How to Downsize Your Company (and Not Be an Asshole)
By Kylee McIntyre14-Aug-2018Views 2146

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Company downsizing can feel like heartbreak for everyone involved. Photo credit: Pexels.

No one likes firing or retrenching their staff, but like a lot of things, downsizing is just part of business. Retrenching a group of people can feel especially awful, because the decision is being made on the part of the company, not because of an unfit employee (or several). You won't be able to get through it without hurting anyone's feelings, but strategic moves combined with basic empathy can help soften the downsizing blow - and preserve your company's reputation in the process.

Strategic moves combined with basic empathy can help soften the downsizing blow - and preserve your company's reputation in the process.

Job loss is stressful. On the Holmes and Rahe scale, which helps to predict likelihood of future illness, job loss scores 47 out of 100, near personal injury or illness (53) or death of close family member (63). After a 2017 survey of 2,000 people, the Physiological Society rates “being fired" as 8.47 on a 10-point stress scale. And why wouldn't it be? Job loss can bring into play financial and personal doubts, among others.

Your main goal when having That Conversation with employees you've chosen to retrench is to explain the problem to the best of your ability, help them cope with emotion during the announcement, and - if possible - aid them in getting on with their lives. But those are big items on your To Do list, so let's break down downsizing your staff.

1. Clearly explain the downsizing

Good starting point: tell the employees about to be retrenched that a company downsize or re-pivot is happening. That sounds deceivingly simple, right? But you're likely feeling some pressure too, when you're talking to these employees. You've likely known about what needs to happen longer than they have, so it's easy to forget that they're not on the same page.

It wasn't until he started talking about severance packages that she realized she was being retrenched.

I recently had a discussion with a friend who was laid off with a number of other people at her startup. She told me that her superior sat her down and explained everything that was going wrong with the company, and it wasn't until he started talking about severance packages that she realized she was being retrenched.

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Uncertainty just makes job loss worse. Transparency usually goes over better than ambiguity. Photo credit: Pexels.

Your goal throughout the retrenchment process is going to be eliminating ambiguity so that employees leave with as few grievances as possible (your conscience, your social media accounts, and possibly your legal department will thank you).

2. Pick the right time to downsize

Day of week matters. Friday might look like an attractive day to drop the news. After all, everyone gets the weekend to process the information, right?

That's not the best idea. The weekend gives employees time to speculate and get angry about what happened - without management and current employees around to keep things from getting blown out of proportion.

Tuesday is a good day - people aren't blindsided when they come back in from their weekends, but there's still more than a half of the work week left for the retained employees to get used to the downsizing - and for the retrenched to emote while most of the workforce is still at work. Do it in the morning to maximize the amount of processing time that happens while other employees are still at work.

3. Manage emotion(s)

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At the very least, make sure you're treating people with respect. No one's going to be happy to hear that they're part of a downsizing move, but you can show them compassion and empathy. Photo credit: Pexels.

That might look like a weird item on the list, because how do you manage the way someone feels?

You can't, not really. The best you can hope for is to not be an asshole.

The best you can hope for is to not be an asshole.

You can break bad news about the downsizing and be compassionate about it. Have water and tissues in the room, and be ready for some emotions. If you have legal counsel, make sure you've consulted with them beforehand and are adhering to employee contracts. Have an exit plan ready. If the employees are required to leave right after the discussion, have arrangements in place (security guards, for example) to escort them out of the building.

If they have questions, have answers for them ready about severance packages, last day, etc. Know what you can and can't say to them - speak to management first, if need be. (It helps if you have this written out or at least rehearsed well enough to where you don't heighten emotion with your ambiguity.)

Avoid getting personal. Answering questions about when the last day of work will be is perfectly fine. But you can delicately sidestep questions like, “Why me and not someone else?"

Stay away from anger and from personal attacks, even if the employee fires rude remarks at you. Address exactly what's going to happen now first - the logistics of the downsizing. Then, you can focus on answering the employee's questions about the future.

4. Help with what's to come

Part of the stress that comes with company downsizing is not knowing what will happen next. If you're retrenched, how will the job search work out? You might be able to answer questions about what happens next week, but what about the next month?

Be as transparent as you are allowed to be.

Of course, you're not obligated to help the employees on their way forward, but it looks good for the company if you're at the very least able to offer some support. If you don't have it in budget to help place the employees scattered to the winds, you can at least give them the reassurance up front that they will receive recommendation letters - especially since the retrenchment is not the candidates' fault.

All in all, be as transparent as you are allowed to be. Honesty is going to come off a lot better than keeping things secret, and you should be as honest as possible with the remaining employees, when the time comes (tell them after - no one wants to hear about a retrenchment from somewhere other than the source). You won't necessarily get a happy ending, but you can get through the company downsizing with as much dignity as possible.


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Kylee McIntyre
American tech, science, health, and environmental writer. Lover of scifi, fantasy, travel, and coffee. Find her on Twitter @ejkyleem.
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