Callous or Caring – What Kind of a “Connected Leader” Will You Be in the Face of Layoffs?

Madhukar Govindaraju-

Madhukar Govindaraju is the Founder and CEO of Numly™, Inc, HQ: Bellevue, WA. (USA). The views expressed here are his own.

Many organizations across industries are looking at restructuring their workforce to prepare for the anticipated post-pandemic recession. It is hard to ignore that the technology sector has gone ahead and executed on deep job cuts, just during the past few weeks, and some are planning more early next year. From Meta, Stripe, Microsoft, Amazon to Salesforce the tech industry has been on a firing spree.

While Twitter and Meta layoffs have shaken onlookers, we have witnessed the top executives from many organizations tripping up, again and again. Better Holdco Inc., for example, made news after the mass firing of over 900 employees over Zoom by an expressionless Vishal Garg, Better’s CEO in 2021.

But this is not the first time where we are witnessing such insensitive layoffs. Verizon Communications Inc. laid off 2,700 technicians in New York and New Jersey just days before Christmas back in 2002. And can anyone even forget when Dell announced that their employees had their pink slips coming during the dot com burst like a dystopian interpretation of the movie You’ve Got Mail?

Callous or caring – what layoffs tell us about Leaders

While layoffs to lower costs and increase profitability are not going away, leaders must take cognizance of the role they play here. How the Leaders handle a layoff, not only impacts employee productivity but can also tarnish the image of a brand and that of the leader as well. Musk’s handling of the Twitter layoffs hardly positions him as a visionary leader driving people to succeed, does it?

From a leadership perspective, you only have two choices – you can either come off as caring or callous when managing an event such as mass layoffs. Which one are you going to choose?

Employees are not Assets on a Balance Sheet – they are People

Terms such as ‘valuable assets’, ‘human capital’ have been used to demonstrate the value of the employee in the organizational narrative. These concepts, however, generate an aura of an employee as a commodity; something to be used. However, I think there is a bigger problem here. While this approach can be the right way in good times, this asset is often the first to take a pay cut or get fired when the going gets tough.

In my work with organizational leaders, one of the most significant learnings for many CXOs, these past few years, was that employees are not assets. They are people. That is why most forward-thinking leaders are building their skills of empathy and understanding, collaboration and communication, trust and belonging, and tapping into shared humanity versus being obsessed with outcome metrics.

Leadership needs a paradigm shift – “Connected Leadership”

I believe that recognizing the changing paradigm of leadership dynamics is imperative for all organizational leaders.

With this in mind, we have designed Numly’s Connected Leadership Framework to get leaders across all levels in the organization to become more people-centric and empathetic. I realized that while layoffs are inevitable, the way organizations are managing layoffs needs to change. We need to coach and train our leaders with the right skills and attitudes that make these gutting events manageable, bearable, and navigable by the one getting impacted – the employee.

Numly’s Analytics-enabled Coaching Programs for People Managers and Leaders are designed to help leaders of today lead with greater confidence and clarity. We help them develop their coaching skills to help employees steer their career paths and all aspects of their professional lives as well as personal lives. Such programs also scale coaching for all groups/cohorts that include new managers, new hires, sales teams, and women leaders and help organizations transform their culture around diversity, equity, and belonging. This focus is critical for organizational leaders to build high-performing and engaged teams in the face of attrition and layoffs.

Twitter is a great example of how organizational leaders must not act when handling issues that will impact people. We need to remember our inner humanity when divulging news that can wreak havoc in an individual’s life. Only when we reprogram our beliefs and start looking at employees more humanely and not as our most valuable ‘assets’ can we call ourselves successful leaders.

As I navigate as an organizational leader, empathy emerges as that crucial skill that differentiates caring from a callous leader.  Here are a few principles and skills that we follow and help our clients develop to manage managing layoffs and major policy changes without losing employee and customer trust:

●       Partner for success

Leaders have to internalize the fact that as the organizational pallbearers they cannot merely announce bad news and leave the room. Building a culture of shared humanity demands a leader remains involved in the employee offboarding process as well.

