June 6, 2022

Can a Layoff ever be Kind? (Kind Leadership Challenge #18)

Can a Layoff ever be Kind? (Kind Leadership Challenge #18)

So here’s a tough question for you. Is it possible to conduct a mass layoff in a kind manner?

If you are an educational or library leader listening to this episode, you have either already ended the employment of a team member or will do so at some point in your career. There’s no getting around that unpleasant reality. I’ve made a lot of hard decisions in my career, as we all have. One of the hardest leadership decisions I’ve had to make was when I had to figure out how to lay off several of my team members in a humane manner, following the rules, and without betraying my values or burning out.

Today I’m going to tell you a little bit about that experience, and share the kind leadership principles I learned from it, so can prepare for the next time you have to make a decision like this.
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Links:

Mastering Challenging Conversations : https://www.kindleadershipchallenge.com/conversations

Join the Community: https://www.kindleadershipchallenge.com/community

Transcript

So here’s a tough question for you. Is it possible to conduct a mass layoff in a kind manner?

If you are an educational or library leader listening to this episode, you have either already ended the employment of a team member or will do so at some point in your career. There’s no getting around that unpleasant reality. I’ve made a lot of hard decisions in my career, as we all have. One of the hardest leadership decisions I’ve had to make was when I had to figure out how to lay off several of my team members in a humane manner, following the rules, and without betraying my values or burning out.

Today I’m going to tell you a little bit about that experience, and share the kind leadership principles I learned from it, so can prepare for the next time you have to make a decision like this. 
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Welcome to the Kind Leadership Challenge, where I empower educational and library leaders like you to heal your organizations! I’m Sarah Clark, founder of the Kind Leadership Guild. My PhD in higher ed Leadership, my experience coaching, consulting, and presenting to library leaders all over the world, and a career working in academic libraries from the front desk to the Dean’s office taught me that leaders don't have to be perfect to build a better world. And now I want to share those same lessons with you.  

Here's the deal. You give me the next 5-10 minutes of your day. In return, I'll share short stories and simple challenges you can implement this week to heal yourself and your school or library. Each challenge is designed to coach you in the confidence, skill, and trust that will help you to let go of a little control. By embarking on each week’s challenge on your own or with the community of over 1000 kind leaders in our private facebook group, you and your team will begin growing humanely, managing effectively, and partnering collaboratively, and your school or library will build a more informed and educated world along the way.

How do you successfully navigate challenging conversations so that you can heal your team culture and acquire the resources you need to thrive? 

Mastering Challenging Conversations is a free set of checklists where I show your how to apply the three core principles of kind leadership to planning, conducting, and moving forward from a challenging leadership conversation. Just go to Kindleadershipchallenge.com/conversations, enter your email and start having the conversations that will make you and your organization burnout proof, heal your team's culture, connect your organization to the resources you need to thrive, and impact your community for the better.

Again, just head on over to kindleadershipchallenge.com/conversations to learn more and get your free guide. 

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Before I kick this off, I want to make one thing clear. Although I know leaders need to think about these kinds of situations before they happen, I was hesitant to share the story of something so painful as a layoff in a public forum. However, the topic of effectively and humanely letting go of a staff member recently came up in a conversation with another library leader dealing with a similar situation, and I realized there was a way I could tell the tale in a manner that was respectful to everyone involved, and could still be helpful to all of you listening. I will only be talking about my experience, my impressions, and my leadership journey, plus a few basic facts that were reported in the media at the time of those layoffs. The rest isn’t relevant, and isn’t my story to tell. Please bear with the vagueness around the details and listen for the deeper message.

Almost exactly two years ago as I record this episode, I laid off 4 of my library's team members (about a 5th of our staff at the time). I was ordered to do so as part of a university-wide restructuring brought on by a perfect storm of dropping enrollment, a budget deficit, and a pandemic that made our current size unsustainable. Being 2020 I also had to have the separation conversations with each of the impacted team members over Zoom, which was about as fun as you might imagine. 

Although I kept it together for my team during the two months or so where I knew about the layoffs but they didn’t, I was a MESS. I couldn’t sleep, ruminated about the situation for hours on end, and generally stewed in worry that we would lose all the hard-fought progress we’d made to come together as a team.

But here’s the thing—At this point I’d finally learned that I would need to be my strongest self for my team during this crisis for us to have any chance to continue to be strong enough to support our school and our students through the pandemic, which had just started at that point. I didn’t have to be perfect, but I would need to hold space for the emotions and needs of the team members who would be leaving us and for the grieving of the rest of our team that would follow the layoffs.

So, here’s what I did. 

I was able to find a few trusted people in my life I could process things with in the runup to the big day, including my associate dean who was serving as my required witness for the layoff conversations (HR didn't have enough staff to serve that role). Also, after a lot of thought, I reached out to my GP and asked for a prescription for anti-anxiety medication. I had taken it through my late teens and college when I was dealing with recurring panic attacks, but let my prescription lapse as those panic attacks faded into more manageable generalized anxiety. However, I did not want and my team couldn’t afford a rerun of the events of episode zero and the emotional spiral I was thrown into, so I got back on the pills. IT WAS ONE OF THE SMARTEST DECISIONS I MADE IN 2020, and I only wish I’d done it sooner.

I also made an after-action plan for myself and my team. Most of the morning and early afternoon consisted of the layoff conversations themselves. Immediately after the president announced the layoffs were done, my whole team and I got on a call. I explained the layoff, the process behind it in as much detail as I could share, and let everyone know who had been let go. And then I shut up and let them talk, ask questions, whatever. I made it clear they were allowed to have whatever emotions that they had, and encouraged them to process them in whatever way they saw fit. I made it clear that it wasn't a taboo topic and we could discuss it more if needed. it came up once or twice in the next few weeks, but mostly we were able to move on much more quickly than I anticipated (paradoxically, I suspect because I explicitly gave us permission to take our time processing it). I took some days off soon after to make sure my head was clear and I was ready to move forward as well. 

I did feel a lot of relief when it was done, but the guilt did linger in a lighter way for a few months, because I didn’t make the choice to conduct those layoffs, I was the one that carried them out. That guilt's not a sign you're a weak leader though. To be blunt, it's a sign you're not a sociopath. It’s also a sign that you have the makings of a kind leader who can do what needs to be done for the good of your organization, while still holding space to have empathy for everyone involved. 

So here’s your challenge— If you have already had to end someone’s employment as a leader, I’d like you to go back to that time and consider what went well, what you could have handled more kindly, and what you might do differently next time around. On the other hand if you’re a leader who has not ever had to let someone go, I hate to break it to you, but you will have to do it someday. Review this episode, as well as your own thoughts, and make a plan for how you might approach this situation in a kind manner. If you’ve downloaded the free mastering Challenging Communications guide, that could be a handy tool to use for this exercise. Once done, post your thoughts in the Kind Leadership Challenge facebook group or send me an email! My address is sarah@kindleadershipguild.com, and you can also find it in the show notes. I’ll reply personally, and I just might share some of your thoughts and experiences in an upcoming episode if you are comfortable with that. 

Thanks for listening and for taking action to become a kinder leader. If you found this week’s episode insightful, give it a like or review—or even better, share this challenge with a colleague!  Never doubt that day by day, you’re building a better world, even if you can't see it yet. So until next time, stay kind now.

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