Helping your remaining team heal is critical for your company’s future

More than 22 million Americans have lost their jobs in the past month. In recent days, we’ve seen poor decisions made by executives who have laid people off via text messageconference call, (or, even worse, if that’s possible, via a two-minute Zoom call).

The way you handle layoffs — and equally important, how you tend to employees who are staying — says a lot about the emotional intelligence of the executive team. If you truly can’t avoid layoffs, empathy may be the most important tool in your toolkit as you determine a layoff strategy, including which employees not to lay off. On this critical decision, Andreessen Horowitz partner David Ulevitch makes a key point: “It’s not a person by person decision, it’s a role by role decision.” (Emphasis mine.)

When planning for a reduced head count, see which roles are essential to your company’s immediate survival and to day-to-day operations. You’re taking the wrong approach if you or your managers are suggesting people who could go based on speculation (“I know she wants to go back to school” or “he’s moving to Chicago, anyway”) or reputation (I’ve heard she’s difficult”).

It’s also important to do as few layoffs as you can. “There is tremendous damage in cutting head count little by little — the steady drip-drip of bad news demoralizes a company beyond saving,” observes Spencer Rascoff, former CEO of Zillow and Hotwire, on how he executed large staff cuts during past recessions. “Get to your target employment count the first time so that you won’t have to do it again. It helped our remaining employees feel secure in their jobs and build camaraderie moving forward.”

In the wake of pandemic-induced layoffs, there’s been less discussion about the immediate aftermath and how to meaningfully tend to your surviving team. You may think you’ve done the hardest part already, but a lot of delicate work lies ahead, and your approach will determine how you’re perceived as a leader. If you can explain your process and actions with candor and compassion, the remaining team will feel considerably better about where they (still) work.

After all, these are the people you’re going to rely on to move the company past this immediate pain point. If you ignore the fact that they too are hurting, or if you appear too upbeat or impatient when people aren’t moving on at your pace, you risk alienating the very people you’re counting on. It’s vital that you recognize your remaining employees may be sinking in a morass of survivors’ guilt, sorrow over the loss of colleagues, and resentment about your decisions.

And today, as many millions of people are experiencing some aspect of the coronavirus pandemic, the anxiety we all feel — described by grief expert David Kessler as a “loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection” — is similar to what a team feels post-layoff. Kessler even mentions “anticipatory grief,” which has to do with uncertainty about the future.

Because of this welter of emotion and concern, there’s likely to be lower productivity, as well as anger about having to take on extra work with fewer staff, and at least for some time, an increase in office gossip and political maneuvering. And don’t forget: When a company suffers cuts, executives usually can’t guarantee there will be no more layoffs. Because of this, management consultant Susan Heathfield notes one effect on the survivors: “Some of the key players may decide that they don’t want to stay, waiting for the next bad news, in an environment of mistrust, anger, and insecurity.”

That’s the last thing you need. Be prepared to demonstrate through your words and actions (without asking for sympathy because you are not the victim in this scenario) that you are feeling the pain with them, and that you need their support and cooperation to get through this trauma together.

Here are a few suggestions for approaching the aftermath of company layoffs:

  • Communicate frequently about where things are now, and where you expect them to go near term. Plan on holding weekly all-hands meetings and open Q&A sessions for the immediate future. You should be candid in these Q&As, and they should involve leaders across the company. Don’t lean on HR to be your only messenger. After all, they merely carried out what you determined.
  • Whenever appropriate, genuinely acknowledge the regret you feel about the layoff, and recognize how those that left contributed to the company. Don’t pretend it never happened.
  • “Make room for informal conversations,” recommends HR consultant Teresa Ruiz Decker. She suggests doing a bit of a listening tour to help you gauge employee concerns as well as learn from them how work happens at every level.
  • Be sure to invite your laid-off workers to your company alumni network, where they can connect with one another, or encourage them to join any informal effort underway. People are creating crowdsourced spreadsheets for sharing job openings and contacts, and new sites designed for recruiters. Your support of such resources reflects a genuinely helpful attitude that won’t be forgotten.
  • Solicit ideas and suggestions from across the company to make adjustments, whether in processes, organizational structure, or workflow. People will appreciate being asked to help in genuinely useful ways. During the 2008 recession that led Google to shutter some products and lay off about 200 people, then-CFO Patrick Pichette famously asked Google employees for cost-cutting suggestions large and small; they responded with ideas that ultimately saved many millions of dollars. Perhaps more important, they were part of the decision-making rather than merely the recipients of top-down cuts.
  • If you can legitimately and honestly do it, reassure employees that layoffs are over. Earlier in April, for example, American Express said in a public statement that it would not make any coronavirus-related layoffs for the rest of 2020. The company is also paying workers who have been infected, placed into quarantine, or who have household members who have been affected, and added that employees enrolled in its U.S. medical plans will be covered for coronavirus costs.
  • Report to the team on any progress, even small wins, in your newly streamlined operation. Be generous with praise to teams who are actively helping the company recover.

As you navigate the difficult layoff process, startup advisor Beth Steinberg offers a good measure of success to aim for: “When a layoff has gone as well as it can go, you’ll eventually see former employees return to visit. The best companies host alumni events and online forums to encourage these relationships.” Apart from helping everyone else get through a downturn, your job is to make humane choices that foster this kind of outcome. As you move ahead, keep checking in with yourself to gauge how well your actions reflect your compassion as much as your business savvy.