Downsizing with Dignity…

Recently one of my clients (with less than 20 employees) underwent a strategic refocus and restructure of their business, requiring the elimination of a position. Having been an employee in the corporate world for over 16 years and experiencing over a dozen restructures and downsizes in the organizations in which I worked, I have seen it done poorly over and over again. I could not be more proud of my client who had the courage and compassion to do it right. Here’s what they did which is effective change management at its best:

  • They explained to the employee whose position was being eliminated the new direction of the business and the reason that the position was being eliminated.
  • They thanked this employee for his contribution and service to their business and offered him a severance package, a letter of recommendation, and other avenues to support him in his search for new employment.
  • They looked this employee in the eye and said how sorry they were about having to let him go and how difficult it was for them, demonstrating and feeling their own vulnerability. (I have rarely seen this important step done. Most people don’t like to experience the discomfort of letting someone go, so they remain cold and distant as if it won’t hurt as much if they dehumanize the situation. However, I suspect they end up feeling worse for handling it as a transaction rather than treating the employee as a human being. It also causes the employee to leave with a distaste and bad memories of the company and the people working there, feeling like nothing more than a number whose contributions didn’t even matter.)
  • They gave the downsized employee the opportunity to say goodbye to his co-workers, and they had a small celebration to thank him for his contributions and to mark this “ending.” (This step is also rarely done. Employees are often told to pack up their belongings while security watches and then escorts them out without ever having the opportunity to say goodbye. This strips employees who are “let go” of all dignity and creates a lot of distrust with the remaining employees who wonder when they will be next. Letting employees say goodbye gives everyone the opportunity to have closure and the ability to move on. Without it, employees left behind remain in limbo and their productivity does downhill.)
  • They met with the remaining employees and explained the new direction of the business and the reason that the position was being eliminated. They reassured them that this new direction would make their positions more secure and explained how. They also set in place new processes and procedures to mark this new direction and  “new beginning.” (This step is often done in a superficial way, giving false reasons for the downsizing, and employees can see right through this. They always figure out the truth, so it’s best to just be honest about the reasons, as my client did.)

Going through all of these steps, although uncomfortable and time-consuming, ensured that the downsized employee left the company with dignity and felt as though the people working there cared enough to treat him with respect and as a human being. This employee will have good memories of working for this business and will have good things to say about it rather than bad-mouthing it to others. The remaining employees saw how transparent their leaders were in handling this situation and how well it was done, which builds trust and credibility in their eyes. My client can move forward with their integrity intact because they were open and honest; therefore, no lies are required to cover anything up. I’m not sure why so many employers think this is the more difficult route. It does require a lot of courage, vulnerability and compassion, but in the end, it makes it so much easier for everyone involved to move forward and make a “new beginning.”

 “Courage is not living without fear. Courage is being scared to death and doing the right thing anyway.” – Chae Richardson

 “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” – Brene Brown

 “Wisdom, compassion, and courage are the three universally recognized moral qualities of men.” – Confucius

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