Extinguisher

In short, if you really want to make layoffs — or any bad news you have to communicate internally — suck less, you need to be building that foundation today.

What do you have to lose?

Image Credit shotbart via Flickr Creative Commons

Matt Ridings

Matt is the Co-Founder & CEO of SideraWorks, a management consultancy focused on business transformation through improved collaboration and social business. He is a business strategist, keynote speaker, executive facilitator, investor, and writer. His work over the last 10 years has focused primarily in developing innovation cultures, change management and organizational design initiatives, technology adoption, culture assessment, and specialized market research using social channels.

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