Hello, Goodbye: Endings as Positive Opportunities

December 14, 2015

By: Chris Murchison

Original post: Bob Quinn’s Blog

Guest Blog by:  Chris Murchison, VP of Staff Development & Culture at HopeLab

I’m excited to share a first for this blog — a guest blogger.  Chris thinks very deeply about positive organizing, so I asked him to share a few of his insights about how to approach layoffs, a negative experience, from a positive space.  I hope you enjoy what he has to say.

Investing in new employee orientation is a no-brainer for most organizations. A thoughtful beginning sets staff up for success. Positive orientation experiences help create a workplace where employees feel that they belong, where they can show up as a whole person and have a sense of focus and purpose in their work.

While most organizations invest time and resources in beginnings, not all companies make a similar investment in the human side of endings–and the results of that are easy to see. The traditional layoff process is largely a legal and transactional affair, full of practices that are well intentioned but often leave employees feeling startled, hurt and betrayed.

Is it possible to have a positive layoff?

Like many organizations, we’ve invested in beginnings at HopeLab, helping employees get off to a good start, and we’ve also managed a number of layoffs and terminations. We’ve examined customary approaches to layoffs and tried a number of untraditional practices with the intention of creating a more human experience. Here are some insights and recommendations on how to facilitate goodbyes as positive experiences, even in challenging circumstances.

Transparency. Being laid off is often unexpected. Speak as honestly as you can about the reasons for the decision and acknowledge the impact on the employee.

Allow space. Notification meetings can often be short. Instead allow time and space for connection and conversation. Invite employees to express how they’re feeling, to emote and ask questions.

Presence. Despite what you imagine, you can never fully anticipate how an employee will respond to this news. Slow down, focus your attention on the employee, and be open and responsive to whatever shows up in the moment. 

Honor your own emotions. Sometimes leaders have to lay off employees that are dear to them. This can bring up fear, anxiety or sadness. These feelings are human. Rather than tamp them down, express them. It shows that you too are human and builds trust and respect. 

Offer Time. Allow time for employees to close out their work with integrity and in support of their legacy – consider allowing days or weeks even, not just a few hours. This is an invitation rather than an expectation. If an employee prefers to leave immediately, that should be a fine option with no judgment associated. 

Stay connected. It’s easy for laid off employees to feel disconnected, pushed out or a failure. A layoff does not have to be the end of a relationship. Reach out, check in and see if there’s anything you or your team can do to be supportive. Create time for follow-up conversations. These actions send a strong message that people matter, whether they’re currently employed with you, or not. 

Positive does not necessarily mean happy. A positive organization can be joyful and happy, but when we show up fully, warts and all, positive also means allowing the full range of our emotions to be present. No matter how hard you try to create a positive experience, an employee may still feel angry or negative after a layoff. This doesn’t mean, though, that you haven’t planted important seeds that might sprout later.

Be sensitive to the staff “left behind.” Don’t neglect the employees who remain. Layoffs can put them on high alert, wondering if they’re next in line. This energy can undermine morale and productivity. The same transparency, space, presence, and time afforded to laid-off employees should also be carved out for remaining employees.

Layoffs as an opportunity

Layoffs are a critical inflection point for everyone involved, a moment that’s remembered for a lifetime. Transitions out of an organization are an amazing opportunity to reinforce your values and culture, to support connection and humanness, and to foster a healthy sense of control in the face of adversity. A thoughtful and respectful ending can be a profound experience with lasting positive impact.

This blog is based on a talk given at the 2015 Positive Business Conference, hosted by the Ross School of Business School at the University of Michigan. This talk was also featured in an article in The Atlantic and on KCBS Radio in San Francisco.