I’ve been thinking lately about those heady earliest days of a company, when everything is wide open possibility and blue-sky ideation! This is big, blue sky country! Your chance to change the world, save the world, or at least make one small discreet part of the world a better place for all stakeholders. It will be different this time. Everyone at the table is wiser for having made mistakes – or for having been victims of mistakes – in the past. That was then. This is now. And it’s going to be great!
It's going to be great, not only for the customers and investors, but, even more importantly, for the people who will come to work every day. They will be betting their future well-being and financial stability on this new enterprise. Because you’re the best, you will attract the best. It will be greaaaaaaaat!
Once the business model is on the whiteboard (or cocktail napkin), the real fun begins: The identification and development of your company’s mission and values that will combine to make up its culture. And reputation. What ideals do you want to represent not only to your customers but also to that cherished, talented cadre of devoted talent who will walk through your doors any day now?
Never mind the meditation rooms or free sushi bars. All those things will come in due time. First things first. Let’s talk values and trust. These are the rules of the day-to-day road that will give your people the freedom and confidence to do their best work independently, with every assurance that as long as they stay consistent with the values, they’re in good shape.
Who doesn’t love the values creation workshops and meetings? Words are written on that same whiteboard still hinting at the faded writings of the business model meeting the week before. Words like
The air is electrified by the excitement of the values-creation team who finally has the chance to create this wonderful new workplace culture.
So who wants to be the skunk in this particular garden party? Who wants to be the one – the only one – with the nerve to say this:
“But what happens if it all goes to smash? What happens to the values then?”
The reaction is swift. This is no time for negativity! Don’t speak that into reality! We have a rock solid business plan! Look at how healthy the economy is! The world won’t be able to live without our product once they see how smoking hot it is! It will be different with us! It will be different this time.
Hello? 2008 called and wants its bummer back.
Where Have All the Values Gone?
After 15 years of relatively high-cotton living where jobs were plentiful and innovative ideas sprout gleaming new office towers, and well-appointed home offices, throughout the world, a new generation of high-potential talent and well-meaning employers are discovering the dreadful experience shared by generations before them: The layoff.
Layoff announcements are flooding in. From companies that had always seemed like a sure career bet: Google (Alphabet), Facebook (Meta), Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce, BlackRock, FedEx, PayPal, IBM, Hubspot, Netflix, even Hasbro and Yankee Candle. Spotify (maybe that spendy Joe Rogan deal wasn’t such a great idea after all). Goldman Sachs. The list is like the self-licking ice cream cone. It outdates itself even as it’s being typed out in this article. There’s no keeping up with the bad news. It just keeps on coming in.
While no generation is immune to economic cycles, interest rates, global tragedies, and simple math, what amazes us this time around is how quickly some companies are jettisoning their values in the process of laying off their cherished talent they had fought so hard for during the last 15 years.
If we have learned nothing else in all these years, why are we so easily forgetting the value of values?
Stories of executives violating their own companies’ stated values are beginning to pile up, as the layoff lists lengthen. People are told via Zoom. Or in the middle of the night with an email announcing that the key card won’t work anymore. Reporters for a major city newspaper were summarily informed by a C-Suite suit, who refused to answer questions from the very people who are paid (or at least had been paid just the day before) to press reluctant sources and demand answers to questions. A successful sales executive was forced to sign an NDA in which she promised to simply disappear, contacting no one. The ultimate ghost. One CEO reportedly assuaged his guilt by calling his employees “dumb dolphins.” Whatever that means, it’s not something to put on the brand new resume.
Fear is making business leaders do reckless things.
The Value of Values in Downsizing
Without question, fear is stalking the halls of global enterprise today. As on-site consultants, with visitor’s passes hanging from halyards around our necks, we can see it, especially where others might not because perhaps they’re too close to the anxiety source. Individual contributors are afraid to open their email or attend that Zoom all hands. Managers are afraid of the resulting emotional backlash. Will there be tears? Yelling? A weapon? And then they’re afraid that they will also end up with that same unwelcome email or Zoom call, once they finished dismantling their own departments. The CEO is afraid of the next board meeting or the upcoming earnings call. No one is excluded from the ripple effects of fear.
Even the survivors are afraid. If they watched their company betray the very values that created the culture and expectations of day-to-day performance excellence, they have almost as much to grieve as does the person who used to sit in the office next to them. In the case of the sales executive, the question, “where did she go?” is naturally followed by “wherever it is, am I heading there myself?”
What if a downsizing company chose to be governed by its values as it engineered the dreaded layoff operation? How might that be experienced by everyone? The dearly departed, the survivors, the leaders? What would it look like if everyone told the same story from their own perspective, that the process was fair, humane, respectful, predictable, even trustworthy?
Sandra Sucher tells us in her Harvard Business Review (Jan 2023) article What Companies Still Get Wrong About Layoffs, “Keeping trust at the center of your decision-making can lead to surprising, beat-the-odds success…Centering trust also offers leaders a reminder. Your actions will have consequences that are more visible than in the past and you will be judged as trustworthy – or not – based on them.” It can be easy to forget in the frenzy of anxiety around layoff decision making that holding the well-being of workers front and center, even in the process of layoffs, will determine a company’s success moving forward, period.
Each company’s values superstructure is unique, even if the vocabulary is strikingly similar. In good times and bad, by allowing a solid trust-based values system to govern the way your company makes decisions, you and your leaders can at least gain consolation in knowing that you did your best to do the right thing the right way. Your departed people will be able to take some comfort in knowing that they had invested their gifts and years in an organization that still allowed honor to be the North Star of its business model. The remaining survivors can feel reassured that they are reasonably safe to continue focusing on their work.
What does this look like? 1. Acknowledge that harm is being done, and apologize for it sincerely and unequivocally. 2. Explain why these actions are necessary. 3. Make an offer of repair that genuinely helps the person being harmed by the layoff (for instance, severance pay, outplacement support and job training). 4. Conduct layoffs fairly and be transparent about how you are doing so.
And finally, communicate a compelling case for why remaining employees should stay. They need to know that they can continue to trust the leadership to deliver the truth as transparently as possible, to hold themselves accountable, to freely communicate in a timely way with the community of coworkers, to respect each person on the team, to be responsive to all needs and questions.
In this way, the survivors can still sustain some degree of positivity and belief that their loyalty will be rewarded.
They will have the confidence in their choice to remain at your side while the company begins again.
I’m looking for the stories of layoffs, openly communicated as only as a last resort, coming in a thoughtful, compassionate way that helps someone to feel honored and appreciated, even in this most difficult a time. Really, I’m looking! So, tell me those stories as you come across them - I know they’re out there!
Yours on the journey,