It’s about survival.  That was my impression after reading an article from an HR blog.  Using the information in the article to plan a layoff survival strategy was not the author’s intent.  It was written as a “how to decide” from a Human Resources perspective and that’s what caught my eye.  To say I don’t like layoffs is the understatement of the year but they still happen and someone, usually management in conjunction with HR, has to decide whom to let go.   I personally feel that this kind of stuff, the thought process being discussed, is gold. Everyone needs to know it, but nobody talks about it openly.  The advice was very transparent about how layoff decision making was not about what the employee can do, or at least it wasn’t about skill sets alone.  It outlined how layoff decision making was as much, or more, about how the employee presented themselves as anything else.  Of course as I read through it I had a ton of thoughts from the other perspective, the angle of how to use this information to survive because in a layoff situation, it’s all about survival.      

The first of two groups of employees that the article says to get rid of are “Toxic Employees.”  They are described as employees who tell you how good they are and share their opinion that everyone else sucks.   They also have low regard for past management with a “Glad those idiots are gone!” attitude. 

Sadly, these folks, the toxic employees, are usually right on both counts.   In my experience the toxic employee strives to be the best which is why they generally are very good at what they do.  They just don’t know how to, or don’t want to, filter their words, and that’s what pisses off their colleagues.  It’s also why they are usually kept around by existing management who often values productivity over a harmonious workplace.   Let’s not forget that there is a benefit to tooting your own horn to managers.  If Michele the admin worked twenty hours overtime on a bid and physically ran after a UPS truck to make sure it got picked up on time, nobody will ever know she’s overworked and still went the extra mile, literally, if she doesn’t tell anyone.  If Wayne, the toxic employee, works four hours overtime, comes up with a clever solution to a problem, and tells everyone he sees that he worked a few hours overtime to build a solution and how great it is, management will think better of the toxic employee than the one who jumped through insane hoops to get the job done.  

Also, the toxic employees can be right.  Sometimes the people at the top are just idiots as is evidenced, in small part, by the fact that they are allowing toxic people and the resulting tainted culture to thrive.  Often these ignorant senior leaders simply got to their positions by being in the right place at the right time so they are ripe for criticism.  I’ve seen that happen often.  The good news is that they typically don’t survive all that long in the position they ascended to.  Interestingly this restarts the cycle of the toxic employee bad mouthing the former managers.  

I’m not overly critical of targeting this group when deciding whom to let go when there is a layoff.  There is some logic to this priority that is best expressed by Scott Adams, the famous cartoonist and author of the Dilbert Principle. He argues that the best thing you can do in any workplace is to get rid of the assholes, i.e. the toxic people, as they destroy productivity and make everyone’s life a living hell.   It’s the second group that’s considered ripe targets when there is a layoff that I’m not so sure about.  

The article picks those that are “dug in” and firmly believe change is unnecessary as ideal candidates for a layoff.  The author admits the typical “dug in” is a long-term employee who likely contributed much to the business in the past. The article specifically calls out realistic comments like “that’s never going to work” or “we’ve tried that before and the results were disastrous” as potential signs that the employee will try to undermine the change and try to derail it.

Remember the “dug in” employee has been around forever.  They’ve seen corporate machinations.  They are highly seasoned and know what works and what doesn’t.  Wouldn’t you try and derail something that’s going to be a disaster and make the company worse?  Isn’t that part of what your getting paid for? Workplace disasters happen often enough where I’ve shared a few ideas on the topic.  

Although not always the case, often change IS unnecessary.  Typically change is happening because some organization wants to increase profits, or realign the organization with a bigger corporate initiative it maybe isn’t the best fit for.  We don’t live in a world where employee / management consensus is the driving factor behind decision making.   It’s really all about profits and the managers are the ones who are trying to drive profits.  Their concerns don’t really align with the concerns of the customers.  I should say that the customers come second after shareholders.  Senior managers will almost always choose to make the customer experience, or the employee experience, a bit worse if it drives greater profits with limited or no risk to the overall business.  This is usually directly at odds with the rank and file in any organization whose job is to take care of customers or facilitate operations.  Rank and file that is typically “dug in” knows what works and what doesn’t for customers and can often lose sight of the fact that what they believe they are doing by “serving customers”, both internal and external, isn’t their true purpose.  It’s a means to the end of profits.

