Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What to do when someone gets laid off

Every business will regularly go through reorgs. Some are as predictable as the changing of the calendar, others will be completely random, lurching from a sense of blissful security to a sudden slap in the face.

In some ways, you can't fault the business. It is a cold, calculating machine. As we all should be doing in our personal and professional lives, a well-run business will, on a regular cadence, self-assess. Are we on the right track? Are we still aimed at our goal? Are we spending in the right areas? Are our investments and bets paying off? Or do we need to trim our sails and adjust our course? This isn't a place for heart, this isn't a place for warmth and herein lies the rub - in the end, these human "resources" are people and when dealing with people, it can get messy. But this is no place for heart, this is no place for "family" and no one should ever allow themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security, that the machine cares about you. Because it doesn't. It cares about itself and its self-preservation.

A well-run organization will have clear goals, clear objectives and everyone from the top to the bottom will understand the goals and vision and understand how they play a part in that. And it will be clear if they are core, or if they're at risk because they aren't aligned to the core or aren't pulling in the same direction as everyone else. You need to be able to understand the strategy and whether or not you are helping that strategy, and be able to clearly and regularly articulate that to anyone who will listen.

Unfortunately, reorgs do occur. In a strategic, well-run organization, these are regular, tiny, like two tectonic plates gracefully sliding past one another. When things don't run so smoothly, it's more like an earthquake. The regular, tiny adjustments keep an organization aligned, and often means being able to redeploy high quality, high performing resources (people) to other strategic areas. Those kind of reorgs (more like "evolutionary adjustments") go unnoticed, rarely involving layoffs. There's less need to move (or remove) people because everyone understands their place and they've already made the move (or removed themselves). It doesn't mean no one ever finds themselves without a job, but it does mean it's never a shock to the person let go or the people left behind. (And it often means the work the person was doing was eliminated at the same time.)

For those who are "materially impacted" by such reorgs - surprise or expected - whether it's small or large from the point of those left behind - it's a big deal. For them, life has come to a screeching halt. All around them, life goes on but for a moment, they find themselves on the edge of a very large precipice, failing their arms, unsure if they're going to regain their balance or go flying over the cliff.

Most regain their balance.

But most who aren't impacted don't know what to do. They feel guilty, they worry they might be next, they worry about any added work they might have dumped on them. They might be relieved because it's not them or sad because they are going to miss seeing the person.

Often, a combination of all those feelings plus the fact that their full, messy lives are still proceeding (possibly with a little more uncertainty), they don't act. "The person who got laid off will reach out," they think. The person who got laid off will let us know when they're ready to talk. They've got all this free time now. They're in mourning. I'm in shock. For a million reasons, we don't do much, if anything, to reach out to those who are no longer with us in our daily march.

But it's exactly the wrong thing to do. If someone you know gets laid off, they need you to reach out to them. People, especially men, identify heavily with "what they do." So when they're told they're no longer needed, that cuts to the core. Friends who reach out let them know they are still needed, they do still have value, to offer hope and commiseration. When someone's asked to hand in their keys, they no longer feel "welcome" so very few are going to feel comfortable reaching out to colleagues at their old job - those people need to be the ones doing the reaching out.

I haven't always done a great job of this in the past, I've been on the side of "well, they'll reach out when they need something." Or, I've sent a short note on Facebook and then when they agreed to lunch or coffee, I left it to them to schedule, they have all the free time, right? That was a mistake. Now having been on the other side, I know it's the person still employed who has to push the other person to commit to the meeting - otherwise they might sit around at home in their pajamas thinking about looking for work.

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Until recently, my experience was from the other side, seeing friends leave unexpectedly and doing less than I, in retrospect, should have to encourage them. They'd propose a meal, I'd agree and wait for them to set it up. Now, from the other side, I've seen how painful and how alone people can feel at times. When I was laid off, I had to buy a phone and a laptop, but I went to my home office every day from 8-5, worked on my consulting business, worked on the job search, but it still felt lonely. Some people suggested lunch and I agreed and waited for them to follow-up, and others suggested lunch or coffee and made sure it happened. Others looked me up on LinkedIn (I got the "so and so visited your profile") but otherwise didn't reach out. I haven't known what to make of that.

But I'm committed - I will be a better friend to any friends of mine who find themselves cast aside in the future. I had no idea how much it's needed.

Lastly, if you don't know them too well, but you know their spouse, reach out to them - they'll need comfort, hope and a distraction as well - even if it's just coffee or lunch - but make that personal connection beyond Facebook.
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