A General's Advice
General Creighton W. Abrams Jr. was known as an aggressive tank commander in World War II and the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. He was a man who made many difficult and consequential decisions. He is also known within the army for his thoughts about how people should be treated in a world-class organization:
By people, I do not mean personnel. I do not mean, "end strength." I do not mean "percent of fill" or any of those other labels, which refer to people as a commodity. I mean living, breathing, serving human beings. They have needs and interests and desires. They have spirit and will, and strengths and abilities. They have weaknesses and faults. And they have names.
From this quote we see how often in large mission-oriented organizations, people can become entries on a spreadsheet and mere numbers to be adjusted as necessary to simply fit the bottom line. Such depersonalization does not reflect well on management and it certainly does not engender loyalty and commitment in employees.
Downsizing and re-engineering are with us to stay, especially in the current economic downturn. There will undoubtedly be instances where organizations must reduce their rolls to survive. How managers approach this unsavory task is of critical importance. Even if there is a clear and compelling business case, the appropriate approach to layoffs is one of remorse and regret. The service of those who must leave should be recognized and the survivors that remain at the end of the purge will require additional attention and reassurance. The best companies use layoffs as a last resort, and when it is necessary they find ways to ease the impact on those who must leave through support services including career counseling and placement assistance.
It would be a mistake to expect that survivors will be pleased and grateful that they still have a job. Many will be grieving the loss of friends and coworkers. They will carefully watch how the organization treats those who are laid off, and those observations will likely frame how they relate to the company for many years to come. Respect and empathy are key concepts for leaders at times like these.
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