Layoffs and How We Can Grow From Them

Written by Ross Hecox

It has been an interesting year on the employment front, especially for the private sector. Early this year we saw a record number of open positions going unfilled and many people coming out of the pandemic changing jobs in what was referred to as the Great Resignation. And here late in the year we are seeing many of those same organizations with unfilled positions now laying off size-able numbers of their workforce they just recently ramped up. And while this year may be ending on a down note, there’s also something very familiar and hopeful; we can learn and grow from this one too.

I’ve personally been inspired over the past few months. Inspired by the countless number of kind hearted, caring professionals who have not been laid off and are offering whatever support they can to the many who have lost jobs. I’ve seen posts ranging from the currently employed offering to help the out-of-work find jobs within their own organizations and professional networks, to others just making themselves available to talk if someone is down and needs an ear. We are an incredible “team” when we all come together in helping those up from unfortunate circumstances. It seems that many who have experienced layoffs at one time or another are especially empathetic, likely due to a personal connection with the myriad of emotions that come from being laid off. If you have been laid off for the first time recently, find one of these people to talk to!

I’ve also been a little frustrated. I’ve read some social posts, social op-eds I guess you could call them, pointing the finger at leaders of these companies laying off their staff as being negligent in forecasting / planning, and ultimately to blame for the carnage. I’ve also seen people advising not to add badges to a professional profile indicating that they are Open to Work, citing that it will make them look desperate. I’ve seen “influencers” advise for the establishment of side hustles, so that when things down turn, there’s already a soft landing in place. That last one, not necessarily opposed to, but who of those with a full-time job and family really has the time for a side hustle? Perhaps the argument in return would be, “who doesn’t”? If you have the time or circumstances for a secondary income, please go for it, but also be mindful of any adverse impact this may have on your day job. I want to advocate this – Lets not blame, and let’s also be conscientious of the advice we are socializing. Corporations are not inherently evil, badges help recruiters find people, and one person’s inability to carve out a side hustle doesn’t make them more vulnerable, lazy, or deserving of misfortune.

Depending on your view of the situation, two things can be true. You could be part of the group of people recently (or at some point in your career) laid off, often told you are critical, that you are “family” and “you’ll always have a job here”. The betrayal felt through a layoff experience could understandably have you blaming the employer, bitter, and resentful. Perhaps your perspective turns toward the employer for reckless spending, bad investments, similar that you felt the company made, and had they not, perhaps you’d still be employed.

Most often, mass layoffs are the result of a market condition decision, and when in a down economy where corporate spending is adjusted to be more conservative, revenue targets and financial forecasts must be revised. And this is almost always a reactive measure. Could we see this downturn coming, yes, but as a business competing, it’s simply not feasible to put on the brakes and let your competitor gain any advantage. There’s too much pressure each day to execute against corporate goals and winning is the objective. This could be a tough pill for many to swallow. As the old tired saying goes, it’s not personal, it’s business.

However, I’ll add that these companies should also think more about how to take care of impacted departing team members and appreciate the “personal” side of the business equation. Is it any given employers job to educate employees on how to save, invest, or similar for the unfortunate times? No, but it makes you a better employer if you do! This isn’t the only thing employers could consider. The point is, do what makes you better. More to come on this.

What Can We Learn From Layoffs

All of this got me thinking a bit more deeply about what else we can learn. The question that jump started my thinking was this… is anyone entitled to a job? The answer for me is an absolute, no. However, with some of the posts I’ve seen, it sure does feel like many people believe they are. Should employers take the best possible care of employees that they can for as long as they can. Oh yes, 1,000% yes! But why is it still a surprise to many that companies have lay-offs? Everyone has a dream. The founders have a dream for delivering solutions that get adopted and create prosperity. The investors have a dream for investing in the next great unicorn. The team members who choose to work for the employer have a dream for being a part of the next big success story, having an impact, learning, and maybe in elevating their quality of life through higher compensation and better benefits. In the end, recognizing that I am simply one part of a larger machine allows me to appreciate just how expendable I am. Do lay offs hurt and scar, absolutely. My heart goes out to everyone ever impacted by one. But speaking from experience, I honestly believe that I am much better off because of being laid off in my past (from AOL with a bunch of other amazing people in case you are wondering!).

