How to Lead After Layoffs - 13 No-Cost Leadership Strategies

How to Lead After Layoffs - 13 No-Cost Leadership Strategies

In a Financial Post article from just before the holidays, Tim McMillan, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says Canada’s oil and gas sector saw 100,000 direct and indirect job losses by the end of 2015. More than 60 per cent of these are in Alberta. Even more layoffs are predicted this year. An industry snapshot by Petroleum Labour Market Information (PetroLMI), a division of Enform, shows that 50 per cent of companies surveyed expect further layoffs and/or project cuts if current conditions persist.

That’s awful for those losing their jobs, and it’s also not so easy for those remaining. A post-recession 2009 Harvard Business Review article called “After Layoffs, Help Survivors Be More Effective” cites a study that shows that the anticipation of downsizing can have an even stronger effect than layoffs themselves on employees’ negative perceptions of their workplace. The PetroLMI industry snapshot also highlighted the top five strategies used to maintain current workforce levels and, therefore, to try to avoid further layoffs:

  • Reducing wages
  • Reducing staff bonuses
  • Reducing working hours
  • Reducing training opportunities
  • Reducing staff benefits

What impact does this have on the lucky ones who survive the layoffs? If you’re reading this, you probably have a pretty good idea. As does the chief executive officer of the Human Resources Institute of Alberta, Chris McNelly, who says in the Winter 2015 issue of HUMANCapital magazine, “Work demands increase as employees take on higher workloads, increasing pressure and stress. Cost-cutting measures often impact the budget for training and development, compensation and benefits. Consequently, employees are expected to do more and get less, adversely impacting the employees’ level of engagement.”

Do more and get less. That doesn’t sound good. Other research shows just how not good it is. A December report by Hays Specialist Recruitment Canada highlights the effect on those workers still on the job: “Many oil and gas employers report that staff cuts have put remaining personnel under considerable pressure resulting in burnout and low morale."

Employee loyalty, motivation and trust suffer if managers don’t pay careful attention to their interactions with staff. Coming out the other side of this downturn, it’s important for companies to keep hold of their best performers, future leaders and high-potentials.

While researching for her book, Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business Is Down, Sylvia Ann Hewlett quantifies the impact of layoffs on survivor’s morale: 73 per cent felt demoralized, 64 per cent felt demotivated, and 74 per cent said they shut down and turned off. “In other words,” she adds, “just when a company needs its top performers to charge the hill, they retreat to the bunkers.” That may be exactly what’s happening in so many energy companies right now.

Although many companies are focused simply on survival, others are shrewdly looking ahead and doing their best to position themselves and their people for the other side when conditions start to improve, even if it’s a slow crawl out. The previous post-downturn strategies of trying to hire people back won’t work any more. There’s a growing global labour and skills shortage, which seems irrelevant during a downturn when 100,000 additional people are looking for jobs. But it hasn’t vanished. In fact, there is also a growing leadership crisis in the world, in part because more and more Boomer managers are retiring (especially as part of current workforce reductions).

Employee loyalty, motivation and trust suffer if managers don’t pay careful attention to their interactions with staff. Coming out the other side of this downturn, it’s important for companies to keep hold of their best performers, future leaders and high-potentials. Looking after your people involves some investment in their future, which will feel counter-intuitive right now as you try to save every penny. However, most of the strategies we offer don’t cost additional money. Many simply involve managers using their best leadership skills to hold good conversations with individuals and groups. Here are a few options to consider.

No-cost Leadership Strategies to Look after Survivors


Notice the signs that your survivors may be struggling. You may not be aware how much as they keep their heads down to avoid the radar.

Show empathy

Do not assume that people should feel lucky to have a job and should be working harder than ever to keep it. Some might even have survivor’s guilt. Being empathetic will show that you acknowledge their emotional roller coaster, their fear of the unknown and their attempt to do more while getting less. You don’t have to fix everything. You can’t. Empathy is full of listening and acknowledging.

Use people skills

Don’t drop people management skills in favour of command and control cost cutting requests, as described in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article by Gill Corkindale called “Why Good People Skills Matter in a Recession.”


Be transparent and clear

Be as transparent as you can regarding the company’s financial situation. Employees and managers would rather know than be kept in the dark.

