Leadership Barometer 33 Downsizing Tips

January 13, 2020

Every organization deals with downsizing occasionally in a struggle to survive difficult economic conditions. These times are true tests of the quality of leadership.

In many cases, downsizing leads to numerous problems in its wake, especially lower trust.

The most crucial shortage threatening our world is not oil, money, or any other physical resource. It is the lack of enlightened leaders who know how to build trust and transparency, especially when draconian actions are contemplated.

We are in need of more leaders who can establish and maintain the right kind of environment. A serious problem is in the daily actions of the leaders who undermine trust, even though that is not their intention.

The current work climate for leaders exacerbates the problem. The ability to maintain trust and transparency during workforce reductions is a key skill few leaders have.

Downsizing is a unique opportunity to grow leaders who do have the ability to make difficult decisions in ways that maintain the essence of trust.

Thankfully, there are processes that allow leaders to accomplish incredibly complex restructurings and still keep the backbone of the organization strong and loyal. It takes exceptional skill and care to accomplish this, but it can be done.

The trick is to not fall victim to the conventional ways of surgery that have been ineffective numerous times in the past. Yes, if you need to, you can cut off a leg in the backwoods with a dirty bucksaw and a bottle of whisky, but there are far safer, effective, and less painful ways to accomplish such a traumatic pruning.

One helpful tool in a downsizing is to be as transparent as possible during the planning phase. In the past, HR managers have worried that disclosing a need for downsizing or reorganization might lead to sabotage or other forms of rebellion.

The irony is that, even with the best secrecy, everyone in the organization is well aware of an impending change long before it is announced, and the concealment only adds to the frustration.

Just as nature hates a vacuum, people find a void in communication intolerable. Not knowing what is going to happen is an incredibly potent poison.

Gossip and rumors generally make the problem bigger than it actually is, and leaders find themselves dealing with the fallout.

Human beings are far more resilient in the face of bad news than to uncertainty. Information freely given is a kind of anesthesia that allows managers to accomplish difficult operations with far less trauma. The transparency works for three reasons:

1. It allows time for people to assimilate and deal with the emotional upheaval and adjust their life plans accordingly.
2. It treats employees like adults who are respected enough to hear the bad news rather than children who can’t be trusted to deal with trauma and must be sheltered from reality until the last minute.
3. It allows time to cross-train those people who will be leaving with those who will inherit their work.

All three of these reasons, while not pleasant, do serve to enhance rather than destroy trust.

Don’t humiliate people

Another tip is how to break the news to someone who will be terminated. One way to handle the situation is to ask yourself how you would like to be treated if the situation were reversed. Would you like to be paraded down the hall to pack a box with your possessions and escorted outside the gate and forced to hand over your keys and badge?

Many enlightened leaders have handled the separation in a more humane way. They break the news to the individual and share that the employee needs to find alternative employment. They may even offer assistance with ideas on where to look and offer for a reference.

Then, the employee is not immediately escorted off the premises, but is allowed to pack things up over the next several days and say good bye to friends and work colleagues. Some employers have even experimented with letting the impacted worker use the facilities and equipment for a short while during the job search.

HR managers will quickly point out the risks of having formerly employed workers on the premises, and it is true that the person needs to understand that if he or she is disruptive in any way, then the leaving will be immediate.

The idea is that when you treat separated employees with respect and kindness, even when the news is not good, they respond with a better attitude, which generally improves the outcome.

The more powerful result is that the employees who are not leaving are also impressed by the way these former colleagues were treated. That factor tends to bolster morale a bit for workers who are now asked to take up the slack.

Full and timely disclosure of information and thoughtful exit processes are only two of the many tools leaders can use to help maintain or even grow trust while executing unpleasant necessities.

My study of leadership over the past several decades indicates that the situation is not hopeless. We simply need to teach leaders the benefits of building an environment of trust and transparency and how to obtain them.

Robert Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust.


Successful Supervisor 41 – Terminating People Well

August 27, 2017

Occasionally supervisors are called upon to terminate an individual who is no longer being helpful to the group.

There is no easy or pain-free way to fire a worker, but there are some mistakes that, if avoided, allow the supervisor, and others, to get through the difficult matter with grace.

There are a few different categories to consider, and the appropriate behaviors are very different depending on the situation. The easy termination is where an individual has threatened bodily harm to someone else and/or has a weapon capable of doing it.

In these cases, it is always important to get Security or Police involved as early as possible. The termination needs to happen immediately without any chance of recovery. When a person goes to that extreme, he or she is an eminent danger to the population.

I recall one instance when I was a young Department Manager where an individual came into my office and made threatening gestures with a knife. He actually wanted to be terminated, and I granted his wish without any discussion.

That situation actually had a comical element to it. The termination happened when I was working for Kodak. I immediately engaged Security to escort the individual to his locker to clean out his personal effects, then accompany him to the other end of Kodak Park on a bus. He needed to go through the Senior HR Manager to get the paperwork signed prior to being released.

It turned out that the HR Manager was on his lunch break at the time and was sound asleep on the couch in the library.

The guard woke up the HR Manager, who became angry and told the guard to take the individual back on the bus to the Department and return after his nap.

That was a rather awkward situation for me, but we got through it. The point is that in extreme cases, you need to act with the appropriate urgency and not be worried about finishing your “nap!” There are times when people’s lives are at stake, and you are responsible for their safety.

