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Technology executive Lakshmi Baskaran says it’s up to leaders to support their teams by being honest about where the business is headed and how layoffs will help.Peter Power

In the year before Ontario cannabis company Beleave Inc. sought creditor protection in June 2020, the business shed about 90 per cent of its staff to try to stay afloat. During that stressful time, Bill Panagiotakopoulos – who was Beleave’s chief operating officer and later its acting chief executive officer – found that supporting the company’s panicked remaining staff became almost like a second job.

“It was 24/7 – people were calling at 11 p.m. with concerns,” recalls Mr. Panagiotakopoulos. He told staff they could reach out to him any time, and many took him up on that offer. “It was extremely hard, but it also helped me manage my expectations: I wasn’t the only one feeling strain and stress.”

Mr. Panagiotakopoulos, who now lives in Florida, said the worse things got financially for the business, the tenser the situation became for the workers still on the job. Most were asked to do more work to fill in the gaps for those let go.

“As [the company] got smaller, people started looking elsewhere, and morale was really low. [I thought], ‘If everyone starts to walk away, there won’t be anything left.’”

Layoffs are back in the headlines lately, particularly among technology companies that saw rapid growth during the pandemic but have been hit hard by the market downturn, including Hootsuite, Shopify and Clearco, to name a few.

Layoffs can drastically affect workplace morale and culture, leaving workers who remain with a mix of relief they weren’t let go, guilt about colleagues no longer there and anxiety about the future of the business.

Lakshmi Baskaran, who has worked as a senior technology executive for two decades, says it’s up to leaders to support their teams by being honest about where the business is headed and how the layoffs will help.

“You can’t sugar-coat things that are obvious problems because people will see [through] that right away,” Mr. Panagiotakopoulos says. “‘I tried to give them a goal and something to look forward to.”

Leaders should be explaining the “why, what and how” of the layoff to all team members, says Ms. Baskaran, who most recently was vice-president of engineering at e-mail software company Sedna Systems.

It means telling remaining workers why their colleagues were let go, detailing which departments were reduced or eliminated, and having a plan for how the company will move forward, a process that often includes restructuring.

If the company’s leadership believes the layoffs were needed to help the business move forward, Ms. Baskaran encourages them to communicate that to remaining workers so they aren’t left wondering if they’re next on the chopping block.

“It removes a sense of panic from those who are staying back, who are also often facing feelings of guilt,” she says.

She also recommends that companies prepare middle managers with answers to questions staff still working might ask about the layoffs and empower them to speak frankly.

“Give them the necessary tools,” she says.

Offering paid therapy to those dealing with survivors’ guilt can also help, Ms. Baskaran says, in part because it demonstrates that management understands it’s a difficult time.

“Soon after a layoff, there will be a restructure to make the teams more efficient,” she says. “Feelings of guilt, along with the stress of the restructure, are not something many people would like to go through.

“Whenever you go through a layoff, people want to show they are strong, but internally they are battling a lot of emotions.”

Employees also benefit when managers acknowledge they are also going through a hard time after layoffs, says leadership coach Rehana Rajwani.

She says anyone who has had to conduct layoffs knows “it’s horrible,” adding, “the entire process can be very stressful because you have to arrive at decisions sometimes very quickly.”

Being honest with your team if you’re struggling, or have accessed therapy or other resources, sets the tone that it’s okay to feel distraught or need help, she says.

Ms. Rajwani also recommends leaders conduct one-on-one check-ins with remaining employees as soon as possible after the layoffs are announced.

“Hopefully, the layoff doesn’t happen on a Friday, but the middle of the week” so managers can speak with their remaining staff immediately, she adds.

“Show empathy, come across as authentic and don’t try to say the right words,” she says. “Tell them this is hard for you … but also don’t try to make it about yourself.”

Following the initial chat, Ms. Rajwani recommends that managers go out of their way to help workers left behind feel valued at the company and that they have a future there.

“See what you can do to have them grow in the organization,” she says. “You, as a manager, look great when you give people credit for what they’re doing … and it shows you’re there looking out for your team.”