Feelings Aside: Handling a Team Layoff
4 October, 2021
Years ago, when I was a first-line manager and had people directly reporting to me, management decided that sizable layoffs would happen in our business unit. Without any input on my end, the decision they made was to disband several teams, including mine, and have all people on the team laid off. Though I had no say, my role required me to carry through with it and execute it. What particularly troubled me was that the decision was not made due to poor performance but because of the changed business circumstances.
I was offered to keep my role, and I turned that offer down. Instead, I stayed with the company but in a different role. I didn’t feel I could keep that job; I could not have those tough conversations with my team members and tell them that I got to keep my job. In all honesty, it was different than losing a job because I had enough connections within the company to find a place to land softly. But my career trajectory was significantly altered nevertheless.
It was more an emotional than ethical conundrum. In fact, there was nothing unethical in it; it’s just the way business was. If that offer came at some other point in time, I would most likely take it. What made me over-index on the emotional side was that it was the first time I had to lay someone off, let alone the whole team. I much later realized how management communicated that they valued me and my work by offering me to keep a job. But at that time, I felt unbearable discomfort.
It was one of the most challenging things I had to do as a first-line manager up to that point. Before that, I thought that performance reviews were stressful, and it was nothing in comparison to the team layoff. After I learned about the decision -- which was a few days before my team knew about it -- I was unable to sleep for days.
It was an emotional decision. My ego prevented me from looking at the offer that was presented to me independently from what I was asked to do. It felt at that moment that I was taking advantage of a situation where not everyone else was treated in the same way. It wasn’t performance-related either for them or me. I was thrown a life jacket in a situation where the rest of the crew was left to drown. I wanted to share the destiny of the team.
In the end, things unfolded in the most favorable way. Every single person that was laid off ended up in a great place. I was able to help some of my team members find a job within the company. Others found great jobs outside the company and, more importantly, opportunities to grow that they wouldn’t be exposed to if they didn’t have to look for a new job. In hindsight, I realized how much I over-indexed the emotional side of things, which clouded my judgment and made everything look more negative than it was.
- You need to detach your emotions from the actual task that was given to you. Of course, it would be much harder if that decision was mine. Or if management said, “You can keep one half of the team, and let go of the other half. It’s up to you to decide who you would keep”. But in this case, I was merely executing a business decision. You will have to learn to accept that laying people off is not something done to intentionally harm anyone.
- If I had to do it all over again, I am not sure if I would do the same thing. I would at least consider the offer that was presented to me.
- There is a cultural aspect to it: I grew up in Europe and it took some time to adjust to a more ruthless nature of the business in the US, especially when it comes to layoffs. But there are also more opportunities and the job market is less rigid than in Europe.
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