Ask Sheri

Motivating Employees Following A Layoff

Dec 13th, 2016

I currently head up a profitable division for a fairly large consumer products organization. Our company has been in business for nearly 100 years and has experienced solid growth, both organically and through acquisitions. Despite the good track record, the economy has forced us to layoff close to 40% of our U.S. workforce. Personally, I needed to decrease my staff by 25%. I followed all the proper forms, WARN act, communication methods and other direction recommended by our HR department. Following the layoff, I thought my remaining team members would buckle down and get back to business. It's been close to 45 days and I can honestly say our productivity and overall work quality have gone right down the tubes. No one seems to care about deadlines, priorities or even completing daily activities. Selfishly, I would've thought my employees would be trying to prove their worth, in hopes that they wouldn't be part of the next batch, if there was one to go. What can I do to help turn this situation around?

Sheri's Response

I can certainly empathize with your situation and you are unfortunately not alone with this dilemma. As I spend time in various organizations, in different industries, everyone is looking for the magic bullet in which to raise workforce morale. Employees are worried and continue to lose focus of day to day job expectations. Let's face it, every news channel, newspaper, publication, even coffee shop talk, voices our gloomy outlook: layoffs, wage freezes, hiring freezes, plant closings, bailouts, depleting investments, increased medical costs etc and the list goes on. This is the dialogue echoing in the minds of today's workforce, as they mechanically get up in the morning, drive to work, and arrive at their workstation. Even worse, if layoffs recently occurred in their workplace, as in your situation, it only exemplifies the anxiety. Will I be next? What isn't my company sharing with me? My significant other was recently laid off, I can't lose my job as well. You mention that your employees miss deadlines or fail to prioritize. Are these new deadlines or priorities? In times of fear, employees have a tendency to retain less information or fail to recall specifics or details of a situation. You may wish to highlight these goals on a more regular basis, during staff meetings, e-mails, or other methods, to ensure the employees recognize the importance. You also mentioned using communication methods during last month's layoff. Did you also communicate to your remaining workforce? If so, how often? I've known many companies to spend weeks on crafting communication messages/proper word choices to those being severed, yet fail to create messaging for the remaining employees. Did you detail the reasons for the layoff to the remaining employees? Did you explicitly share that the reduction was now "over" and they should feel confident about moving forward? It's extremely important to over-communicate during this time, to ensure employees know you value their individual contributions and overall work output. Other morale boosters can come in the forms of pizza parties, unplanned celebrations, spot-recognition i.e. gift cards, and even one-on-one time with you over coffee or lunch. As the leader, this is the time to be "visible" and not sitting behind the computer. In the end, there is only so much within your control. With the recent 'recession' designation, you personally have very little impact on the overall economy and our national financial woes. You do however, have more control over your work team, and can utilize this time to influence their mindsets in a positive direction. Be available for unplanned dialogue. Respond back to voicemails and e-mails on a more timely basis. Communicate overall company information to your team, even if it's negative. Use good leader tactics, such as management by walking around (MWA) or management by flying around (MFA). Finally, you may wish to focus your energies on what truly motivates each individual. Develop individual strategies and/or tailor communications which help foster personal motivation. This focused attention should also ensure your employees feel worthy and lessen their concern over individual job security.