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Leadership House Call

Finding Optimism Amidst Layoffs

The Question:

I am the Director of Human Resources for my company, and I have been playing an active role in the layoffs that have occurred over the last eight months. I am having these difficult conversations with peers and people I have worked with for years, and it is taking a toll on me.

What's more frustrating is my other role is to keep up morale even after these layoffs have occurred. Our staff seems pretty demoralized, and to be frank, I am too. We are far away from the culture we once maintained with seeming ease. What can I do to perform my roles better? -- Demoralized

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Dear Demoralized,

Sadly, your experience is shared by many others. Maintaining the morale of those who remain after layoffs is a critical priority. If your company is asking fewer people to do more, then their commitment to the organization must remain undiminished for those new roles to work. We are working with several organizations dealing with this issue, and here are some of the key points we've learned.

First, it is in your interest to make the layoff experience as positive possible for those who are losing their jobs. Allocate not only your time and attention, but also whatever transitional support you can offer, such as professional career counseling; temporary office space, phone and computer access; and continuation of some benefits beyond what is legally required. The give-me-the-keys-and-our-security-guard-will-escort-you-to-the-door approach may minimize the risk of any destructive retributive behavior, but it will cost you dearly down the road.

Expending this extra energy on lay offs is more than the right thing to do: It's a tactical advantage for you. How you treat those on their way out affects those who remain behind. You want those folks to leave those difficult conversations with you saying to their friends, "Obviously this was no fun, but the HR director made me feel like a real professional, and I think she really cares about my future."

Second, personally invest in those who remain and be a strong advocate for your organization to invest in them as well. Little things mean a lot, as the cliché goes. Buy people community lunches. Give people long weekends, maybe half days on Friday during the summer. Celebrate small wins.

Third, keep communication open so issues do not simmer under the surface. Are you on Facebook and Twitter, communicating more with people in your organization? Are you walking around more than you did before? And are you using your leverage as chief morale officer to get other Big Feet in your organization to do the same?

Fourth, look for ways to signify your belief in the future. People will look to you and other senior authorities in the organization for clues as to whether they should be optimistic. The day after GE cut their dividends for the first time since 1938, the stock hit a 10-year low. In a very real way, CEO Jeffrey Immelt showed the organization that he was investing in GE's future during this difficult time when he personally bought 50,000 shares of stock. What can you do to show you expect the organization to be thriving in the future?

Fifth, think of your job as having to exercise leadership up. The Big Feet you work with and for will be focused on the current turmoil and will have a harder time than usual thinking about the long term. They need your help remembering that if they only focus on the short term, they will only be around for the short term. They need to model the behavior they are asking from others, take some of the pain, commit to the future, and be optimistic and realistic at the same time. Your subtle prodding will help them do that.

Sixth, and finally, take care of yourself. It is easy to think of taking care of yourself as self-indulgent in the midst of the current reality, but it is even more important to the company now than ever before. Make sure you are getting enough rest, exercise, love and affection, and good food. You need to be at the top of your game. Nothing less than your best will enable you to lead your organization through these difficult times and emerge stronger individually and collectively than before the downturn took hold.

By Cambridge Leadership Associates

 |  June 18, 2009; 10:11 AM ET |  Category:  Culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg     Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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