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Oct 19, 2009

Ask a Manager: Managing through a layoff

Guest Lecturer, Dick Whitman, Manager in Residence

Dear Manager:    What is Management going through during a layoff?

“Hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got…and all he’s ever gonna have”

-- Unforgiven

It's a line from one of my favorite movies,  where a young guy seeks out the notorious killer William Munny to join him in a job of killing some bad guys for pay. Well ole’ Will is not quite what the kid had pictured. After these two finally get around to killing the bad guy, the kid is very shaken, as it wasn’t the tough-guy adventure he had been expecting. It was ugly and it made him sick.

The kid, as a newcomer to this world of violence, turned to the ever-stoic Clint Eastwood at this point. Clint’s looking sadly off into the distance, and he says in his usual whispery cadence “Hell of a thing killin a man...."

When you fire someone, or lay them off, or perform a reduction in force, or my personal favorite, “right-size” someone, you certainly aren’t killing them. You aren’t even taking away everything they have. But you are taking a hell of a lot.
It’s not just the person’s job. It is his or her money and security. It is often the person’s sense of self, belonging, and maybe even sense of self worth and pride. You take that away and it’s going to have impact. This is not lost on the manager who is doing the deed. Not on this one anyway. It doesn’t matter how many times you go through it.

It is not simply the act of terminating someone’s employment that is at issue here.

As a manager, you need to deal with terminations all the time. However, the run of the mill termination revolves around “performance issues" -- in management speak,  a person isn’t doing his or her job adequately. The optimistic view is that the person is in the wrong job, and should be applying his talents elsewhere. Some people manage to be in jobs where they should be applying their talents elsewhere for years. I try to avoid including these people in my long term staffing model.

When I coach new managers on these situations, I tell them how I used to want to be a veterinarian because I love dogs, but I always thought I wouldn’t be able to put the dogs to sleep when it was needed. A vet once told me that this part of the job is not pleasant, but it is an important thing you are doing to help the dog get to a better place because he is suffering.
Think of dismissing an employee who is a “performance issue” as helping him end his suffering to get to a better place.

The thing about a layoff is you are usually putting down the healthy dogs. Now you are the poor schlub who works at the pound. Every day you’ve been feeding and walking them, little stroke under the chin now and then – hey why not? – and after so many days of no one coming around to claim the poor things, your job is to get the syringe. Gotta keep the cages clean, keep the operation moving.

When you are a manager, and it is decided that the business needs to reduce, the first thing you generally deal with is frustration over the need to eliminate resources from your team and still continue to get the same amount of work done.

This sensation quickly gives way to thoughts on how you will decide who to cut.
There are many different scenarios that can be in effect here.

A little, or a lot?

In a large-scale layoff, for example, you are typically removing several people, and in doing so, admitting that the business itself needs to be done differently, or that certain things you do today can no longer be done. This might mean laying off everyone who does a certain function. In these cases, it is easier to blame external factors like “the economy”, “the competition”, or another perennial favorite, “the recent acquisition”.

When you are asked to trim just a bit, you can sometimes easily identify one or two people on your team who have been “on the bubble” -- i.e. not performing as well as others -- but still generally ok. Or, to be incredibly candid about it, these are usually the people who are very likeable and try really hard, so you have always found a way to make it work. If you have already had these folks in a role that is perhaps less than 100% critical due to their (ahem) “unique mix of skills”, then you might find yourself in a place where you can now blame the layoff while taking care of something that you should have done to strengthen your team long ago.
Prime Directive
While this scenario is still painful to execute, the rest of the team generally understands the decision and can move on without any major scars. Taking the emotion out of it for a moment, that is really the key long-term objective: to keep the team effective and strong so you can continue on with the business.

How’s that for getting behind the curtain?

The worst scenario is the one where you have a tight, well-oiled machine of a team -- where you have already trimmed all of the excess, and everyone is doing a good job – and now you are asked to reduce.
Now you have to decide who stays on the island and who gets voted off. It is in these cases, when delivering the news is the hardest. Now in addition to pulling the proverbial rug out from under the employee, this person is going to realize that you, Mr. Manager, decided that this one is the one to go.
And where do you get off anyway?

You had to make a decision about how you can run the business with less staff, and you’ve chosen to retain the staff that you feel will put you in the best position moving forward. You are picking your highest performing or your highest potential employees, possibly mixed in with some data on compensation – think about a ball club who retains a potential rookie superstar in favor of the guy with the proven big arm who happens to be in a contract year. (Hey Sox fans, let’s see where Jonathan Papelbon ends up next year – it is business after all.)

For me, the problem here has always been about retaining trust and credibility – two things that have always been very important to me as a successful manager -- with the team.
Sitting across the table from someone and telling him his time is up and “it was based on a lot of factors that we considered for the future of the business”, you have to wonder what he is thinking about you and your contribution to the future of the damn business, thankyouverymuch! And then to later look the rest of the team in the collective eye and tell them that everything is going to be ok…well that can be tough. When you manage based on motivation, support, and trust, you can help but feel the hit that your credibility – and your effectiveness, at least in the short-term – is going to take from this.
Acts of kindness
A few weeks after picking up a remote team to manage the need to reduce staff came along. I flew out to the site to reduce this new team by only one, as I had insisted on telling the “chosen one” of his separation from the company in person rather than on the phone. I set up a meeting with this guy to give him the news, obviously without letting him know what the meeting was about. I also set up one-on-one meetings with the others to follow.

My intention in the subsequent meetings was to let the team know what had happened and to assure them that they were all safe. While I was able to get out of that day with the rest of this team reasonably reassured and intact, I found that every time I made a visit to that office for the next year or so, I would be greeted by a team of people with ashen faces and nervous laughs…”What time is your flight?” they would say. Translation: “how many hours until you are gone and I can know I’m safe?” So now look at me, I’m the damn Grim Reaper.

This was definitely not the environment in which I wanted to build up my kick-ass team.
Who hurts The bottom line is that layoffs are a part of business. I can’t pretend that they are not sometimes necessary or that I don’t understand the need. There have been times (more times than not) when I have been in full agreement with my company’s direction to run leaner due to changes in the market, declining sales, or the overall company resource needs. No getting off the hook there.

That said, the one thing I want to make clear is that the guy (or gal) sitting across the table from you on that horrible day is most likely experiencing a great deal of guilt, uncertainty, doubt, and most certainly heartburn, as he tells you that you need to collect your things.
In a role where you rely on people for success, you cannot ignore the human impact. That part doesn’t get easier over time.  It definitely hurts you way more than it hurts me. Still, you don’t want to be either side of that particular table. Unfortunately, hiding under it is not an option.

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