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Dealing with impending layoffs no easy task

Managers at Work:
Dealing with impending layoffs no easy task

Obviously, you are going to have a tough time in the motivation department right now. And you probably can’t expect stellar levels of productivity when your employees are worrying about the future and wondering, “Am I next?”
“You might lower your expectations a little,” says Patricia Addesso, a San Diego trainer and author of “Management Would Be Easy … If It Weren’t For the People.” “You’re not going to stir people to a fever pitch of motivation and production under these circumstances.”
What you can do, she says, is try to keep things on an “even keel,” so there is at least a reasonable amount of productivity in your department. “You can tell people, “The one sure way we’ll all lose our jobs is to stop working. Our choice is to work and do our best to maintain a positive attitude or be miserable every day. Worrying about this isn’t going to change the outcome.”’
Richard Palermo, a retired Xerox Corp. executive and part owner of Strategic Triangle Inc., a management- consulting firm, agrees. Keeping employees busy at least helps them take their minds off the threat of a layoff. “Standing around the water cooler, talking and moping, doesn’t do any good,” he says.
But obviously, it is easier to say all this than to do it. The reality is that it is very difficult for everyone–including yourself–not to engage in water- cooler discussions, Palermo says. Besides your own future, you’re probably worrying about how you will cope if your department loses its top performers.
In any department, you will find that 10 percent to 20 percent of staffers are top performers, while another 60 percent are good performers but not at the top. Still, you would rather not lose them. Then there are another 20 percent who are not pulling their weight. If your department is faced with deep cuts, you may go through that last 20 percent pretty quickly, he says.
Given all the worry, it is difficult to maintain your credibility when you talk to your staffers about productivity. You will need to find a way to ask them to do their best–without telling them that the best way to avoid getting laid off is to work hard now.
“I don’t think people believe it, and I don’t think it’s true,” Addesso says. “I know lots of places where working hard was no guarantee at all. Your employees have known lots of friends and co-workers who’ve worked hard and gotten layoff notices.”
By the same token, you should not act as if nothing is going on, either. In his book, “Corporate Executions,” author Alan Downs notes that there is a “widespread belief” that if not much is said about the layoff, “everyone will put it out of their minds quickly.”
That is a big misconception, he says. “Employees must talk about what has happened. If they are not allowed to express their feelings in a protected and supportive environment, they will do it among themselves. … The more their feelings are suppressed by the company environment, the greater the need will be to dwell on the trauma. … And it only gets worse.”
So the key here is to let your employees vent, but place limits on it. And be clear, Addesso says, that you have little or no influence over the process, if that is indeed the case. If you are not clear, they “may expect you to do something about it.”
“You’re the boss. They unload on you, and you nod and look concerned. In your mind, you’re letting them vent. In theirs, they’re handing you the problem,” she says. So acknowledge the fact that this is a tough situation for everyone and that you are worried, too. But tell them you still need to work together through this tough time.
But don’t let them “go nuts” or open the subject up for discussion at a staff meeting, for instance. Your focus should be on “what can we do as a department today,” she says.
If you have been “approachable” in your style all along, you will find it easier to draw that line and encourage as much positive thinking as possible, says Thomas Walker, a former executive with Eastman Kodak Co. who now is a senior consultant with the outplacement firm Drake Beam Morin Inc.
Remember that some of your staffers are going to be better equipped emotionally, psychologically and financially to handle the threat of a layoff than others. If you are tuned in to your staff, you will know who those people are, Addesso says.
“Some people have a hard time with life in general,” she says, “while others can shrug things off.”
(Managers at Work is a bimonthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at 249-9242 or by e-mail at kadriscoll@aol.com.)

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