Adam Jones
Adam Jones

Post-traumatic layoff syndrome

Engage with employees one on one after organizational upheaval.

June 7, 2012
by Adam Jones

People don’t like change, and they certainly don’t like it forced upon them. This leaves management in a difficult position when dramatic changes hit an organization. Regardless of circumstance—layoff, merger, lost client, or new management—at some point business must resume.

What happens next can’t be confined to the balance sheet. It requires human interaction. You are emotionally and mentally ahead of your employees when the drama ends and real life continues. Here are three pitfalls to avoid:

1. Underestimating survivor guilt and other inconvenient emotions

Employees who remain after a reduction in force are lucky to have a job, right? Those who retain their standing or even get promoted after a reorganization have been fortunate, right? These seem like perfectly logical conclusions, but your employees do not see it this way.

Your best employees embrace new opportunities and are energized by them, but plenty of valuable and productive team members may be upset because the friend in the next cubicle does not work there anymore. Some might be convinced that the next round of layoffs is coming and will be worse or that workloads are going to increase without any compensation. Some feel guilty about their alleged good fortune.

The transparency of the process upfront can help limit the upheaval the changes cause. How well—and how far in advance—management communicates expectations, consequences, and decisions before organizational changes take effect determines the difficulty of returning to whatever passes for normal.

Keeping secrets is expedient, but it isn’t effective. If you have not engaged in an honest dialogue with your employees before subjecting them to organizational and personal changes, then it is time to start.

The way to mollify complaints and blunt rumors is to address them upfront. This does not require a grand CEO state-of-the-company speech, rather, it requires just the opposite. Every individual employee should have a debrief; think of this as the “reverse termination” speech or the “you are staying” speech. It is remarkable how many companies skip this step.

Let each employee know what the new responsibilities are, who the new supervisor is, how the new team is organized, and why they are valued in the new organization. Do it privately and individually. If someone needs to vent, let that person take whatever shot he or she wants. Some of these meetings are painful, but it is the very least you can do.

If you misread your organization’s collective emotional state, and subsequently get this step wrong, then you no longer have a people problem, you have a financial one.

2. Ignoring personal motivation

One of the main reasons people leave firms is that they don’t feel appreciated. In normal times you can combat this by asking a few regular questions: Do you enjoy the work? Do you like the team you are on? Are there other tasks or responsibilities that you are interested in?

But you cannot just create a motivating and nurturing culture out of thin air. In the aftermath of major changes, these questions get turned on their head. Management has some explaining to do. You need to reset the conversation with employees. Start with:

  • “Here’s why the actions are a good thing for the company.”
  • “Here’s why this is a particularly good thing for you.”

If management cannot articulate these two explanations to every employee in the firm, then you have likely already lost them. But if you can, you have a chance to create a new culture.

The employees who do not like what you have to say will go somewhere else. But the ones willing to give you a chance are golden. They are the key to your future, and you need to find out what motivates them. There is an easy way to accomplish this: Ask them.

3. Saying: “We’ll just do more with less.”

No, you will not. You may have merged or reorganized to become marginally more efficient and, let’s face it, there are always some employees who prove the famous addition-by-subtraction theorem. That said, there is no reorganization of any entity that can sweep chaos under the rug with a magic “do more with less” broom.

Your employees will not buy it. So do not say it (even if you believe it).

What is dangerous about this statement is its short-term veracity. You probably will get a productivity bump from folks who pitch in and work harder to keep the ship from sinking. Pay attention to these people; they are your emerging leaders. But it will not be sustained.

Here are a few sound bites that might be more effective with employees:

  • “We are going to do a few things well.”
  • “We are going to more carefully target what we want to accomplish as a firm.”
  • “We have diversified beyond our capabilities, and we need to go back to basics.”
  • “We are all going to have to work a little harder in the coming months, and we understand the sacrifices you are making.”

Even this:

  • “We can’t promise you that things are immediately going to get better.”

Depending on the circumstances, these are all truthful statements that employees respect. Telling them that management’s grand plan is to do more with less is at best ambiguous and, at worst, untruthful and misleading.

Honesty is key to avoiding the pitfalls of a reorganization.

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Adam Jones is the director of state government services for Weaver, an independent accounting firm with offices throughout Texas.