How to RIF with Dignity

Question: Help me out here. I just learned that my company will be laying off about 15% of the workforce over the next few months. I’ve been told that I will be responsible for reducing my department’s staff by 10 people, and need to come up with the Reduction in Force (RIF) list by the end of next week. I’ve never done this before—and, quite frankly, I am totally overwhelmed. Can you offer some advice?

Alice Waagen says: First, my condolences. One of the most stressful and depressing parts of a manager’s job is to terminate staff, especially when it is not due to their own poor performance but rather the result of the company needing to reduce costs.

Reducing staff can be done with minimum of pain if you follow these three guidelines:

1. Start with looking at what work you can eliminate or reduce. At this stage, do NOT look at the entire staff list. Managers often use a RIF to terminate poor performers, having not followed good management practices and documented the performance issues. They fail to use the performance management system to correct behavior or as the basis of firing the person. I call using RIF’s to solve performance problems “taking the chicken’s way out.” Trust me, this can come back to bite you as a wrongful termination lawsuit. Also, when you reduce people but do not reduce workload, the uncovered work gets reassigned to already overworked top performers, leading to burn out turnover when they leave.

2. The best place to start is to shrink the work. Look for work commitments and deliverables that your department can stop producing. Once you have reduced the workload, then look at staff and assignments and identify which staff member(s) will have reduced or eliminating workload. These are the folks that go on your layoff list.

3. Be tough. Admittedly, this sounds cold and clinical when we are talking about people’s livelihood. But communicating termination decisions based on eliminated work is a better pill for someone to swallow than vague statements that lead them to believe that favoritism or discrimination may be at play.

4. Keep this in mind: Using reduced work, not performance as your decision driver also gives RIF’d staff a much better story to tell when they interview with future employers. It becomes all about the work, not about them as quality employees.

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