QuestionAn executive team laid off a group of employees here in Canada in order to outsource to an Asian country. They can’t find talent in the new country, work has stalled, and management tries to cajole laid-off employees (all talented, experienced peak performers) to return. The laid-off employees demand a written apology from the management and request that some executives be fired.

My question: Should upper management issue an apology and suck it up and try to get their best talent back?

AnswerThis is a Moment of Truth for your upper management. What they do will send a clear message to the company. Before we explore what to do, let’s explore how management arrived at this difficult place.

The employee point of view

You’re a talented, experienced peak performer. You’ve been working hard and keeping a project progressing smoothly. One day, you get a notice that—through no fault of your own—you’re laid off because someone wants to move your group to another location.

Do you jump with joy, exuberant at the gloriously superb business decision made by upper management? Doubtful. You probably feel upset, resentful, unappreciated. You might even feel personally affronted, as if you were being treated like an interchangeable cog in a machine. The message you received: You’re not unique, you’re not valuable, and you’re quite replaceable (or even . . . “fungible”).

The management point of view

You have a group that’s doing great. It is full of talented people, making progress. A business issue comes up. Perhaps you want to locate that group nearer a supplier. Or maybe you want the project to take place at a cheaper facility. Possibly, you’re just empire building and want to consolidate your empire. You decide to disband the existing group and reform it in a new location. It should be a simple matter, you think, to find people to run the group in the new location.

• • • •

Managers are thinking of the business. They’re thinking tasks, processes, locations, efficiency. They’re thinking everything but people. The employees, being people, are taking the move personally. Whether or not it’s meant personally, that’s how it’s coming across. (Note: when someone’s project is canceled or they’re laid off, they always take it personally. Trust me.)

If a highly visible manager made this decision, the company is also making a statement that it cares more about efficiency, consolidation, etc. than people. True or not, the loud-and-clear message is that employment is about transactions, not about loyalty or commitment. The laid-off employees got that message loud and clear, and their return is a clear negotiation.

And what are they asking? They don’t want more money, bonuses, or vacation time. They want an apology. Apologies are what people want when they feel they’ve been wronged. We can debate whether or not the layoffs were wrong, but the feelings they evoked are real. If the employees feel wronged and an apology will fix it, my advice is to apologize and get on with life.

Apologies aren’t fatal.

Maybe the executives think it unfair to apologize when they don’t think they were wrong. That’s not the issue. The employees thought it unfair to be laid off for doing a good job. This isn’t about fair; it’s about feelings. Apologies will fix the feelings. Has anyone (think: significant other) ever wanted your apology when you knew you were right? You refused, and maybe even won the argument. You got to be RIGHT. And did it strengthen the relationship? Of course not. Would saying “I’m sorry” and letting go of being RIGHT have fixed the relationship? Of course.

Maybe the executives fear an apology because deep down, they feel they screwed up and don’t want to admit it. In this case, it sounds like they were wrong and badly bungled a situation. All I can say is, “Get over it.” Have them hire a coach or, if it’s really deep-seated, a therapist. If they can’t admit their mistakes, they can’t learn, and that will eventually doom the business.

Maybe the execs fear that apologies will undermine their leadership. They may believe that leaders must appear infallible, that apologies are admissions of failure and must be avoided at all costs.

Nonsense! If a leader screws up, it’s no secret. Everyone knows. The secret is that screwing up and handling the recovery well can actually strengthen a leadership relationship. A good recovery acknowledges the problem, addresses feelings, and gives reason to believe the future will be better: “I really screwed up by thinking I should consolidate the group on the West Coast. I didn’t value the people in the existing group, and I didn’t honor their contribution. I’m very sorry. In the future, I will do my best to make decisions taking the people into account, and not just the business.”

Firing might be the solution

The employees want someone fired. If all they want is revenge, don’t do it. Firing for revenge sets an ugly precedent—almost as ugly as disbanding a group of high performers without preparing for the consequences. But might there be other reasons for this (admittedly extreme) request?

Consider: The executives laid off people whom you characterize as talented, experienced peak performers who were doing their job well. Yet they didn’t make sure that they could replace those people, and obviously, the way they were laid off left the employees angry and resentful. In short, the executives failed miserably at their own jobs.

To me, an outside observer, the message is that it’s perfectly OK to lay off peak performers who are doing their job. Yet it’s not OK to fire executives who don’t do their jobs. In this case, keeping the executives sends a clear message that worker excellence is valued less than executive incompetence, and firing incompetence is generally regarded as a good idea.

So you need to decide: In your company, should business needs trump individual emotional needs? With the original layoffs, the answer was clearly Business Wins. If you want to be consistent, analyze the situation without regard to the people. You have a stalled project that can be resurrected with an apology and a firing. What’s the project worth to the company? What’s the executive worth to the company? Abandon the one with least value.

You can always decide that taking people into account makes sense. Personally, I put human needs above business needs, and I’ve found that it builds incredibly loyal, dedicated teams. Either way, consistency is important. If you take people into account when the people are executives, and take business into account when the people are of lower status, you’re really just engaging in nepotism and privilege. Many, many businesses run that way, but it isn’t going to build a committed, loyal, inclusive culture. If you want a strong company, choose your standards and make them consistent throughout.

Strengthening the group

It seems that everyone in this situation is framing this as a conflict. Yet at the end of the day, everyone shares a common goal: to build a successful company that can keep everyone employed and happy. It’s important to get the group back together and moving forward. After apologies and re-hirings, why not use this as an opportunity to reorient the group around the common goal?

This is an emotionally charged situation that has brought up many issues including politics, business decisions and their impact on people, and whether layoffs and firings are the best solution to business and interpersonal problems. Consider getting everyone in a room (perhaps with a professional facilitator, if feelings still run hot), with one agenda: uncover learnings for everyone involved about how better decisions can be made, how feelings can be managed, and how executives and employees can better understand each other’s point of view. Learn from your successes as well as your failures—go beyond this layoff/rehiring situation as a source for learning and also consider similar decisions that went smoothly.

At the end of the day, your question is about people, not policy. If the original layoffs had been planned with attention to the feelings and needs of the people as well as the business, life would be a lot easier right now. As it is, there is emotional cleanup that must happen before the organizational cleanup begins. An apology is a small price to pay. Firing is a high price, but your organization has already said by example that business needs trump individual needs. If an executive’s continued employment is all that’s standing in the way of resurrecting a necessary project, it may be time to relocate that executive, even if she’s a talented, experienced peak performer.

© 2005 by Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

Stever Robbins is founder and president of LeadershipDecisionworks, a consulting firm that helps companies develop leadership and organizational strategies to sustain growth and productivity over time. You can find more of his articles at http://www.SteverRobbins.com. He is the author of It Takes a Lot More than Attitude to Lead a Stellar Organization.

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Making it Right with Wronged Employees

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