It often starts with hushed voices in an executive office. The firm’s human resources department hasn’t circulated in months, yet here they are — suddenly mingling among a now-jumpy workforce.
This is the morale-draining ritual that plays out in the days leading up to layoffs. In some instances, the news cuts swiftly and employees are blindsided. But in most cases, it’s a slow accumulation of clues pointing toward an inevitably bad conclusion.
Layoffs normally are delivered with dead-eyed insensitivity. Seen are the headlines — “150 Laid Off By XYZ Inc.” — often followed by a terse, one-paragraph statement from the CEO with terms like “synergies” and “rightsizing.”
Yet a reduction in force doesn’t have to be cold, cruel and callous. Yes, layoffs hurt. Those laid off have just had their lives radically altered, and those who survive mourn the loss of their colleagues, all while picking up the pieces to move on.
Executives contemplating a reduction in force would do well to follow the lead of Zenefits, the health benefits and HR software company that admittedly took a battering earlier this year following a series of much-publicized gaffes. If there was a textbook example of transparency during layoffs, Zenefits nailed it.
Newly appointed CEO David Sacks turned last spring’s dreaded announcement into an authentic, gracious farewell to departing staff members while urging remaining employees that the book on Zenefits is far from over. He said that “great people” were being let go and reasoned it wasn’t “their fault.” It was time to “move forward and rebuild” he wrote; “make everyone proud,” he concluded.
Were all wounds immediately healed? Unlikely. But Sacks did what a good leader should do: over-communicate. There was no finger pointing; no one was thrown under the bus for what transpired. It was a message of fairness, dignity and respect.
Laid-off employees received a generous severance package along with transition assistance. Those who remained carried on knowing they had the full support of management to right the ship. There was arguably no better recruitment tool for a flailing organization than that single letter to the staff that was simultaneously made public.
While there may be quick agreement on why, where and when, there is no singular way to plan and perform layoffs — arguably because settling on the who becomes the most emotional aspect of a reduction in force.
The closed-door meetings and hushed conversations will occur when layoffs are inevitable. But as Sacks and Zenefits showed, honesty, transparency and respect go a long way to rebuilding the trust between management and employees after the initial pain wears off.
Rick Bell is Editorial Director of Human Capital Media, the parent company of Talent Economy.