young man speaking with employee and giving her bad news

How To Prepare For The Worst Part Of The Job

The best yet the worst compliment I ever received during my 20+ year career in HR was given by numerous people on how good of a job I did at laying them off. No, it’s not sarcasm nor a joke, but a lesson to be learned. Working in HR is a double edged sword; while caring for your employees, you find yourself being the bearer of a lot of bad news. As a former HR executive, I can assure you it never gets easier to be in this position, but it can become a more manageable process that prepares people for success. That may sound nearly impossible – an oxymoron. But it’s true. Massive overhiring sprees during COVID and a recession looming — we will see unprecedented layoffs. After withstanding two recessions during my career in HR, I have tried and tested the worst and best techniques. I know what works from bad and good economic times to the reorganization and reshuffling of entire companies. I can assure you that leading with humanity and transparency while setting up your team for a career of success never fails. That signifies looking beyond the surface level and digging deeper into the processes that make it smoother. It’s simple, lead with learning and lean into your people. In the next few months, following this approach is imperative


First: It’s Not Just About the Layoff but the Pre-Work

Change in any capacity is terrifying — it induces feelings of fear, angst, and frustration from employees. If there is anything worse, it’s catching people off guard during challenging times without preparation. So, change the way we think about change traditionally — it doesn’t have to be scary nor ambiguous but approachable. Developing a concrete plan utilizing change and project management ahead of time alleviates stress, provides you with a clear mind to make good decisions, and ensures transparency between the employees and their employers. In HR, it’s your responsibility to build that bridge, which starts by setting the foundation for a plan and communicating it effectively. Ensuring the why and the how is crystal clear on both ends. Lastly, obtaining a current state analysis of the company – looking into the questions: What are the common goals? Where do the inefficiencies exist? What can we do to improve? And the best part? The data is already there from years of feedback reports and engagement surveys. All it takes is just peeling back the layers.

One of the many things COVID exposed in the workplace is that we lack change management skills. While the pandemic wasn’t the first time our work life faced rapid change, it was a perfect storm of being caught off guard, left in uncertainty, and in a rapidly changing technological environment. Most companies can’t keep up with that. So, they were left scrambling, moving in the wrong direction, and into dead ends. How could that have been avoided? Know where your gaps are beforehand. Having a change management plan ready to execute before a rapid change occurs is imperative. It won’t be perfect, but it will save the company time, money, morale, engagement, and, most importantly — valued employees.


Second: Have Learning and Development Strategies in Place

The common denominator in thriving through every crisis I’ve encountered during my career in HR has been leaning into learning and development. It’s not a haphazard solution to be the saving grace in any crisis, but instead, it should be a fundamental part of every organization’s people strategy. If you wait until the next recession to happen to provide upskilling opportunities for your team, it will probably be too late. Take the time TODAY to understand your gaps and learn your employees’ goals. During my time as an HR exec, one company I worked for learned the hard way from not taking the proper steps, and an attempt to quickly reshuffle the old structure resulted in a horrible loss of employees, time, and money. 18 months later, we were yet again faced with a similar dilemma. This time, we offered instructors and coaches to our people, bridging the gap between their skills. Combining the soft skills of communication and emotional intelligence with the hard skills of tech and project management, we successfully saved the company in more ways than one. Most people have a preconception that in times of rapid change, layoffs are the most effective way to pull back on budget. But it is simply not the case. Investing in your employees and providing them with the opportunity to upskill instead of overhiring for skills that the organization doesn’t have yet will always be the most cost-effective and human-friendly option.


Third: Take Time to Care for your Mental Health

Having the responsibility to tell people the most dreaded phrase beginning with, “I am sorry…” is difficult, but it’s part of the job. After a while of repetition, you can even begin to feel robotic and inhumane. During a previous position of mine at a global company, I once held these conversations on the phone from six in the morning to midnight. After 12 hours, I was exhausted. But by the end, we had dedicated the time to tell them face-to-face with empathy and respect while also setting them up with the proper learning and development program that matched their goals. We thought not just about their time at the company but the longevity of their careers. And this will have the longest-lasting impact on them, above all else. Putting these plans into action is both grueling and wearing — it’s easy to forget about your well-being. Remembering your mental health and taking much-needed breaks to step back and breathe is equally important. Lead with kindness and compassion, and you will receive the same.