China Gorman is one of the foremost thought leaders in the field of human resources today. An accomplished executive with significant experience in career transition services, she also is a member of RiseSmart’s Strategic Advisory Council. Here she answers another question in a series of articles for RiseSmart called “Ask An Expert.”

Question: What’s the one thing that employers routinely skip when planning a layoff?

(Got a question for China Gorman? Ask it in the comments.)

Answer: In a layoff, one of the biggest risks to the organization is what the manager says to the employee in the termination discussion.  And since HR can’t – and shouldn’t – be in every discussion, working to reduce that risk is a wise investment. Manager-notification training is not only an effective risk-mitigation tactic, it provides managers with the tools they need to give the termination notice professionally, humanely and legally.

From a manager’s perspective, telling a direct report that their job is being eliminated is one of the most difficult things they ever do, especially if that manager hired and trained the employee.  It’s a message they don’t want to give and it’s a skill set they don’t keep current.

But put yourself in the employee’s position.  Who would you want to hear this news from, your boss or someone who doesn’t know you?  Of course you want your boss to tell you.  You want to hear bad news from someone with whom you have a relationship and can trust.

Providing skill building to managers for that difficult conversation can make the difference between termination conversations that end up with the employee moving forward with their lives relatively quickly and calmly and termination conversations that end up with unsigned severance agreements, disgruntled former employees venting on social media and the cost of litigation.  So why wouldn’t you invest in training to ensure that the notification day goes smoothly and that all your employees are treated respectfully and legally when being given the news?

Experienced or not, managers need support

You may hear from your managers that they’ve become all too familiar with terminating employees.  Well, this is one skill set that managers hate to use even more than they hate to learn.  Even if your organization downsizes with some regularity, chances are you have new managers involved this time.  Chances are some of the details around separation benefits have changed since the last time.  And most importantly, the current economic environment means that employee financial and career stress are at a peak.  Your managers – experienced or not – will need support to prepare for what may be more negative or emotional employee responses than in previous layoffs.

The best way to prepare your managers is to provide them with notification training.  Your career transition provider should be scheduling these sessions – either in person or virtually – as part of your event tactical planning.  My recommendation is to do these sessions – they can be accomplished in two to three hours – in person.  Nothing prepares a manager like role-playing sessions.  They may be certain that Mary or Joe will not get emotional, but what if they do?  Will they know what to say or will they panic and start making things up?  Or worse, will they say things that will become litigation fodder?

What if Joe starts to cry because he’s in the process of finally refinancing his house?  What if Mary starts shaking because her mother just moved in and is in ill health?  What if Tony stands up and starts shouting and threatening legal action?  Are your managers prepared to respond humanely, respectfully, legally?  Are they prepared to deal with extreme emotion?  Probably not.

Don’t forget those who remain

Downsizings in this difficult economy have a much stronger impact on the lives of your employees – both the employees who will be leaving your organization and the employees who will be staying on.

Do your managers know what to do with their remaining employees once the final termination discussion has been held?  Or will they head home to recover their own personal equilibrium?  Or worse, will they go into their office, shut the door, and spend the rest of the day on Monster.com and LinkedIn looking for a new job?  Part of the notification training is support to plan how to handle the surviving employees in their group — how to communicate with them and start moving them forward.

Notification days are stressful for everyone:  employees being terminated, managers giving termination messages, and employees being retained.  The linchpins to moving forward to a new organization future and leaving a well-executed layoff behind are your managers. They need training and support to protect your organization, to maintain their managerial effectiveness going forward, and to ensure that all of your employees are treated with dignity and respect

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