Unfortunately the article isn’t making the argument to accept if the “dug in” employee’s opinion is right or not.  That’s inconsequential.  The article is saying that even if the plan is to run the company into the ground, choose people who’ll run it in faster and harder with a smile on their face and dump the ones who can fix things or keep it together if they don’t have a happy attitude.   In the article, they are citing comments like “it’s about time” or “I am pretty excited to get started” as what they should be looking for in employees to keep when there is a layoff.  

I have to admit when I read that I felt it was very unrealistic.  The first thought that came to my mind is that in the midst of a layoff, who’s going to be “pretty excited” about anything, no matter if the company is being transparent or not?  You never see warm and fuzzy feelings during periods of workplace turmoil.  

So what’s the takeaway from all this?  The first takeaway to me is to keep your mouth shut.  Smile and go out of your way to say positive things about whatever the company line is.  Or at least as positive as you can manage without sounding like an idiot.  As crazy as it sounds, saying something like “Oh, your laying off 25% of the workforce and putting that load on the rest of us?  Well, at least we will be better positioned to drive profits even if it’s a bit more work” is exactly what they want to hear at least when it comes to helping them decide who to let go.  I personally hate that approach because it’s tacitly fake and there may be fallout in that your colleagues, the people you work with every day, won’t trust you because they also probably know how bad things really are going to be.   If you can’t be fake, a challenge of my own personality, then at least be ambivalent. Then the response could be something like “Oh, well that sounds really tough.  I’ll trust that they know what they are doing and you can count on me to give it my all and try to make it work.”  That will most likely be the most positive thing any HR professional will hear anyway.  Meanwhile, even if you really feel your job is safe, and you have the best attitude, you should still go home, like everyone else in that situation, and start to send out resumes.  Why?  Well the next point is why.  To quote the article:

“Another often missed, but critical component of this is the adverse impact analysis to eliminate discrimination exposure. This means looking at whom you cut loose based on race, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, and the many other protected categories.”

The translation of this is: If you have five white guys in a department, all of whom are great at their job, and one minority with a bad attitude who also stinks at the job, and there is one layoff in the department, the minority is most likely safe. This is because of the risk of getting sued and resulting cost to the company, i.e. “discrimination exposure.”   

So the net net of the whole thing for anyone who’s stuck trying to survive in a reduction in force environment is to be as positive as you can to the point of being completely fake.  It’s not guaranteed to work but it is a very good tool to use when you can pull it off.  

There is a side question that came to my mind while writing this article.  We are humans and we have emotions.  We spend a great deal of time at work and it’s really difficult to be falsely positive 100% of the time.  So who can you blow off steam with?  Who can you actually be honest with in these types of situations? Obviously you don’t want to be honest with HR.   I think people who like to gossip are a very bad fit as well, but if you are at all seasoned, then you know to not tell these types of folks anything.    If you are  going to share your true feelings at work It has to be with trusted confidants who have little chance of ever becoming your boss.  Even if they are a confidant today, if they become your boss, and they have to make a decision if you stay or go.  They will most likely follow the same “positive attitude” template to make that decision.  I think if you have to let off some steam and share your real feelings, then target people who are on the same level as you, who are known to keep their feelings to themselves, and have limited ability to have an effect on your life.  

The corporate world is always tough.  The corporate world during a merger, buyout, or simple restructuring which leads to a big layoff is brutal. You may not be the longest serving member of the team.  You may not be the most talented.  But as much as it’s against human nature, smiling your way through those times and only saying positive things about all the changes may help you survive them to keep getting a paycheck.  Maybe that’s the best way to maintain a positive attitude through all the uncertainty.  Until you are the one chosen to be let go, every time you want to honestly comment about something happening around you that’s negative, think about the fact that your still getting a paycheck.  It’s not perfect, and it may not work for everyone, but I can say that payday always puts me into a better mood no matter what’s going on. 

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Posted by Mike Peluso

Mike Peluso writes about the collision between between the business / professional world and life. He also writes about the journey involved with the Peluso Presents efforts including the Blog, Books, and Podcast so that others may benefit from his efforts. From Mike: I spend hundreds of hours working on these articles every year with no compensation other than support I get through donations. You can support with a tip and by Subscribing to the Podcast (and writing a review on iTunes would be really appreciated as well!) One time tips:

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