Today’s HR Leaders Must Play Both Offense and Defense When Managing a Workforce Reduction

Emotional Intelligence employees Growth Mindset HR HR managers layoffs Recruiting Reduction in Force (RIF) workforce reduction

2023 is not just another year of disruptions. It’s a year in which business and HR leaders must play defense and offense at the same time. This means performing a realistic appraisal of the current situation—inflation, recessionary concerns, geopolitical instability—and making defensive adjustments to the business that may involve cutting back on staff.

At the same time, employees with a resilient growth mindset will take advantage of the inevitable opportunities that occur during disruptions to envision a positive path forward and take steps to advance that vision. Despite economic uncertainty, there is still a shortage of talent for many key job roles. As business leaders are looking at costs, it will be critical for them to play offense and retain key talent for the current business to achieve long term growth.

During a reduction in force (RIF), stress, anxiety and uncertainty run high, exactly when employees need to be at their most agile and resilient. Layoffs take a toll on everyone, from the departing employees, to retained employees, and also on managers. Managers are especially impacted because they are responsible for communicating workforce reductions, and leading people and teams after the RIF action takes place.

Layoffs are a challenging and uncomfortable situation for everyone involved, so it is critical that everyone have the skills and resources needed to support all employees through this process. One way organizations can get ahead of the curve is to proactively upskill their employees in the cognitive skills of resilience. Leaders can help their people during times of uncertainty by building individual skills of resilience and developing resilient cultures.

As organizations go through layoffs, often managers are faced with the difficult task of notifying team members about job losses. It’s important to anticipate that people will have different reactions depending, in part, on factors like personal circumstances and current stressors but also their reactions are dependent upon their default thinking style. Understanding this can be helpful in attending to people with empathy. For the employees being let go, some will experience anxiety because they’re scanning for future threats. Others may get angry because their first thought is that this isn’t fair. Some will focus on the loss their separation represents and they’ll feel sad, while others might go to embarrassment, because for them, it’s all about the loss of standing in the eyes of their colleagues.

Employees who remain with the company after a RIF may also have their assumptions and sense of certainty shaken. This may manifest in anxiety about their own future at the company, sadness over losing coworkers, stress about possible lost knowledge and resources, and even survivor’s guilt.

Realizing that each person has developed a primary thinking style will help managers to have empathy and remain calm while delivering bad news. It will also enable managers to establish a sense of psychological safety and acknowledgement for those reactions.

Here are three key skills that can help managers effectively support employees during a workforce reduction:

1.  Recognize and Understand Emotional Reactions

Leaders should be aware of the different emotional reactions that employees may have during this process. These reactions can vary based on factors such as personal circumstances, current stressors, and previous work experiences. By recognizing that the reactions are based on each individual’s established default thinking styles, the manager is able to be empathetic and calm and not personalize the reactions. 

2. Practice Self-Care

Leaders need to remember that layoffs and job losses are beyond their control, and it is essential that they practice self-care in the coming weeks and months. Creating a self-care plan, such as sleeping well, staying hydrated, and taking breaks, can help managers deal with their own stress and emotions during this difficult time. One of the biggest threats to self-care are big beliefs we have about how the world should be and how we should be in the world. Often leaders believe “it’s my job to make sure people are happy” and “I should be able to take care of everyone.”  These beliefs lead to compassion fatigue during layoffs and we need to be aware of them and navigate around them.

3. Take Advantage of Available Resources

Leaders should leverage HR business partners and company wellbeing resources during this process. This may include utilizing the company’s support services, counseling, or training programs. It is important for managers to seek support from the organization and its resources to help them through the workforce reduction process.

In conclusion, managing a workforce reduction is a challenging and emotional experience for all, requiring HR leaders to play both offense and defense. By recognizing and understanding employee reactions, practicing self-care, and taking advantage of available resources, HR leaders can support employees and navigate the layoff process with compassion, empathy, and resilience. 

Jan Bruce is a disruptor, entrepreneur and force for growth. Recognizing the science of resilience as the new essential for human and organizational capability, Jan co-founded meQuilibrium (meQ) the #1 digital platform to deliver resilience at scale to workforces globally.

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