Bringing People Back to Work After Layoffs

It all begins at the beginning

So many organizations have been forced to layoff employees during these devastating COVID-19 times. CNBC reports a record 26 million Americans applied for unemployment insurance in the five weeks through to April 18, erasing all the jobs created since the 2008 Great Recession.  What’s worse, economic uncertainty prevails alongside whispers of encore COVID waves. There’s no predicting when the fallout will end.

“Getting laid off” writes a Forbes contributor, “is a gray, formless fog of confused, conflicted emotions. One minute, there is the fearful drumbeat of: I’ve got to find a new job! Then, the gratitude of the financial soft-landing and paid time at home that comes with a severance package. But that gratitude isn’t strong enough to turn back the waves of self-doubt that soon are crashing against you…”.

It’s no surprise that loyal company people who have been laid off or put on temporary leave are riding this emotional rollercoaster and express contempt for the organizations they loved.

But here’s the thing, it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Anyone who’s trying to lay off workers [during this crisis] is already thinking about how they can bring them back.” – Jania Bailey, CEO of FranNet companies.

Soliciting sentiments from laid off employees can help placate their understandable angst while keeping the doors open for their hopeful, happy return.

Under “normal” circumstances we refer to theses feedback mechanisms as exit surveys or exit interviews. In these times we might be better to call them compassion queries.

Suddenly losing your job is a traumatic experience.

Many companies that have laid off or arranged for temporary leaves of absence due to the viral outbreak are highly sensitive to this.

They recognize employees go through emotional turmoil, and give them the time and space to decompress.

They assert that this is about global circumstances, not individual performance.

Compassionate companies acknowledge the difficulty of not being able to say goodbye to coworkers and try to convey a collective message of caring.

They don’t ignore feelings of loss, of grief, but attempt to keep displaced people connected and engaged through communication and other creative outreach initiatives so they can rehire once the green light is given.

They understand a change in employment status has ripple effects. In North America, we tend to equate who we are with what we do. We view business colleagues as friends. And of course, our livelihood pays bills, puts a roof over our head and keeps food in our bellies.

layoff - compassionate company

Companies like Macy’s and The Gap have furloughed 125,000 and 80,000 workers respectively, but continue to provide health benefits.

In addition to paying the health insurance for its 600 laid off workers, Britney Ruby Miller, co-owner of a chain of steakhouses, says her Cincinnati-based company is also sending weekly updates to its former employees and keeping them on an employee assistance program to counter issues of depression or anxiety.

Kim Scott, the author of the best-selling book Radical Candor, stresses the importance of keeping in touch. Leaders, tell your laid off workers: I’m going to call you in two weeks. If there are introductions I can make for you, I’ll do it.

Staying in contact with workers reaffirms the message that the job loss was no fault of their own – which can help lessen internalized feelings of failure.

Kenneth Freeman, Dean Emeritus at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business agrees, recommending leaders make themselves available and willing to provide support and counsel. Freeman also advocates for honesty and directness.

“In times like these, your remaining employees will look to you for comfort — and an explanation. The survivors are going to be worried about their jobs,” Freeman says. “No one knows where this is going to end, so the onus is on you to be as transparent as possible.” He suggests ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions — an open forum of sorts — so that rumors don’t take over.

As leaders, we can counter fear and rumours with total transparency. By honestly communicating how the business is doing. By telling it like it is: how much money the organization has, how much money is being spent, where leadership thinks cuts can be made.

And “spark resourceful, creative thinking about how your organization can save as many jobs as possible,” Freeman urges.

layoff - communicate with employees

Survey your management team and employees asking: Can we make sacrifices elsewhere? What are our other options to reduce costs?  You might be surprised by the responses.

Faced with a dramatic loss of revenue Gravity Payments CEO Dan Price was determined not to lay people off or raise prices on customers as a way to survive during the crisis. So, Price went to the 200 employees of the Seattle-based company looking for ideas. It started with an all-hands Zoom meeting on March 19, and then four days of smaller, 2-hour meetings featuring 10 people each. The solution to stemming Gravity’s hefty losses was voluntary pay cuts, with employees choosing how much they could sacrifice individually. As many as a dozen people opted to take no pay at all.

We’d also do well to remember that employees and those who conduct business with our organizations pay attention to how money is spent, especially during difficult times like these. Unnecessary or lavish expenses (flashy ad campaigns for instance) have no place right now. Business leaders can take a page from New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern and her government’s most highly paid politicians and bureaucrats, by taking significant pay cuts (temporarily) to share the pain “in leadership and solidarity.” Join the flurry of executives who have accepted wage reductions, made charity donations, waived bonuses or declined stock awards to cushion the financial blow.

LAYOFF RECALL

With community transmission of COVID-19 beginning to slow, governments are beginning to ease restrictions and gradually reopen businesses. And employers are beginning to consider how to recall employees.

If your organization has expressed appreciation and maintained or recently fostered a culture of “we” rather than “me” in which leaders demonstrate genuine support and accessibility, reach out, and communicate with transparency, you’re on the right road. However, the twists and turns and final destination remain an uncertainty. Some of your people may have kept busy during layoff looking for work elsewhere and achieved success in their search. Others may refuse to return to work citing health and safety concerns.

What’s clear, be it recalling laid off workers, asking remote workers to return to the physical fold, or bringing new recruits onboard, is that it’s the end of the work world as we knew it pre-COVID. Listening to the voice of employees has never been more important in terms of shaping a productive, engaging and agile workplace for what’s ahead.

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