A Manager's Guide to Surviving Layoffs

By Allen Bernard

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In this economy it is the lucky few managers who do not have to inform colleagues that their services are no longer needed. Most managers are having to layoff people they know and like; people, who through no fault of their own, must be set adrift on a very uncertain economic sea.

This takes its toll. Managers are people, too. They know the people they are having to let go have kids, bills, mortgages, car payments, etc. They also know that jobs are hard to come by right now. Health insurance is often unaffordable and COBRA, the federal program that allows employees to continue their employer-sponsored health insurance after they are terminated, is expensive.

So, what's a manager to do? Hand wringing and pacing are options, but not good ones. You can hide in your office and hope no one hates you for too long. But, again, this is not really a good option. You could lie and tell everyone that everything is going to be okay, put on a happy face and pretend that the layoffs haven't affected you or the employees left behind, but, again, not a good option, say the experts.

"As a manager don't hide," said Laurent Duperval, of Duperval Consulting, an IT communications firm. "You may feel guilty. You may feel bad. You man not feel like walking around and motivating people ... you may not feel like doing this but you have to. It's part of your job. The worst thing you can do as a manager is stay locked in your office and feel bad for the decisions you made. You have to make a business decision. You made your decision. You're going to have to live with it. It's going to be tough but, as a manager, as a leader, you cannot afford to show that you are completely put down by what happened and you can't function."

A bit of tough love in a way, but an important point, said Duperval. If you, as a manager, show everyone that you are in the dumps, yes, you may get some sympathy and understanding from those remaining, but you will not inspire a lot of confidence in the company or your ability to see people through the remaining tough times.

"Emotionally, I have not found or met somebody that enjoys doing this, looks forward to doing this, thinks this is a good thing," said Dave Willmer, executive director of Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm. "On a personal side, this is really tough for everyone."

It's also important not to second-guess yourself, said Human Resource Solutions Founder and President Roberta Chinsky Matuson. "First of all, you have to look at the big picture: if you didn't make those decisions the whole ship could come down, which means a lot more people would have lost their jobs - including yourself. I think that this recession came on so quickly there were very few warning signs that you could really go back and say, 'What did I miss?'"

Get Moving Again

To combat the inevitable bout of bad feelings, get proactive, said Willmer. Communication is the first step. Make sure that you are telling everyone why the layoffs are happening and what the company hopes to achieve by making them. While it may seem obvious to you, it's probably not to your staff. It's up to you to explain things. That's part of your job.

"There's a fine line that you have to walk but, as much as a manager can, be transparent as far as what is happening or will be happening and the better off you will be," said Willmer. "The longer you wait and the less transparent you are, the more it comes back to haunt you."

The next step is to find ways that you can help those that are being let go. One thing you can do is set up company-sponsored (or not) career counseling to help people - many of who may not have been in the job marketing for a very long time - update their resumes, work on interviewing skills, and understand how social networking sites like Linked In can help them land work. Many people may have heard of the online job boards like Monster.com or CareerBuilder.com, but have no real idea on the best ways to use them. You could even bring in a temporary placement agency, for example, to collect resumes and do interviews on site.

Matuson even suggests reaching out to those that have been laid off to see how they are doing and if there is anything you can do to help. While this probably is unrealistic for managers when they've let go 30%, 40% or 50% of the staff, if you hear about a job, for example, and you know that Bob would be perfect for it, call him and tell him. Chances are he will be grateful for the referral.

Lead by Example

Now is also the time that you have to step and lead. Managing when things are good is easy. Managing when things are bad takes skill. Perhaps the most important trait that your staff will look for and respect is integrity, said Matuson. Be as honest and forthright as you can and you will always be able to sleep at night knowing you're doing the best you can. "The last thing you want to do is say everything is going to be fine and your employee shows up in a brand new BMW."

This also means you have to keep the employees that are left behind motivated. While it's sad that your colleagues are gone, the company still has to function if people still want to have jobs tomorrow. It's up to you to keep people focused on this new reality. The first thing is, don't assume that you are going to be able to go back to business as usual with half the staff. You are going to have embark on some kind of business reorganization and reduction plan. You can't just expect people to work 12-hour days all of a sudden and be happy they still have a job.

"And that's a mistake that can be common as people say, 'Well, you know what? We're going to have to work twice as hard because half the people left, but we still need to get the same jobs done.' That is unrealistic" said Duperval. "Cutting away 35% of the people will cut away a lot of the services you provide."

Don't let FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) rule the day. Now is a good time to focus on moving forward. You will have to figure out what services you are going to be able to offer and what services are going to have to give way or be cut back. This exercise will not only help the company as a whole weather the storm, it will help everyone by giving them something concrete to focus on. And it will help you for the same reasons.

You can also get the remaining folks together for some bonding, said Duperval. Offer to pay for a night of bowling, pizza and beer; or maybe some other retreat type event where people can come together, vent and begin to move on. The point is to get people focused on positive outcomes again, said RHT's Willmer.

A Good Night's Sleep

Then there is the personal help that you many need. Aside from doing what you can for your employees and the company, when you go home at night you may still feel bad. Get some help if these feelings don't pass. Get counseling, talk to your priest or minister or Rabbi, talk to your boss about it. Layoffs are hard on everyone and it may be some time before the benefits of letting people go become apparent, if ever. There may also be future rounds of layoffs so you will have to steel yourself for these, as well.

"The guilt part is the toughest part to deal with," said Duperval. "You are left with it alone and you're the one that has work yourself out of it."