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Layoffs – How to Avoid Adding Insult to Injury

This week, I borrow some great advice from Joseph Grenny, co-author of “Crucial Conversations.”


Q: Dear Joseph,

Our company probably has layoffs coming up. Some employees will lose their jobs, and most remaining employees will have to take on extra work to keep things going. Some of our employees have been in the same position for more than 20 years.


The “you are getting laid off” conversation is stressful, with potential for silence and/or violence, as well as wrongful termination lawsuits. Our attorney advises that the less said during those conversations, the better.


Our administrators are really dreading these conversations. Do you have any advice for them?

~ Bad News


A: Dear Bad News,

Let’s be clear—getting laid off is horrible. It fills the laid off person with uncertainty. It throws a family into turmoil. It makes people doubt their worth and capacity. It spreads mistrust and paralysis through an organization.


Leaders tend to consistently underestimate the costs of layoffs and the price they’ll pay to rebuild capacity when things turn around. With that said, there are times the organization’s survival demands it. It’s better to lose 10 percent of the workforce now than lose 100 percent later.


I say all of this simply to acknowledge that no matter how well you follow the advice I offer, there will still be pain. There’s a big difference between being cut by a surgeon who cares about you and being cut by a mugger in an alley. Far too many organizations behave like muggers during layoffs.


I’ll never forget a dear friend describing what it was like to have security guards show up unannounced to his office and stand by him as he filled the four cartons provided to him with the belongings he’d accumulated over years in his position. He thought that arriving to the lofty position of vice president would have earned him a little more consideration. But the lawyers were running this show and cared only for organizational defense and not at all for personal dignity. For months he struggled, not just with the pain of joblessness, but with the insult of the process.


As a leader, I have faced these challenges. Let me share what I think turns leaders into surgeons rather than muggers. But first let me begin with a strong ethical assertion: Nothing reveals a leader’s soul more than the way he or she handles necessary dismissals. Unless you are willing to sacrifice time, money and personal pain in the service of those you are dismissing, you deserve no loyalty from those who remain.