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Handle With Care: Dealing With Downsizing “Survivors”

by on
in Human Resources

It's hard not to be shaken by the current economic downslide. One way or another, everyone is feeling the effects, as stocks are falling, credit is drying up, and businesses large and small are declaring bankruptcy and closing their doors forever.


To save themselves from the brink of disaster, many companies are being forced to downsize. Obviously, this is devastating to the workers who are laid off, but it is also difficult for those workers who remain employed after an organizational shake-up. Here is some helpful insight on addressing the shock, denial, anger, confusion, frustration, and stress that downsizing can have on these so-called "survivors."


Ounce Of Prevention Worth A Pound Of Cure

One key to minimizing reduction-in-force (RIF) survivor anger is to take careful steps to ensure that the downsizing itself is carried out with obvious care and concern for those affected. How downsized employees are treated directly impacts the morale and retention of valued, high-performing employees who are not downsized.


Example: Rank-and-file employees at a New York media agency were in an uproar recently after finding out about upcoming layoffs when one of the agency's top HR executives accidentally e-mailed a memo containing "talking points" about the RIF to the entire agency rather than to senior managers only. Adding insult to injury, the memo was full of corporate-speak that the affected employees were never supposed to see or hear, such as describing the downsizing as a "right-sizing" of the agency and telling clients that they'd be replacing their contact person "in order to serve the client better" and "provide greater innovation."


Failing to preserve the dignity of downsized workers and implying that the organization will be better without them could breed mistrust of HR and management and dampen morale at all levels of an organization. Instead: Communicate honestly and directly with employees and clients. Let them know that your organization — like organizations all across the country — is being affected by current economic conditions. The message should be: "We're trying to make our way out of a financial rough patch right now, and we may have to make some tough decisions in the near future. One reason it's so tough is because we truly care about the short-term and long-term well-being of this company and its employees."


Focus On Keeping Survivors Afloat

No matter how well-planned the RIF and how sensitively it's carried out, surviving rank-and-file employees will still feel varying degrees of anger, guilt, and anxiety after the process. Performance is usually negatively impacted because survivors keep wondering when the next axe will fall.


No matter what, keep the lines of communication open. Hold a "venting" session to reassure survivors about their future with the company and, more importantly, to let them react honestly and ask questions with impunity. Ask for their suggestions on how to streamline departmental operations. Let them know you're all in this crisis together, and that you'll get through it together.


Be sure survivors are given ample time to adjust by their managers. After all, on top of the emotional impact of losing co-workers, survivors are also going to be under the stress of working longer and harder. Learning how to balance current tasks with new responsibilities won't happen overnight. As employees become accustomed to new responsibilities, encourage managers to lend a hand.


Don't Overlook Demoralized Supervisors

Handling a reduction-in-force is also extremely difficult for supervisors and managers, especially those who have worked their way up from the ranks or who have worked closely with affected employees for many years. Professionally, they'll generally do what their job requires of them, even if that means hand-picking which employees are to be laid off; personally, however, they may suffer from feelings of deep guilt for playing a role in their colleagues' misfortune.


So lend a sympathetic ear to supervisors. Acknowledge their losses, professionally and personally. Explain that it's normal to go through a grieving process at a time like this. Then, after a while, help them transition by gently pointing out everything that has not changed, and everything they can look forward to in their future with the organization. Note: If you notice a supervisor is having a particularly difficult time "moving on," guide them towards your organization's employee assistance program or other available resource for additional assistance and support.

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