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The Tough Part of Downsizing: How to say what you don’t want to say to people who don’t want to hear it

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The Tough Part of Downsizing: How to say what you don’t want to say to people who don’t want to hear it. Ethel Williams School of Public Administration University of Nebraska-Omaha. Background. Downsizing. What is Downsizing?

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The Tough Part of Downsizing: How to say what you don’t want to say to people who don’t want to hear it

Ethel Williams

School of Public Administration

University of Nebraska-Omaha


What is Downsizing?

  • Downsizing - process of reducing the number of employees within an organization by eliminating jobs.
  • Downsizing doesn’t guarantee improvements or cost savings.
  • It can have a devastating impact on employee morale
  • From the perspective of those affected, downsizing is a constellation of stressors related to workforce reductions which require processes of coping and adaptation.
there is no perfect way to handle a layoff that feels right or goes well for everyone involved
There is no perfect way to handle a layoff that “feels right” or “goes well” for everyone involved.
faulty assumptions
Faulty Assumptions
  • Everyone affected by layoffs will react dramatically
  • No one affected will over react
  • Leaders will handle the layoffs just fine because “they are leaders”
  • Once we get past the layoff, things will return to normal
  • We only need to worry about what is happening inside the organization walls
what happens to the organization
What happens to the organization?
  • Employees can turn into headcounts where there is a decreased emphasis on understanding the personal impact of layoffs and change
  • Stress typically increases in response to restructuring or increased workload
  • The work environment is marked by fear of job loss and paranoia (both real and imagined)
  • The focus on employee engagement can change to “just be glad you have a job”
  • Resources shift away from “softer” people issues like diversity, learning, safety and instead focus on economic or business outcomes
the impact on surviving employees
The impact on surviving employees
  • Threat of job loss can increase the risk of workplace accidents as surviving employees show less concern for safety in order to meet production standards

(2001 Journal of Occupational Health)

  • Increased physical complaints, stress, substance abuse, and domestic/social problems result in increased healthcare utilization
  • Crime, workplace theft, violence, and suicide rates tend to increase
hr challenges in downsizing
HR Challenges in Downsizing
  • What are fair and effective HR policies for separations, and downsizing?
  • How can legal issues be minimized in separations?
prepare for downsizing
Prepare for Downsizing
  • Communication is key
  • Give as much warning as possible for layoffs
  • Announcement of layoff(s) must be managed
    • Group meeting-individual meetings
    • Individual meetings-group mee4ting
  • Give facts - why and how of lay off
  • Determine where to hold the meeting
prepare for downsizing meetings
Prepare for Downsizing Meetings
  • Know organization policies and benefits
  • Determine if EAP counselors should be on site
  • Determine if security should be present
  • Determine who will give notice and when
    • Consider notice given by higher level manager
    • Followed by meeting with immediate manager
  • Determine when notice is to be given
    • Late in the day so employee(s) can leave
    • Early in the morning before employees arrive
    • Early in the week so supports can be accessed
in the process of separation
In the Process of Separation
  • Use a private office
    • Sit down one-on-one with the individual
    • Be sure the employee hears about his or her termination from a manager, not a colleague.
  • Be clear
    • Don’t leave room for confusion.
    • Put everything in writing
    • Provide written explanation of severance benefits.
  • Allow no time for debate
    • Tell the individual in the first sentence he or she is terminated or laid off.
    • Complete a firing session within 15 minutes.
in the process of separation17
In the Process of Separation
  • Maintain the integrity of all
    • Don’t make personal comments; keep the conversation professional.
    • Don’t rush the employee off-site unless security is really an issue.
    • Provide outplacement services away from the organization.
    • Express appreciation for what the employee has contributed, if appropriate.
  • Don’t fire or lay people off on significant dates, like the twenty-fifth anniversary of their employment or the day their mother died.
  • Don’t fire employees when they are on vacation or have just returned.
what to say in downsizing
What to say in Downsizing
  • Get to the point quickly
  • Avoid words like “fire” and “terminate”
  • Do not argue or justify
  • Be prepared to listen sensitively but limit discussion- refer to EAP
what to say in downsizing19
What to say in Downsizing
  • Be honest:
    • Tell the employee why he or she is being laid off, even if it's for poor performance. You're not doing the employee or yourself any favors by concealing the reason. You may cushion the poor performance assessment in a variety of ways, but the truth must be told.
    • For any layoffs due to poor performance, a recent record of poor performance reviews will support your decision and justify it to the employee. It may also be used as evidence if a wrongful dismissal suit is filed against the employer. 
what to say in downsizing20
What to say in Downsizing
  • Be compassionate: 
    • Being laid off can be painful. Show the terminated employee some compassion and understanding. 
    • If your agency has the capability, provide outplacement services or job counseling to help cushion the blow. 
    • Keep the employee's ego in mind - it may need a hefty boost at this time, and you can provide it by praising previous accomplishments.
completing the downsizing meeting
Completing the Downsizing Meeting
  • Listen and acknowledge concerns
  • Remember this is not about you
  • Stop giving information- the employee is not hearing you
  • Have tissues available
  • Offer to end the meeting or give the employee a moment to “pull themselves together”
completing the downsizing meeting22
Completing the Downsizing Meeting
  • Listen intently by concentrating on what the person is saying
  • Don’t interrupt- focus on the employee, not what you plan to say
  • Be patient – hear the employee out in the limited amount of time allotted
completing the downsizing meeting23
Completing the Downsizing Meeting
  • Give employee(s) written materials
  • Thank the employee for service and commitment to the organization
  • Discuss reference for future employment
do not checklist
Do Not - Checklist
  • Do Not
    • Skip good byes
    • Hide bad news
    • Disappear
    • Play favorites
recognizing the angry threatening employee
Recognizing the Angry/Threatening Employee
  • Early identification is key
  • Employees who may respond with potential violence are those who:
    • Continually express discontent
    • Display unmanageable incidents of anger
    • Demonstrate verbal/non-verbal threats or intimidation
    • Verbalize plan to hurt self or others
    • Manifest an inability to take criticism
    • Express feelings of being victimized
responding to the angry threatening employee
Responding to the Angry/Threatening Employee
  • Have security available before the meeting
  • Project calmness
  • Acknowledge the person’s feelings
  • Establish ground rules if unreasonable behavior persists
  • Use delaying tactics
    • Leave the room
    • Offer water
responding to the angry threatening employee28
Responding to the Angry/Threatening Employee
  • Sit so that you cannot be blocked to access the exit
  • Accept criticism of the organization or self in a positive way
  • Be an empathetic listener
  • Maintain a relaxed yet attentive posture
responding to the angry threatening employee29
Responding to the Angry/Threatening Employee
  • Do NOT
  • Use styles of communication such as condescension or apathy
  • Pose in challenging stances such as standing with arms crossed or at hips
  • Challenge or threaten the individual(s)
  • Attempt to bargain with the threatening individual(s)
  • Make false statements or promises you cannot keep
responding to the remaining employees
Responding to the Remaining Employees
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate
  • Recognize, support and reward good performance
  • Give frequent feedback on impending changes
  • Provide a realistic picture of the organization’s future
  • Listen and show empathy
  • Ask employees their opinion about things
responding to the remaining employees31
Responding to the Remaining Employees
  • Acknowledge the right direction and right attitudes, do not wait until a project is completed
  • Celebrate small successes
  • Make training/development opportunities available
  • Offer group for survivors to share feelings, concerns about the past
  • Refer employees to the EAP
  • Encourage and coach