I've helped many organizations run layoffs, and I think I do a pretty good job of convincing client companies to be as fair and generous to the employees as possible given what I've usually had to work with. That said, in an idea world, I'd run layoffs much, much differently if I were in charge from the beginning rather than serving as a resource pulled in once the decision has been made to cut staff.
So, since a slew of layoffs are expected in the corporate ranks in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, here is what I would like to say to the executives who will be making these decisions:
First, in an ideal world, I would like to see the possibility of layoffs brought up long before business results or broader economic forces create a "crisis." By this, I don't mean that I think companies should keep their people in a state of fear, but they should educate their employees on how money comes and goes from the organization and how the investment in payroll is connected to profit. I think many companies don't like/want to do this because they don't want the employees to know that in good times, a few at the top are making a lot more than the "worker bees."
Second,as you business leaders are beginning to spot concerning trends (please tell me you are continually scanning and identifying trends!) tell your the employees about what is going on rather than hunkering down in the Board room for 3 days of secret strategic planning. Get out in the halls and cubicles! Tell the troops what is going on and ask a few questions: "Here is what we are seeing. Are you seeing this? Here is what we are thinking. What ideas do you have?" You'd be surprised at the perspective this gives you. And - if down the road you need to do layoffs, you'll have a much better handle on who the real talent is that you want to keep around.
Third, if the trends start becoming imminent realities, have frank and factual discussions with employees and engage them in solving the problem: e.g.:
"Marlene, I know you love your role coordinating our Customer Appreciation program. You're good at it, and you have lots and lots of creative ideas. But here's the thing. Currently we are spending more money on thanking current customers for past purchases than we are taking in with new client accounts. If this trend were to continue we would be out of business in under 6 months. What I am saying Marlene, is that the work you currently do - the work you are used to doing - is not top priority right now. Bringing in new clients is our top priority and that's where we have to focus our efforts and resources."
From here, engage Marlene in talking about what she thinks the company should do, and how she can be involved and help the company be successful. I know HR folks and Hiring Managers who would say that this approach is dumb because it will foster fear and Marlene may go look for another job. I disagree for 5 reasons:
It demonstrates respect for the employee as a person, not merely a chess piece in the "game of business".
We need to trust employees that they want to do the right thing, and given enough of the right information they will honestly try to do the right thing. Too many companies don't share the right information (i.e., business trends and concerns) with employees. The unfortunate result is that the employees sense that something is wrong but don't know what, so they commence working harder and harder AT THE WRONG THINGS.
In Marlene's current role she works with customers who are (theoretically) happy. She just may have some great ideas about how to find more of them. At a minimum she could have some client facing skills that could be useful to your Account Managers who are working to secure more business - in other words, her skills could be more usefully deployed on behalf of the business long before the reality of a layoff comes true.
If Marlene does end up being laid off, she leaves your company a smarter and wiser business person. This type of practical, daily education - from Managers and Executives to employees - is the most critical form of education in the workplace. Yet most organizations avoid doing it whenever possible.
Finally, if Marlene were to start looking for another job and leave, it saves you having to lay her off and pay out severance. Further, it gives her agency over her exit - at a little dignity is not a bad thing in a tough economy!
Finally,if layoffs do become an unfortunate business need at your company, please give employees as much time as possible to adjust to the idea. Don't hire security guards and grief counselors to come run the "layoff event" for you. Unless there is a real concern of a security risk, it's nice if you can give employees "transition time" where they continue to come and go from the office as they close out/transition work, but they can also take time as needed for their job search. Typically during this transition phase, I would expect to see employees on full pay and benefits. I have worked with clients who escort people who have been laid off out of the building like criminals. And I have worked with companies that give employees "transition time." The latter companies are much happier places to work overall. Not surprisingly, they tend to have better business planning practices in general.
In sum, what I am asking business leaders to do during this precarious economic time is to stop and think! Is "business as usual" (i.e., layoffs during a financial down turn) your only option? Really, it's not a very creative or innovative approach when you think about it. If you have been brought in or otherwise commandeered with the task of "turning this thing around" ask yourself is layoffs really constitute a turnaround? When I see executive resumes that say, "Brought in to revive failing division and increased bottom line results 40% in first year" I immediately ask the candidate if he (it's usually a he in these cases) did layoffs. Most of the times he did. Then I start asking really picky questions about his thinking and process around the layoffs. Most of the time I hear, "blah blah blah made the tough decisions blah blah blah."
Heres the thing: Laying people off is NOT a tough decision. It's not special, it's not hard, and it doesn't really require that much thought. Helping employees understand and connect to real business needs, and then redirecting their to profitable assignments - now THAT is special. That is different. That is creative. That is what I want on my leadership team.