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How to Deal

Lessen the Impact of a Layoff on Surviving Employees

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By Lily Garcia
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 9, 2009; 12:00 AM

Have you done an article or talked about helping supervisors know how to handle the survivors and promote positive morale and minimize negativity?

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Minimizing the negative impact of layoffs on survivors begins with the way in which the layoffs are managed. If the leaders of your organization treat departing employees with sensitivity and respect, and if they convey a clear, consistent, and honest message about the layoffs, then you will have an easier time helping the remaining employees move on and thrive.

Your organization must have a clear and reasonable business justification for the layoffs that is openly communicated throughout the organization. Part of the message must be that other less disquieting options have been exhausted and that layoffs are being invoked as a tool of last resort. Employees need to know that the organization appreciates the devastating impact that the loss of a job can have on a person and that the decision was not made lightly.

Someone on your senior management team needs to take personal responsibility for having made the final decision to proceed with layoffs. Saying, "I decided to proceed with layoffs" inspires more trust than, "The decision has been made to proceed with layoffs." People will be able to process the news more easily if they are not frustrated by their inability to ask questions directly of the decisionmaker.

How you treat departing employees speaks volumes to those who remain about how they can expect to be treated under similar circumstances. Hopefully, your organization has been generous, making sure that departing employees are offered some type of transition assistance, even if money is tight. When hefty severance checks are not an option, organizations can still offer such valuable aid as outplacement assistance, a letter of reference, and continuation of health care coverage for some period of time.

Psychologists have coined the term "survivor syndrome" to describe the complex feelings of anger, fear, depression, and guilt that often vex those who remain employed following a layoff. It is beyond your role or abilities as a manager to address the serious emotional issues of your employees, but you can help them by offering information on resources at their disposal. For example, your organization might participate in employee assistance plan (or "EAP") that provides a certain number of free confidential counseling sessions to address short-term psychological issues, as well as referrals for issues that require longer term attention.

In general, you can buoy the morale of your workers by adopting two important behaviors: show appreciation and communicate openly. Showing appreciation means acknowledging the contributions of your employees at a time of high stress and limited resources. In addition to the layoffs, your organizations might have frozen or cut salaries and done away with many of the perks that employees enjoyed. Perhaps the parking is no longer subsidized; perhaps the budget for team outings has been cut. These things might seem small, but they add up and they do have an impact on the quality of a person's work life. Tell your employees that you understand what they are going through, which you probably do, and that you are thankful that they still show up, try to maintain a positive attitude, and put in an honest day's work. Showing appreciation also means investing in the professional growth of your employees. You might not have the budget for expensive trainings, but you can still spend one-on-one time mentoring your employees, discussing their goals, and mapping out career plans.

Open communication does not mean saying that you have an "open door" policy and then settling into your Aeron chair to wait for customers. Communication means taking active steps to help allay your employees' fears about the future of the organization and their jobs. Your senior management team might not be forthcoming with information about the organization's financial health and their ongoing plans for weathering the tough economy. If so, you should take it upon yourself to gather as much data as you can and provide your own regular updates to your employees. The truth might be that the future of the organization remains uncertain and that you do not know whether more layoffs are possible. If so, this is still an important message for your employees to hear, albeit one that should be conveyed responsibly and consistently to avoid instigating rumors or causing panic. Clear your message with your supervisor first to make sure that you are not contradicting the views of your senior leadership and that you are not about to share any information that is confidential or restricted to certain staff members.

It might seem counterintuitive as a motivational technique to tell your employees that things will be bad for a while, and that they might even get worse. But this is what you must do if you want to build trust and demonstrate respect. Long after the economic crisis has passed, your employees will remember that you were supportive and honest at a time when it was tempting to spin or garnish the truth.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.




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