“I could never do your job” I’ve heard this more than once, most likely in the course of discussions about a layoff, termination or particularly difficult employee investigation. Often I could never do their job either, especially if it involves science or any higher level math. Of course it’s not the technical aspects of the HR role that seem most daunting; it’s the thorny stuff that affects people’s livelihood.
If you are an HR professional or business manager tasked with breaking the bad news about a layoff you know it’s never easy. It doesn’t make you want to race back to your desk to tackle the next project.
An AllBusiness reader who had to “let some good people go in order to cut costs” summed up the feelings when he wrote:
I am looked at like the bad guy and people get nervous when I come around thinking they are about to be let go. My morale is at a low point and I need some advice as to how I can get that fire going again.
It’s a Business Decision
Layoffs and staff reductions have become part of the way we do business in the US. It’s been a long time since there was a stigma attached to job elimination.
This may be the first time you have been the bearer of bad news but it is unlikely to be the last. Realize that this is a business decision taken to keep the organization afloat, move it in another direction or respond to realities in the marketplace. Don’t just take the decision on face value; learn as much as you can about the reasons behind the job cuts. The more you know the more you can explain and support the downsizing.
Listen to Employees
My first role as an HR Director was at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, a promotion from a more junior spot in New York City. The Hotel van driver who picked me up at the Buffalo Airport didn’t flinch when the radio weather report announced the potential for 6-12 inches of snow that evening. The Regional HR Director, who accompanied me on the trip, was busy checking return flights so he didn’t have to stay the night.
The weather was not the only change in atmosphere I had to negotiate. By the end of my first week I asked my staff, “Why doesn’t anyone ever come into HR?” We were located in the requisite spot near an employee entrance and I had persuaded the department to keep the door open. My admin told me, “The only time anyone ever comes into HR is to get fired or laid off. No one wants to come into your office.” My predecessor had been fired. I needed to do something, fast, it was getting pretty lonely.
I took extra steps to listen to employees. I attended as many department meetings as possible, became a regular in the employee cafeteria and did as much management by walking around as I could.
Listening to employees was invaluable. During my tenure in Buffalo business never grew by leaps and bounds. There were layoffs and terminations. But I developed good relationships and trust. I couldn’t hire and promote everyone but I could solve individual issues, or explain why some changes could not be made, and in doing so helped employees and the Hotel move forward. When you get out and listen to employees, particularly in HR, you can make a difference every day. Word gets around and you are no longer viewed only as the grim reaper.
Embrace Company Goals
What are the organization’s goals to move forward? Whether the company is just trying to hold on, kick start growth or undergoing a reinvention every employee needs to understand the direction. Goals provide the roadmap for action.
Successful leaders, in HR or any other discipline, embrace goals. They support them, can explain them and use them to guide their work. Your morale, and the morale of those around you, has got to improve when you tackle tasks and share plans that go beyond covering the work left in empty cubicles.
After communicating a staff reduction too often managers actually tell employees, “Now you have to do the work of three people.” It’s a good time to set a goal to identify whether this is really necessary. If the company, business or client list is smaller, do all of the same tasks need to be done?
Sure there are some people who just like to wallow and whine, actions that have a negative affect on morale in any economic climate. Listen, a bit, and then take the bold step of asking them, “What can you do to change the situation?” Remind them of company goals and realities and that their negativity is not a constructive factor in these plans.
The last thing you should do after you have made the tough staff cuts is to get stuck in your own rut of negativity. The deeper you dig the hole by reinforcing the downside the harder it will be to get out. When your reputation changes from Darth Vader to Homer Simpson it will be really hard to gain favor and your own name is more likely to be on the next layoff list.
There are always the stress relievers of eating right, getting exercise and relaxation exercises. I prefer a cup of coffee and getting to work. Do you have any other tips to handle these inevitable drops in morale?