Times are Tough. Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

I was recently engaged in a conversation with my cousin who was lamenting about the impending cutbacks that her company would need to undertake in order to survive the impact the economy has had on their business. She was distressed, of course, about having to sit down with long term employees and inform them that they no longer had a job; but she was even more furious about how one of her colleagues was planning to handle the upcoming announcement of broad company layoffs. My cousin is a strong leader who has helped her company capably navigate through some difficult financial times in recent years and emerge solvent. She has achieved many of her greatest business triumphs by deeply engaging the heads and hearts of her employees. Among these very same employees, were some who would now be asked to leave.

The senior leaders at my cousin’s company met to discuss how the layoffs would be announced, and agreed that all divisions would share the news with employees on the same day. They also planned to implement recommendations from a team that had examined all of the issues associated with the headcount reduction. My cousin left the meeting sure that her voice had been heard and confident that her colleagues would work side-by-side to assure that employees were handled as kindly as possible, with the dignity, respect and care she thought they deserved.

To her great dismay, the company’s carefully laid plans to humanely deal with departing employees were almost undone. One of her colleagues realized that scheduling conflicts would make it difficult for him to make the layoff announcement to all employees in his division on the designated day, so this leader decided to begin announcements four days earlier than planned and stagger notifications to employees whose jobs were being eliminated. My cousin got wind of his decision and believed his actions would send the entire workforce into an uproar, create unnecessary angst in the minds of all employees (even those whose jobs were secure) and result in general panic, fear and loss of productivity. She found herself in the unenviable position of having to intercede with a colleague’s decision, because she believed it was necessary for the good of the company and its employees. It wasn’t an easy day.

My cousin called that evening to tell me what had transpired. She did all of the right things and called her colleague to set up a meeting to discuss the situation. During the meeting, while attempting to persuade him to reverse his decision he told her, “I guess I just don’t know what the big deal is. I can’t be here on the day we planned to announce layoffs, so I want to do it earlier in my shop.” “Excuse me,” I said to my cousin. “Did I hear that correctly? Are you telling me that this leader’s scheduling issue supersedes in importance the havoc he’s about to unleash on the entire company? Is this someone in a senior leadership position that has to layoff good employees, but is not staying awake at night with a knot in his stomach or feeling lousy about what has to be done? Does he not realize that through no fault of their own, these employees will now be among the millions of Americans without a job, but with bills to pay, mouths to feed and children to educate?”

I was preaching to the choir. My cousin understands that every employee remaining on the payroll is carefully watching how those who are leaving are being treated. She realizes that one careless act can undo all of the work the organization has undertaken to build employee loyalty and engagement. She also knows that the selfish act of one leader can tarnish the credibility of the organization’s entire leadership team.

It’s time for authentic, passionate leaders to stand up and be counted. These are tough times for even the best among us and there is no room for cowardice, selfishness or insensitivity. Leaders need to be as present and involved when employees are leaving the organization as they are when working to seduce them to join the company. Terminating an employee is not an act to take lightly, nor is it a job to delegate to human resources or someone other than the employee’s manager. To the “leaders” who do not take this seriously, I suggest stepping out of your comfortable office and into the shoes of the employees who have to go home and tell their families that the paychecks have ended and life as they knew it has changed. Look deeply into their eyes and connect with their pain. It will make you a better leader – and hopefully you’ll realize that how you handle the tough decisions now will define your leadership story in the future.

By Alaina Love

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