Learning & Development, Recruiting

3 Steps to Rebuilding Employee Morale After Layoffs

Layoffs are an unfortunate necessity for companies of just about any size and in any industry, particularly during economic change or downturns, like right now. Not surprisingly, most teams struggle with maintaining morale in the wake of downsizing. However, it is possible to maintain and even continue to grow your company’s workplace culture health in the wake of a reduction in force. I recently interviewed employees who survived a layoff at a Silicon Valley company. Here are the three steps they felt leaders can take to help employees reconnect, and engage, from an inclusion and diversity lens.

Plan Out Processes and Structures for ALL Employees Post-Layoff, Not Just Leaders 

This first step is particularly important for start-ups that don’t have mature systems and processes. Often, job descriptions are not enough to know what people are working on, and executives don’t have the full view of the “who really does what” landscape. Leaders who are not riffed should be part of the planning process and should strive to articulate new work processes for all employees, not just leaders, post-layoff. The goal of planning is to provide clarity and structure to employees who will need to know how to reengage with their colleagues and their work. As one employee said, “I have a hard time with ‘we’ll just figure it out’ because it seems like leaders aren’t putting in the effort to guide and just hoping people step up their game.” When leaders don’t structure this process, strong personalities may take over, and inclusion and equity suffer.

The planning process should also include a realistic scaling back of work activities to focus only on mission-critical goals because there are fewer people available to do the work and the risk of burnout is high. Careful planning protects everyone’s well-being. When asked what makes them feel cared for post-layoff, one employee responded, “I [want to] know that I can take PTO when needed and that it won’t be a battle to get approval or that taking the time won’t result in me returning to chaos and stress where I think ‘I wish I hadn’t have gone on PTO because coming back to this mess wasn’t worth it.’” People who need flexibility in their schedules, like those caring for others, will also appreciate boundaries and focus.

Align Each Person to the Organization’s Mission and Goals

If leaders did a “good enough” job of planning, then the next step after the layoff should go much better than it would have had they not. Employees want leaders to help them overcome feelings of loss and guilt by answering the question “why me?” They want to know why they were chosen to stay.

Leaders can help employees rebuild confidence, enthusiasm, and loyalty by helping team members understand their value in the new organization. This can be done by reiterating the mission and emphasizing both individual and collective goals. Goals may be the same as or different from pre-layoff, but revalidating or updating them for each person and team helps them gain their footing again after losing teammates. When leaders connect one-on-one with employees about their goals, they enable equity by making everyone’s work visible to leadership.

Be Ready to Answer Questions Honestly and Transparently

One of the strongest ways to build morale is to level with employees and be authentic when interacting with them. Avoid sunny motivational speeches. Employees want to be able to ask questions and get the real deal from leadership. None of those I interviewed asked to be cheered up or to have leadership create a positive atmosphere.

One person said that being able to talk directly with leadership helped this person gain more confidence in the future. This individual said that “for me, it was me asking [leadership] specifically what were the problems that led to this situation and what are we doing to address those. In other words, I wanna be assured that we’re not repeating the same mistakes and it’s not biz as usual so if I see a leader (or a team of leaders) come in hot and heavy and detail the plan backed up by data for turning things around after layoff, it helps me stay hopeful and feel energized to continue.” For this person, knowing there was a plan and seeing strong actions being taken to follow through were important.

Another said, “I’m not sure there’s been a lot of morale-building here posting layoffs … been a little bit more ominous albeit realistic (as opposed to the gumdrops and butterflies narrative prior to [this]. … But the before times (the gumdrops and butterflies) wasn’t actually the better route. … I think the reality is important.”

Having a direct dialogue that allows everyone to pose critical questions to leadership diminishes negative power dynamics in the workplace and creates psychological safety and mutual accountability.

Layoffs are difficult for everyone, but by following these steps, leaders can help employees reconnect and build trust after layoffs in an inclusive way. 

Leann Kang Pereira, EdD, is Emtrain’s Senior Director of Organizational Psychology. Pereira holds a doctorate of education in learning and instruction and organizational leadership. Her work at Emtrain led to the development of a new prosocial work skills framework, which creates respect, inclusion, belonging, and ethics in the workplace. She has led learning teams within organizations, has worked with product teams to create applications that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) for learning, and is one of the founding directors of the Bay Area Learning Analytics Network.

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