It is far more common to have to terminate an individual who has been pushing the limits for some time and is deep into the progressive counseling process.

Normally the person is on “final warning” and is not particularly surprised to get the bad news. Even in those cases, it is a challenging period that requires firmness and poise on the part of the supervisor.

Avoid making a public spectacle of the firing. Usually the rest of the crew will be happy about the departure of a lagging workmate, but the individual doesn’t need to witness the shop floor celebration on the way out the door.

Most of the time, it is a wise idea to have Security or the Police involved in any termination, but there can be exceptions to this rule.

A category of termination that is pretty common is a layoff due to slack work. In this case, it was not the individual’s fault directly, but the end result is the same: loss of employment.

In these cases, showing deference to the impacted individual helps ease the pain just a bit for the person being let go, but more importantly, it shows the people who are to remain that management is not clueless to the plight of an impacted worker.

Some organizations have actually experimented with allowing impacted people to use the office as a staging platform for their next job search. In these cases, it is important to stipulate that the people affected not cause any trouble while they are physically present in their former employer’s facilities.

Such a policy is a signal of trust being extended to people who have performed well in the past and are impacted due to things out of their control.

One of the best ways to build higher trust is to extend trust to others. In this case the trust built will be felt by the people who remain in addition to the people who are leaving. These cases are rare, but they do happen.

The vast majority of terminations involve a paper trail of progressive counseling and a sign off by higher management as well as HR. The key thing is to know the process for your area of responsibility very well and not deviate from it without express permission from HR.

If you have not done the homework of providing documented counseling along the way, expect to get pushback from HR if you attempt to terminate an employee for cause.

Terminating people well is a sign of a mature and secure supervisor. There will be times when you need to perform this delicate chore, but doing it well is a sign of your worth to the organization.

Next week I will deal with some tips for hiring people well. That process is a LOT more uplifting, but there are definitely some traps to avoid.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


Announcing a Downsizing

July 21, 2013

AnnounceThe need for excellent leaders grows more urgent every day. I believe the most crucial shortage threatening our world is not oil, money, or any other physical resource. It is the lack of enlightened leaders who know how to build trust and transparency. We are at an all-time low in terms of the number of leaders who can establish and maintain the right kind of environment. The outrageous scandals of the past few years are only a small part of the problem. The real cancer is in the daily actions of the many leaders who undermine trust with less visible mistakes every hour of every day.

The current work climate for leaders exacerbates the problem. Most organizations have been forced to take draconian measures in a desperate struggle to survive. In these environments, the ability to maintain trust and transparency often is eclipsed by the extreme actions required to keep from going bankrupt. This conundrum is a unique opportunity to grow leaders who do have the ability to make difficult decisions in a way that maintains the essence of trust. One of the most complex situations occurs when there is a need to trim the current workforce. While there is no one formula that fits every situation, here are some ideas that might prove helpful if you are in that situation.

When a downsizing is going to be required, many managers wrestle with when and how to break the news to the work force. On the surface, it feels like the safer thing to do is to procrastinate on announcing the difficult news, which may be directionally the wrong way to go for the long term health of the organization.

Thankfully, there are processes that allow leaders to accomplish incredibly disruptive restructurings and still keep the backbone of the organization strong and loyal. It takes exceptional skill and care to accomplish this, but it can be done. The trick is to not fall victim to the conventional ways of surgery that have been ineffective numerous times in the past. Yes, if you need to, you can cut off a leg in the back woods with a dirty bucksaw and a bottle of whisky, but there are far less painful, safe, and effective ways to accomplish such a traumatic pruning.

One tool is to be as transparent as possible during the planning phase. In the past, HR managers have insisted that the risk of projecting a need for downsizing or reorganization might lead to sabotage or other forms of rebellion. There are also legal considerations with premature divulging of information, so there is a balance that must be considered. The irony is that, even with the best secrecy, everyone in the organization is well aware of an impending change long before it is announced. Just as nature hates a vacuum, people find a void in communication intolerable.

Not knowing what is going to happen is an incredibly potent poison. Human beings are far more resilient to bad news than to uncertainty. Information freely given is a kind of anesthesia that allows managers to accomplish difficult operations with far less trauma. This can be helpful for three reasons: 1) it allows time for people to assimilate and deal with the emotional upheaval and adjust their life plans accordingly, 2) it treats employees like adults who are respected enough to hear the bad news rather than children who can’t be trusted to deal with trauma and must be sheltered from reality until the last minute, and 3) it allows time for the people who will be leaving to train those who will inherit their work. All three of these reasons, while not pleasant, work to enhance rather than destroy trust.

One caveat is that pre-announcing a downsizing may cause some of the best people to go job hunting elsewhere. The wise manager understands this and makes sure the critical resources know their situation is secure. It is better to have a forthright discussion about the situation and future than to have people making assumptions based on speculation.

Full and timely disclosure of information is only one of many tools leaders can use to help maintain or even grow trust while executing unpleasant necessities. The method is not universal for every situation and culture, but it will have merit in many situations and should at least be considered as an option. My study of leadership over the past several decades indicates the situation is not hopeless. We simply need to teach leaders the benefits of trust and transparency and how to obtain them.