In recent days, business leaders have received two very public lessons in how not to let someone go, according to management experts.
First, it was the so-called “crying CEO,” who posted a tear-stained selfie on LinkedIn after he laid off a few employees at his small business-to-business marketing agency. In a monologue about how much he loves his employees – including “every single thing that makes them smile and every single thing that makes them cry” – Braden Wallake, the chief executive of Ohio-based HyperSocial, tried to refute the notion that business executives are “cold-hearted” ghouls who don’t care when people lose their jobs.
The internet wasn’t convinced. The post went viral and has amassed more than 10,000 comments, many accusing Mr. Wallake of disingenuous grandstanding. Sandra Robinson, a professor of organizational behaviour and human resources at the UBC Sauder School of Business, prefers the term “self-promotional cringe,” which she said has become quite common on LinkedIn.
“It gives the impression that he has mixed motives,” she said. “What’s he trying to achieve?”
Then came the news, delivered by the former employee herself last Monday, that Bell Media had cryptically terminated the contract of award-winning anchor Lisa LaFlamme, roiling her former CTV News colleagues and spurring accusations of sexism and ageism. The network initially described the move as a business decision intended to meet changing viewer habits, but has since announced an independent review of its newsroom after an employee townhall that did little to explain why she had been replaced with a younger, male colleague.
They’re very different scenarios, said Steven Appelbaum, a professor of management at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business. However, he said, they have one glaring similarity: a failure of communication.
Though it may have felt cathartic, by drawing attention to how he was affected by the layoffs instead of focusing on the people who had lost their jobs, Mr. Wallake compromised his company’s reputation and the trust of his remaining employees, Dr. Appelbaum said.
In Ms. LaFlamme’s case, he said, the lack of transparency around the termination of her contract has fomented mistrust in the newsroom.
Lynn Bennett, the president of Leadership Intelligence Inc., a Huntsville, Ont.-based management consulting firm, agrees.
With any layoff, the remaining employees “need to have an understanding as to why this happened, without betraying confidentiality,” she said. Otherwise, a collective sense of unease known as “survivor syndrome” may set in, leaving everyone wondering who might be next.
A 2002 study from Stockholm University and the University of Canterbury documented significant declines in employment satisfaction, organizational commitment and job performance after a downsizing. Other research shows layoffs can lead to an increase in voluntary turnovers.
But this malaise can be mitigated if leaders embrace what Dr. Robinson calls procedural justice, an approach that rests on transparency and fairness. Companies should clearly explain why and how they made their decisions, acknowledge the harm the layoffs will cause in a genuine fashion and give remaining employees a chance to voice their thoughts.
This method, however, is only successful if the reason for the layoff is truly objective, Dr. Robinson noted.
“If you’re ever not comfortable telling employees how you made a decision, or why you made a decision, maybe you’re making it badly,” she said.
Layoffs are often an unavoidable part of business, but how they’re conducted is key to maintaining an organization’s integrity, added Julie Lautens, a Toronto-based leadership coach with management consultancy Corentus who previously spent more than two decades in the corporate world.
She felt the “crying CEO” – a moniker that will likely follow Mr. Wallake around for the rest of his life – missed the mark by putting the spotlight on himself. The focus must remain on the departing employees and how they can be supported, she said. Respect and dignity are paramount.
Still, Dr. Lautens does sympathize with Mr. Wallake. Laying off an employee, especially at a small firm, can be painful – and it’s not necessarily inappropriate to become emotional when delivering that news. But a manager should not draw attention to it, she said.
Dr. Appelbaum, however, didn’t think showing emotion was professional in such a situation. Dr. Robinson disagreed.
“You can show that you’re human and still be a leader,” she said. “I think that’s healthy and normal.”
However, she says people should be careful if they choose to broadcast those feelings on social media. (Maybe don’t include a selfie.) It’s better to share that sentiment with a trusted confidant instead, the experts advise.
And as for people on the receiving end of a layoff, they should typically avoid airing their grievances online.
But in Ms. LaFlamme’s case, Dr. Lautens felt it was the right thing to do.
“It’s good that she made it public herself,” she said. “That level of control, I’m sure, felt appropriate to her. That was important” – in part because her abrupt dismissal, after working at CTV News for more than three decades, has had repercussions beyond the halls of Bell Media.
It has created a “sense of survivor syndrome in senior women across all industries.”
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