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Preparing for Difficult Decisions

Seven tips to help lab managers navigate a layoff

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Laying off staff members is the hardest thing that lab managers face. Layoffs are driven by the economic issues facing the business or organization. These economic problems might be caused by a macrotrend like a recession or local forces related to the health of the business. In most cases, the economic driving forces are beyond the control of the lab manager. Usually, the decision to lay off staff flows down to the lab manager from line management. As the economy trends toward a recession, it is time for lab managers to prepare for these difficult actions.

Terminating poor performers can be a very difficult process because of the impact on the individual and their family. However, there is a detailed process to follow that includes many opportunities for the individual to correct the performance issue. In many cases, both sides understand what the outcome of the process will be, and there are limited surprises.

In a layoff situation, the impacted individuals are not part of an improvement process, have little indication of the upcoming termination, and can be hugely surprised by the outcome. It is doubly difficult for lab managers to make decisions about a layoff because it will impact people who are doing their job, completing their role, and performing up to expectations.

Here are seven tips to help lab managers navigate the difficult process of completing a layoff at the lab:

Understand the criteria

Completely understand the criteria of line management for the layoff. Sometimes the measure is headcount, but other times it is people cost. In a headcount situation, the lab manager is instructed to lay off a certain number of staff. In a cost situation, the lab manager is instructed to lower the people cost of the lab by a certain amount. The lab manager then has choices about fewer, higher salary individuals or more, lower salary individuals. It is vital that lab managers understand the parameters of the decisions they need to make before seeking solutions to the problem.

Trust someone

Leadership is often lonely. Nothing makes a lab manager feel lonelier than processing layoff decisions. Don’t try to navigate these difficult decisions alone. Bring some trusted leaders in the lab into the decision-making process. Share the responsibility for these big decisions and get input from others. Be explicit that the discussions around pending layoffs must be kept confidential. There can be absolutely no leaks outside of the select team considering the decisions.

Choose carefully

Know that these choices will bring pain to the organization. There is no pain-free path in deciding who to lay off. One strategy that can work in these situations is to rank staff by performance and make the selections among the lower performing staff in the lab. This would then include anyone who is currently working on a performance improvement plan. The key benefit of this strategy is to preserve the higher performing individuals on the team. It also enables some data to be injected into the decision-making process.

Another benefit of a performance ranking strategy is to make the process less subjective. Considering laying off friends and people liked by management is painful, but the closeness of the relationship with the lab manager is not an effective strategy during a time of layoffs.

Be decisive

Decisions to lay off staff can be agonizing. The decisions don’t feel better by overly reviewing the choices. Pick a decision-making process, have confidence in it, and navigate the steps. Once the lab manager and their trusted leaders agree on a set of layoff candidates, consider the decision closed.

Keep the secret

Some layoff processes can take months to unfold. In large organizations, it may take many weeks for reviews of the process to be completed and approved. This long-time duration creates headaches for lab managers. It might be several weeks between submitting the set of layoff candidates and the actual day of separation. During that time, it is important for the lab manager, and their trusted leaders, to behave as normal. That may include meeting with people who will be impacted to discuss projects, performance, or development. Individuals in the lab are very observant, and differences in the behavior of leaders can be a tell that something is going on. Lab managers must continue on with the routine until the layoffs can be communicated. 

One of the most difficult aspects of negotiating a layoff is feeling inauthentic. Being forced to keep these secrets and not being able to follow a more honest and open communication strategy is another burden of leadership during these difficult events.

One of the most difficult aspects of negotiating a layoff is feeling inauthentic.

Self-care

Making layoff decisions, keeping the secrets, and communicating the results can take a significant toll on lab managers. It is important to pay more attention to self-care during these highly stressful times. Ensure the basics are met with more sleep, eating right, and appropriate exercise. During these times, it is more important to find the support of friends and perhaps some professional help. One of the benefits of getting professional help is the ability to speak freely. The secrets can’t be revealed to friends but can be discussed in detail with a therapist. This is a time where it’s OK to not be OK. Most leaders struggle to maintain balance during times of high stress like an impending layoff.

Communicate effectively

During the separation meetings with the impacted individuals, the best approach is short and direct. Give them the bad news. Thank them for their contribution. Provide the information and help offered by the organization. Take the time to answer their questions. However, there just aren’t good answers to the “why me?” question. A simplified response about the decision-making process may be all there is to offer.

Know that these separation meetings can be emotional. Demonstrate grace and compassion for the emotions shown by the individuals. These emotions can vary over a huge range, including sadness, anger, frustration, and rage. The rare case of someone being glad it was them is a unique gift for the lab manager.

Demonstrate grace and compassion for the emotions shown by the individuals.

Once the separation meetings are complete, communicate the outcomes to the rest of the staff in person or via virtual meeting. This is not a message that can be adequately communicated by email or text. It is important to clearly communicate the purpose of the layoff, why it was done, and the benefits expected by the organization. Let the staff know who was impacted but include no personal details about why they were selected. Ensure that the message includes optimism about the future for the lab, and how it will proceed to meeting its mission. One of the difficulties for the lab manager is communicating optimism when they may strongly disagree with the need for layoffs. The staff need to hear the optimistic message. Do it for them.

Hopefully, you’ll never experience the pain of a layoff at your lab. It would be great if more companies and organizations followed the advice of Simon Sinek when he said, “Great leaders are willing to sacrifice the numbers to save the people. Poor leaders sacrifice the people to save the numbers.”