How to refocus your staff after layoffs

Technology manager Lakshmi Baskaran says it’s up to leaders to support their teams by being honest about where the business is going and how layoffs can help.Peter Kraft

In the year before Ontario cannabis company Beleave Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection in June 2020, the company laid off about 90 percent of its employees to try to stay afloat. During this stressful time, Bill Panagiotakopoulos — Beleave’s chief operating officer and later acting chief executive officer — found that supporting the company’s panicked remaining employees became almost like a second job.

“It was 24/7 – people were calling at 11pm with concerns,” Mr Panagiotakopoulos recalls. He told employees they could contact him at any time, and many took up his offer. “It was extremely tough, but it also helped me manage my expectations: I wasn’t the only one feeling tension and stress.”

Mr. Panagiotakopoulos, who now lives in Florida, said the worse things got for the company financially, the tighter the situation became for the workers who were still employed. Most have been asked to do more work to fill in the gaps for those who have been made redundant.

“As [the company] got smaller, people started looking elsewhere, and morale was very low. [I thought]’If everyone goes away, there will be nothing left.’”

Layoffs have been back in the headlines lately, particularly at tech companies that have enjoyed rapid growth during the pandemic but have been hit hard by the market downturn, including Hootsuite, Shopify, and Clearco, to name a few.

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Layoffs can drastically affect morale and culture, leaving workers with a mixture of relief at not being fired, guilt over the absence of colleagues, and fear for the future of the company.

Lakshmi Baskaran, who has served as a senior technology executive for two decades, says it’s up to executives to support their teams by being honest about where the business is going and how the layoffs will help.

“You can’t sugarcoat things that are obvious problems because people will see it [through] immediately,” says Mr. Panagiotakopoulos. “I tried to give them a purpose and something to look forward to.”

Leaders should explain the “why, what and how” of the layoff to all team members, says Ms. Baskaran, who was most recently vice president of technology at email software company Sedna Systems.

It means telling the remaining employees why their colleagues were fired, which departments were reduced or eliminated, and having a plan for how the company will move forward, a process that often involves restructuring.

If management believes the layoffs were necessary to move the business forward, Ms Baskaran encourages them to let the remaining workers know so they don’t have to wonder if they’re next on the chopping block.

“It takes away a sense of panic from those who are left behind, who also often face guilt,” she says.

She also recommends that companies prepare middle managers with answers to questions that still-working employees might have about the layoffs and give them opportunities to speak openly.

“Give them the tools they need,” she says.

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Offering paid therapies to those dealing with survivor guilt can also be helpful, Ms Baskaran says, partly because it shows management understands this is a difficult time.

“Shortly after a layoff, there will be a reorganization to make the teams more efficient,” she says. “The guilt and stress of restructuring is not something many people would like to go through.

“Whenever you go through a layoff, people want to show they’re strong, but internally they’re struggling with a lot of emotions.”

Employees also benefit when managers acknowledge they’re going through a tough time after layoffs, says leadership coach Rehana Rajwani.

She says anyone who’s had to make layoffs knows “it’s horrible,” adding, “The whole process can be very stressful because sometimes you have to make decisions very quickly.”

If you’re honest with your team when you’re struggling or have resorted to therapy or other resources, set the tone that it’s okay to be upset or to need help, she says.

Ms. Rajwani also recommends that managers hold one-to-one meetings with the remaining employees as soon as possible after the announcement of the layoffs.

“Hopefully the layoff doesn’t come on a Friday but in the middle of the week,” so managers can talk to their remaining employees right away, she adds.

“Show empathy, appear authentic and don’t try to say the right words,” she says. “Tell them this is hard for you…but try not to make it about yourself either.”

After the initial interview, Ms. Rajwani recommends that managers make every effort to help the workers left behind feel valued and have a future at the company.

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“See what you can do to help them grow in the organization,” she says. “You look great as a manager when you give people credit for their work… and it shows that you care about your team.”

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