Downsize with Dignity: Five Imperatives to Do the Right Thing and Stay Out of the News

As companies navigate the challenges of a recession, downsizing may become a necessary reality. Executing the process with dignity and compassion for the affected employees is beyond tricky – but failing to do it can result in negative press coverage and damage to the company’s reputation, to say nothing of burning your relationship with your most important public, your employees. So how do you downsize with dignity?

As leaders, we have a responsibility to approach downsizing with empathy and respect for those impacted. In particular, first-line managers play a critical role in executing the process with grace and ensuring the well-being of their teams – so it’s important that we empower them to communicate and support their teams effectively. Here are five imperatives to help companies let people go gracefully and stay out of the news, with an emphasis on the role of first line managers.

1. Be transparent and honest

As the first point of contact for their teams, first-line managers must communicate transparently and honestly about the situation. They should be clear about why the reduction in workforce is necessary and how it will impact the organization. Employees deserve to understand the reasons behind the decision and how it will affect them personally. It’s crucial to communicate this information as thoroughly as possible, so that affected employees can prepare and make necessary arrangements.

2. Offer support and resources

First-line managers must ensure that affected employees receive the support and resources they need during this challenging time. They should consider offering outplacement services to help employees with job searches, resume building, and interviewing skills. They should provide access to counseling services or employee assistance programs to help employees navigate the emotional toll of the situation. Offering financial planning resources can also help employees manage the financial impact of the job loss. First line managers should work closely with their HR partners to ensure that their teams receive the necessary support and resources.

3. Treat everyone with respect

Regardless of their position or tenure, everyone impacted by the downsizing deserves to be treated with respect. First line managers must ensure that everyone is notified in person and has the opportunity to ask questions and express concerns. They should avoid using insensitive language or making light of the situation. Treating employees with empathy and kindness and showing appreciation for their contributions to the organization can help ease the emotional burden of the situation.

4. Communicate clearly to the remaining workforce

The impact of downsizing doesn’t end with those who are directly affected. The remaining workforce may experience a range of emotions, from survivor guilt to anxiety about job security. First-line managers must communicate the impact of the downsizing on the remaining workforce, including changes to job duties, reporting relationships, and workload. Beyond that, employees need to understand the reasons for the company’s actions: “This is why we took this painful step, and this is why it will make the organization you’re a part of stronger.” Taking the time to explain the “why” shows respect for employees. Managers should also provide opportunities for employees to provide feedback and ask questions. By communicating openly and honestly, companies can help alleviate anxiety and build trust with the remaining workforce.

5. Bounce forward

An enormous amount of work (including emotional work) goes into the preparation and execution of a reduction in the workforce. For those who’ve done that work, there’s a temptation to think “it’s finally done” and move on. But it isn’t done. As important as immediate, clear communication is in the moment, what happens in the days, week, and months afterward is just as important. Start by recognizing that, while you may have been working on this for a long time, it’s brand new to employees. They will need time to process what’s happened, and they’ll be looking for clues about what comes next. They should see that the company really is taking steps to make things better — reviewing working methods, reprioritizing work, and coming together in new ways.

Downsizing a workforce is never an easy decision, but it’s a reality that many companies must face during a recession. First-line managers play a critical role in executing the process with grace and ensuring the well-being of their teams. By following these five imperatives – being transparent and honest, offering support and resources, treating everyone with respect, communicating to the remaining workforce, and positioning the company to bounce forward – companies can preserve relationships. Ultimately, that’s what matters most.

For confidential and non-judgmental guidance on communicating a reduction in force, development of communications strategy, or simply a confidential gut-check on your plan, please get in touch with Ethan McCarty, CEO, Integral.