The Tao of Conveying a Reduction in Force

May 1, 1996
Michael Simon, chairman of Career Relocation Corp. in New York City, says:
A reduction in force (RIF) can be a traumatic event in a company’s history. How the news is communicated to exiting employees as well as to those who remain can be a critical factor in effectively managing the event.

Once the decision is made, it’s usually the line manager who must conduct the difficult task. As important as it is, it’s also one of the least thought-out activities. This is unfortunate because lack of planning often translates into highly charged and poorly conducted termination meetings.

All impacted employees should be notified individually on the same day. Our experience says a multi-step approach works best. Managers should inform employees about the termination, the reason for it and the date it takes effect. Then you should transition employees to HR to review the separation package, exit statements and other company-provided services.

Moreover, the news should be presented as a fait accompli. While the exiting employee should be treated with dignity, the termination meeting isn’t the time for debate or second thoughts.

Before the meeting, managers should plan the process by coordinating with HR: schedule uninterrupted time to meet with the employee, determine the status of uncompleted projects, anticipate employee concerns and, if appropriate, compile a personalized employee benefits checklist.

Managers also need to prepare a script for the termination meeting and do so in light of what they know about the employee’s history and anticipated reactions. The script should include an opening, which sets the stage for the bad news. After delivering the message, managers should then express concern and outline whatever corporate assistance is available. Clearly, the termination interview isn’t an easy task. But when managers are properly prepared, the negative impact can be minimized.

Michael Theimer, sales manager of Ramos & Associates in Richardson, Texas, says:
Some companies might consider contracting with a placement firm. It can provide valuable coaching and preparation for those who have to give the bad news. Here are some do’s and don’ts:

  • Don’t apologize or seem apologetic. This signals you’re feeling guilty about something you did wrong. This is a business decision.
  • Don’t announce the news on a Friday afternoon. Do it no later than Wednesday so displaced workers can start working with an outplacement counselor right away. The sooner they can start moving forward or looking for the next job, the better.
  • Have a plan and offer to provide employees with a place to prepare resumes and identify placement agencies.
  • Communicate to those who remain that you’re providing all of the above services and severance packages to those who are being terminated. If you don’t take care of those leaving, those remaining will be looking for a new job tomorrow.

Hubert Cormier, human resources consultant, Department of Natural Resources & Energy in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, says:
I would advise HR professionals to be human and to be careful on your legal requirements. These are some of the questions you should ask yourself: Do I have an exact rationale to explain to people; have I verified the employees’ collective agreements for any legal obligations; is my script ready; do I have substantial options for retraining and financial counseling?

The most important thing, however, is to treat the employees with respect. Remember they will go through the same phases as someone who is grieving. Five of these stages include shock, anger, depression, flight and acceptance. You should be prepared to deal with these emotions.

Personnel Journal, May 1996, Vol. 75, No. 5, p. 134.