Communication Proficiency and Reduction in Force

Art Madsen, M.Ed.

There are appropriate times to maintain secrecy and confidentiality within a corporation, agency or structured organization. However, as directors, managers and leaders attempt to implement change within their companies, the professional art of communication becomes a valuable tool for maintaining order and efficiency. Under these circumstances, secrecy and "need to know" strategies are not at all recommended. Indeed, it is particularly important to recognize that effective interpersonal communication skills become critical to the success of executing major organizational restructuring in any business or entrepreneurial setting. This is assuredly the case in effecting a "reduction in force", an action requiring tact, diplomacy and highly polished communication skills.

As a corporate project demobilizes, or as economic imperatives require a workforce reduction, the astute manager will begin to share information with all levels of the hierarchy and power structure within his or her firm. Communication on an interdepartmental scale must begin to flow freely in order that all staff members understand the reasoning and necessity for such a dramatic reshaping of the organization. Since communication facilitates understanding, tensions among employees can be reduced and the reduction in force (RIF) can conceivably move forward without turmoil and disruption.

If, in the eyes of subordinate employees, the leader-manager appears to be withholding information, or stifling dialogue, distrust develops and resentment simmers. Once dialogue is initiated, however, smooth transitions can be implemented and efficient streamlining of operations, in the best interest of both the organization and employees, can occur. Frequently, in large firms, reassignment or re-employment of RIF-affected staff members can be ‘worked out’ satisfactorily through on-going dialogue, actually saving money and retaining corporate efficiency. Communication is known to be essential to these types of critical dialogues.

Inasmuch as communication is a two-way street, both negative and positive feedback must flow in both directions, not merely in a top-down hierarchical manner. Avoidance of labor unrest or employee dissatisfaction is a major objective of properly implementing an orderly reduction in force. By ensuring that negative feedback from workers is dealt with properly, the leader-manager can fend off major conflicts and disruptions during the workforce reduction timeframe. Indeed, one principal communication problem facing financially strapped entrepreneurs is their inability to face negative feedback during RIF and deal with it diplomatically. The poorly trained entrepreneur will interpret such negative criticism as a sign of personal disrespect and disloyalty, whereas the communication-conscious owner-manager will turn such criticism to the advantage of both the company and the employee, thus defusing potentially volatile confrontations. This is a delicate, but feasible, task.

During reduction in workforce, inter-group communication must focus on the realities of the situation, the modalities of implementing it and the strategies likely to minimize friction and maximize performance of those remaining. Employee morale must be boosted during the height of the RIF phase, in spite of obvious emotions and tempers among those affected. Communication plays a vital role in achieving these objectives; whether the transfer of knowledge and understanding takes place in written form or in verbal exchanges.

Company employees, inclusive of those to be impacted by RIF, should be given key information about the overall organizational strategy of the firm, its future prospects, and its financial status. Given this information, hey can make plans not only to do their jobs during this ‘necessary transitional stage’, but also to rethink their own career options and opportunities. Additionally, by stressing the distinct likelihood that the firm may re-expand its operations in the future, thus requiring re-hire of those affected by the RIF, employees can be reassured that the firm is acting in the nest interests of both itself and them. To achieve this precarious balancing-act, the channels of communication must be kept open and lubricated, ensuring that respect and amiability are maintained.

As recently as last year and well into this year, the Boeing Aircraft labor strike in Seattle was perceived worldwide as a prime example of "communication" gone astray during fluctuations in the workforce of this enormous organization. As soon as dialogue broke down, and disrespect arose, a massive shift in the tone and nature of the negotiations took place, with phenomenal bitterness and anger on both sides of the bargaining table. It is perhaps astonishing that even the most highly compensated professionals in the field of labor relations, leadership, communication and management were not able to amicably resolve the issues at stake in the Boeing strike. Bargaining issues involved encompassed admittedly complex matters and solutions were ultimately found, but only at considerable cost in terms of image, human resource disruption and financial loss.

If the dynamics of such a labor dispute are to be avoided, free-flow of information and goodwill must prevail in all phases, and at all levels, of the "reduction in force" process. This process can prove tumultuous for employees and the firm; but, nonetheless, it is a process that can be handled with dignity and decorum through the art of communication. Proficiency in this art, experts agree, is crucial to implementation of all change in an orderly fashion. In fact, reduction in force, as well as other potentially disruptive organizational changes such as individual employee terminations, can be properly executed through a forward-looking approach, stressing the likelihood of re-hire at a future date. During the severance process, this point needs to be driven home in interactive dialogue between manager-leader and subordinate staff. Indeed, change strategies such as RIF, can be properly carried out with open flow of information and multilateral communication on the part of all parties concerned.