Give employees an idea of what their immediate future holds and set clear and meaningful goals and projects.

Let your staff know if and how their jobs will change and what new expectations are. If you need them to do more for less, at least explain that clearly.

Decide and be very clear about further layoffs. State a moratorium of no more layoffs for a period of time if you can. Don’t try to hide bad news unless it’s unavoidable. People want it sooner rather than later (without a period of anxious uncertainty).

Be realistic and transparent with the current conditions, but be positive and hopeful for the future.

Be visible

Be visible. Walk around, hold meetings and speak in small groups. Tell them what you know and what you don’t know.

Hold regular town hall meetings with larger groups with lots of time for questions.

Have a true open-door policy and be patient with more interruptions if people stop by to chat or ask a question.

Ask and listen

Ask people how they are doing and listen with empathy and care.

Give people opportunities to ask questions and discuss anything they want, and then really listen.
Have more one-on-one conversations.

Be inclusive

Involve people in decisions that affect them whenever possible.

Spend extra time to share information broadly to keep people in the loop.

Praise and recognise

Let your people know how much you value them and need them.

Never miss an opportunity to give individuals praise and recognition for great work. In a 2015 Harvard Business Review article called “The Easiest Thing You Can Do to Be a Great Boss,” David Sturt describes research that shows this simple action directly affects morale and engagement. No surprise there, but managers still don’t do it enough.

Be a coach and mentor

Coaching is about asking questions and listening deeply. It’s playing to people’s strengths and offering encouragement. It’s also about candid, respectful feedback to support their development.

Mentoring is advising from experience. Share survival stories and suggest ways to cope with uncertainty and tough times.


Help your staff feel less the overwhelmed by helping them regularly prioritize, focus and simplify their work.

Help them decide when they can say no or no, not now.

Do not assume that people should feel lucky to have a job and should be working harder than ever to keep it. Some might even have survivor’s guilt. 

 Value people’s time

Review the effectiveness of your meetings to increase productivity and reduce stress:

    • Are all the meetings really necessary? For example, status update meetings with large numbers of people can be inefficient and mind numbing.
    • Does everyone really need to be at the meeting or only part of it?
    • How disciplined are you with the agenda and pre-meeting preparation so the meeting itself is disciplined?
    • How well is your meeting run? 
    • How clear is your decision-making process to everyone? Is it a consensus? Or democratic? Or consultative (one person makes the decision but asks for everyone’s views first)?
    • How robust is accountability and progress? Do you begin with actions completed from the last meeting? Do you record conclusions and decisions accurately? Do you capture and share who will do specifically what by exactly when?

Consider implementing a few email rules that could work for your company; Google and GE have. For example, stop emails on weekends and vacations.

Focus on retention

Pay special attention to your high performers. “After Layoffs, Help Survivors Be More Effective” notes that your top employees with the most training, education and ability are the most likely to quit if dissatisfied. Don’t be too complacent on this in a downturn. Don’t assume they can’t jump ship. The article suggests providing extra support and encouragement and showing how the downsizing has opened new opportunities for their career advancement.

Give your top talent promotions (for example, to fill vacancies), lateral moves or stretch assignments to support their career growth and make sure you retain them.

Be informed

Talk to people in other companies and find out what they are doing to survive and thrive and look after their employees.

 Strategies to Look After Survivors that Need some Investment

Salvage training budgets

The importance of ensuring that training and development programs remain in place and aren’t cut drastically is highlighted in “Why Good People Skills Matter in a Recession.” This is strategic investment in your future. Training expenses always have a big target on their back in a downturn, but that doesn’t mean they’re not critical for your future.

One type of training for managers that can really help is learning how to give both recognition and developmental feedback, how to hold meaningful conversations, and how to ask great questions and listen deeply. These critical skills are highlighted in another 2015 Harvard Business Review article called “What Amazing Bosses Do Differently.”

Consider coaching support

Consider offering a few coaching hours to your key leaders, top performers and high potentials to help them manage themselves and their staff through the downturn.

The well-being of your survivors during this downturn is critically important for your future success. This means looking after them now as they struggle to do more with less. Shift your management approach to ensure you keep your people engaged and committed to your organization. Find money for training if you can. You will reap the seeds you sow.

This article was first published in Oilweek's online magazine January 14, 2016.

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