Partnering with employee resource groups and people leaders and not just the managers have to become a leadership priority for smoother exit transitions. It is the leader’s prerogative to ensure that the laid-off employee doesn’t feel abandoned at any time. Job transitions need to be rooted in Psychological Safety for all employees, both who are staying and those that are being laid off.

●       Resonate respect in every conversation for every employee

Managing any major policy change or event such as layoffs requires leaders to be empathetic to those exiting and staying back. Employee morale gets deeply impacted during layoffs. As insecurity and mistrust fill the air, leaders must engage more deeply and respectfully with every employee – fired and retained.

It is the “survival mode” that helps us move on from unpleasant events that take place in our lives. It helps us ‘bounce back’. However, we can only bounce back when we feel safe. Those leaders who act disrespectfully with existing or exiting employees are walking on an unraveling tightrope.

A caring leader will extend support to all – those who are currently working under him and also those who have been asked to leave the organization. Respectful engagement becomes non-negotiable to lead – because, without trust, you will have no followers, and no employee engagement and as such, cannot be an effective leader.

●       Build connections (and bridges where needed)

Most employees need a lot of support to manage events such as organizational restructuring or mass layoffs. They need the right guidance and support from their leaders to navigate through this work transition. Unfortunately, I have seen many organizations hide behind lawyers or even external agencies who help them identify ways to make operations profitable to drive layoff policies and manage these layoffs.

Electric scooter company Bird Global Inc., for example, laid off 406 people in under two minutes. They announced their layoffs on a one-way Zoom call where a disembodied, robotic-sounding voice fired employees. The employees had no opportunity to even ask questions. Clearly, this layoff was really hard on them.

But what does this say about the company’s leaders? What did it do to their market perception? Did this event in any way impact the brand value positively? These are tough questions to ask and answer.

Even when layoffs are conducted in a not-so-terseous manner, we find many times when HR leaders become non-reachable and disconnected citing legal liability reasons. This disconnect is equally damaging to the brand image and demonstrates leadership failure.

Leadership is all about connection and service. It is about the people first. As such, coming up with professional, empathetic, and friendly employee policies is critical if leaders want to be called successful.

Without a human connection, leaders and organizations will be hurt.

●       Equitable and Inclusive Offboarding processes

Sending a terse email in the middle of the night and turning off email access at the same time has become a relic of the past. I personally feel this form of leading belongs to the dark ages, and even then, it was wrong.

A layoff is a life-changing and at times a life-altering event. As organizational leaders, we need to step up and treat everyone equitably and respectfully not just to meet the low bar of legal compliance, but to exceed the high bar of human connections and business execution.

Layoffs and major organizational restructuring often usher in chaos and anger. In my experience, those leaders who are candid, empathetic, and can help employees see a reason for downsizing decisions and the steps they are taking to ease the transition for those whose jobs were eliminated manage this better than those who don’t.

It is important for leaders to treat people with dignity and keep opportunities open when possible, communicate transparently and consistently, make the effort to be approachable and visible, address employee concerns versus ignoring them, and recognize the changing needs of employees that can often be invisible, undefined, and complicated.

The role of leaders in driving change – Staying Connected

As leaders, we play a crucial role in change management. We are the critical gear that acts as the bridge between the organization and the people. The everyday leadership training program that takes a piecemeal approach to leadership and treats people as ‘assets’ is no longer suited to build leaders of today who can lead successfully tomorrow.

These programs have to prepare leaders, at all levels, to navigate the world of work as it changes the rules of engagement and gets redefined. The Numly Connected Leadership Framework offers comprehensive, relevant, and winning leadership programs that empower leaders to navigate severe inflation, economic downturn, and disruption without sacrificing people-centricity and human connection.

In my long career as an Executive in several large companies, I have witnessed how organizations and organizational leadership respond in crisis and impact employee and organizational futures. Bearing this in mind, our sole objective at Numly was not just to build a platform to upskill people but help our clients scale their programs to create better teams and better leaders.

Building the right connections ensures that organizations and leaders no longer look at important engagement influencers such as Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Belonging, as a compliance or board initiative. Most importantly, it ensures that ‘doing good’, being humane and profitability do not become opposing goals.


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