For me, I have seen and speak from my own unique vantage point, and fortunately, it’s mostly been with both employer and employee in focus. So, I’ve seen both sides, and as mentioned, I’ve also been laid off as well as having been the one doing the laying off. (Fortunately, I haven’t ever had to lay myself off, but it is a reality I also must consider!) This doesn’t make me an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but it does provide a unique appreciation for what can be learned.

As someone who has been around HR and staffing for a couple of decades, I’ve seen all sides. With the exception of a few bad eggs, most everyone on both sides of the equation have had altruistic intentions at the start. After all, does anyone really get married with the intention of getting divorced? No. Does every marriage end for the same reason? No, again. Most employers I know are faithful (aka loyal). And many also use the term “family” to describe their sentiment toward employees. If you are someone that believes there are no boundaries within family dynamics, this may very likely put you in the camp of harboring negative feelings toward employers for lay offs and criticizing for a lack of faithfulness or loyalty.

If you are going to think of employment in relationship terms, I’d say that employment is more like dating than it is marriage. Both sides are looking for a connection, and the first date (the interview) often goes so well you both think you’ve found the one. You get the idea here. My point is that no matter how good the spark was in the beginning, it will take a lot of work on both sides to keep the flame burning. And many times, you’ll have a lot of other options to consider. Read on…

As a job seeker, understand what you are pursuing. Don’t just listen to the hype. Fact check how much money a company has received through VC / Private Equity, sales data, contracts, etc and their overall financial picture. Does that prevent a layoff, no. But it could mean the difference between a two week severance and a two month severance. Know what the risks are. Know that no organization is layoff proof, and know that “family” in corporate terms only represents loosely into what you know of your own family. Corporations have goals, and yes, you are part of the formula developed toward achieving them. If the formula fails, it gets replaced. Also know, employers must choose one applicant over another, often the selected applicant is described as the better fit. In many cases it’s based on the evaluation of that person being more suitable to the pace and demands of the position. Or in larger scale terms, they are identified as a better culture fit. Remember, employers have compliance to concern themselves with, and navigating the identification of the best person for the job and culture, while also adhering to important and valuable laws can be tricky. It’s a massive gray area. The easy answer for changing the pace and / or demands of work tends to be, “hire more people” or “pay me more”. Both of these options, rather all options, come with some level of consequence. After all, profit (or increased valuation) is the goal. The private sector is pretty aggressive in this pursuit of increased valuations and profitability. If you’re wondering how private differs from public sector in many ways, see my post on this here.

As an employer, don’t hide the truth if your business is volatile, early stage, or uncertain. Be sincere about the rewards, but also very upfront about the risks. Be responsible in how you set yourself up to handle layoff’s humanely, extending a runway (severance) to help those who took the risk with you to transition more comfortably. Host seminars for employees to help them learn how to best manage their compensation, with developing some savings as the goal. Make financial literacy part of your culture, so that employees also understand what you are navigating in this realm. No one is entitled to a particular quality of life, and your business isn’t entitled to revenue, so helping team members see the big picture wouldn’t be a bad idea. And if you are really invested in taking care of team members and standing apart from your competitors, think about what you can do uniquely. Perhaps re-evaluate your compensation and benefits offerings. Can you shave a little money off of salary and benefits in order to create your own savings bucket to leverage for a corporate severance policy to tap into if you run into problems? No employer wants to lead a conversation with, “hey, if we suck (or the economy takes a bad turn), we’ll pay you for 2 months when we lay you off”, but it sure would make a good story to tell to prospective team members as part of your pitch about how your organization values its employees, cares about their future, understands the risks of them joining your team, and showcases what you do to back up those types of statements. 

There are certainly more areas for learning and growing on this subject. I can’t address every unique situation here. So, whether you were impacted by losing your job or you were responsible for delivering the bad news, consider what you can do differently. If you weren’t impacted in either way, also consider what you can do differently. No one wants to believe being laid off will happen to them, and preparation helps avoid future analysis paralysis or botching it completely.

I’m hopeful that in seeing this you take something away that is helpful, makes you or your organization better in the future, or exposes a vantage point you haven’t considered. For those in a position to reach back and help others back up, whether through encouraging words or direct actions, keep doing that! For those who find themselves looking for a new employer, I wish you all the best! Please be in touch if I can be of any value for whatever side of the coin you may be on. I’m happy to help.