mass layoffs an all too common occurrence today, the beginning of 2009
is leaving many of the remaining employees and managers left to do the
work a bit shell-shocked. Some are simply wondering if they will be
next, and managers are finding it hard to lead at a time of great
anxiety. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor
Statistics, “employers initiated 1,330 mass layoff events that resulted
in the separation of 218,158 workers from their jobs for at least 31
days, according to preliminary figures” from the third quarter of 2008.
The figures represent the most recent data and the highest level of
mass layoffs since the third quarter of 2001, while separations reached
their highest level since 2003. 

Additionally, nonfarm payroll employment fell sharply in January
2009, with the unemployment rate hitting a record 7.6 percent. Payroll
employment dropped by a sizeable 3.6 million since the start of the
recession in December 2007. A whopping 50 percent of this decline took
place in the past three months, with job losses posted in almost every
sector and industry.

Downsizings occurred at tech giants Microsoft, IBM and Cisco, as
well as in the beleaguered financial services sector, with Citibank,
UBS, Credit Suisse and Washington Mutual already making large cuts. The
retail sector was especially hard hit, with Linens n’ Things and
Circuit City shutting their doors. And, as automakers and financial
institutions continue to struggle, the possibility for more
bloodletting in these sectors seems possible.

Even in the midst of this tumult, work still needs to get done. But
just how can managers continue to motivate employees during difficult
times? Despite the negative news, professors at Emory University's Goizueta Business School agree that building and keeping trust remains essential to motivating through company and economic tumult. According to Russell Coff,
associate professor of organization and management at Goizueta,
employees need to believe that managers are telling them the truth
about the company’s health and about job issues. “Trust is an essential
managerial tool, especially when employees are faced with change,” he

Even when the news isn’t exactly what managers want to deliver, they
need to be upfront with their staff, notes Coff. Often, change
initiatives in the organization require employee buy-in, and so the
staff must be penned in on the efforts needed to retool and save the
division, product line or even the entire company. “The way the news
unfolds will set the stage for how things go,” he says. “If everyone
knows the need for change is apparent, then they have to be told how it
might impact them, as they are going to be asking that question.” Coff
notes that managers can leverage and work with what staffers know about
the need for change, and then they may have a more willing partner to
work with on those initiatives.

When Cuts Are Inevitable

It’s obvious that employees would view job cuts as a major violation
of manager and employee trust, says Coff. But just how managers go
about the process is going to determine the way remaining employees
view the employer. If cuts seem unavoidable, and those let go are given
assistance and fair warning, tremaining staffers are more likely to
remain committed to the employer and motivated on the job.

But once wide scale layoffs are needed, Coff says it is not good for
managers to belabor the point. “It’s not good to do cuts in dribs and
drabs,” he says. Fortunately, most firms will go for as long as they
can manage, before instituting large-scale job cuts. “If the company is
managed correctly, then they will get it done and get it done right,
and there won’t be additional announcements right down the road.”

Peter Topping,
associate professor of organization and management at Goizueta Business
School, admits that companies are experiencing an especially difficult
period in recent times, as credit dries up, consumer confidence falls,
and layoffs become essential. “Many people are already working at a
company that is lean, due to previous downsizings,” he says.

Even more problematic for some than the threat of job cuts is the
workload for those left behind. “Right now, burnout is a big issue,”
says Topping. Managers are also feeling the pinch. Those doing well at
a company may find that they have new responsibilities as a company
reorganizes. This may give managers even “bigger spans of control,”
leaving some to worry about their continuing success in meeting work
demands  with trimmed resources at their disposal. Some employees may
even experience “survivor grief,” he says, as they wonder why their
colleagues were let go while they were able to survive the massive

For now, Topping advises those managing and working in this sort of
environment to continue to put in their top effort. “The simplest way
to preserve a job is to be the best at it,” he says. However, business
and career development issues may need to be temporarily put on hold,
he adds, as people move more into self-preservation mode. This is when
it is essential to talk to staff in an honest and genuine way, says
Topping. “Managers have to be trusted, and they need to listen when
employees express their emotions.” But then, he adds, good managers
will need to redirect and recommit themselves and their team to getting
on with the job at hand. “You have to be clear and remind your people
that they do want to work.”

Weathering the Storm

If there is a level of trust and open dialogue between employees and
managers, Topping says that team members are better equipped to weather
this sort of economic storm. “Managing is about empowering your people
and giving them some sense of control,” he adds. But he does caution
managers to get a handle on their own stress behaviors on the job, so
that they don’t pass this on to their employees.

Lita Epstein, a 1989 Goizueta MBA, financial writer and author of Surviving a Layoff: A Week-by-Week Guide to Getting Your Life Back Together,
notes that when people are worried about their livelihood, it
certainly  makes it hard to control the level of stress on the job. But
she adds that many people are finding that they need to be
self-motivated, so they can try to avoid the chopping block. “Often, in
a widescale layoff, the company is cherry picking the low hanging
fruit,” she notes.

Employees need to up their game, she says, to remain valued and,
hopefully, on staff during a massive downsizing. She admits that those
at the managerial level are feeling stressed, as they lead during this
difficult time, and many are also worried about their own positions
with the company. “With the level of layoffs we are experiencing now,
it’s just not clear where the ax will fall next.”

For a professional working today, flexibility in skills sets is
often key to being a favored employee at work. “You have to look at
life as a series of opportunities, and then you have to know which ones
to go with,” says Epstein. She does note that managers do need to help
motivate their staff, but the onus for having and keeping a job does
truly fall on the individual. “People need to keep a record at home of
their company successes, whether it be the projects managed or numbers
produced,” Epstein says. This sort of information will allow you to
talk more effectively and openly about your career, just in case you
need to find a new job. She adds that it’s essential to build a
narrative of your professional life, so that your level of success can
be transmitted to a prospective employer.

Epstein interviewed professionals who survived a downsizing and those
who were impacted by layoffs, and she notes that those who do happen to
lose their jobs have to remain focused and dedicated to gaining a new
post quickly. Job-hunting can be a full-time job, she says. But she
also cautions that professionals—top, middle and entry level as
well—shouldn’t wait for the layoff to happen before they think about
their next career step. “Keep a list of clients and professional
acquaintances from work on Outlook or print it out at home.” Vendors
are also a good resource to tap into for possible job openings, she
says, as they are sometimes the first to know of personnel changes at a
company. “Vendors are servicing the same kind of companies you may work
for, and so they’re a good place to network to find a new job.”