Protecting your team from layoffs

It’s that time of year again; when my inbox and social media feeds fill with news of former coworkers who got caught in their company’s yearly layoff exercise.

I’d like to say that I was lucky that in eight years as a manager there that I didn’t have to layoff anyone, but actually it was a lot of very hard work. For my former colleagues or for any manager, here are some tips to help you keep your team visible and vital in a large company. It was never a matter of just the teams or individuals doing a poor job would get hit. It was the teams and individuals who weren’t visible beyond their immediate peers. If management doesn’t know who you are or why what you do is important, they are far less likely to keep you around.

Stay Focused on Company Priorities
Senior management hopefully is making the company priorities clear. An anti-pattern I often have seen is to ignore these messages because “It will just shift again. I’m working on the really important stuff.” This is essentially willfully ignoring that clear prioritization message. It is the equivalent to saying that you are smarter than your company’s senior leadership. This may actually be true, but I guarantee that they have a lot more insight into the competitive landscape than you do. Ignoring them is not only bad self-preservation, but it is also disrespectful.

If you are a leader, you need to make sure that your team is working on items relevant to the company priorities, always. This doesn’t mean you should completely pivot every time priorities change, but you should adapt your team’s mission to support those priorities.

Keep Your Team and Team Members Visible
It has been said that the best way to promote yourself as a manager is to hire people smarter than you and support them as best as you can. This is very true.

If you have smart people, make sure that they have visibility in the greater organization. Give them public kudos for work well done and opportunities to demonstrate their brilliance, like internal tech talks or blog posts.

The visibility of bright individuals has a halo effect on their team, especially if there are multiple bright folks on the team. At layoff time, your team will be too awesome to mess with. Building a bright team also reflects well on you as their manager.

One thing I want to make clear though. Visibility isn’t about people tooting their own horn over mediocre accomplishments. It is about doing good work, and then talking about it. Intelligence without application is value-less. Do something awesome, aligned with company goals, and then talk about it. Share the knowledge, and share the lessons with others. I call this “taking a victory lap.”

Manage Out Low Performers
This may seem counter-intuitive in a layoff-prone company. You might think that you should keep your low performers around in case you need to lay someone off. This is incorrect on multiple levels.

First, it is a jerk move. If you have folks struggling in your environment/culture, you aren’t doing them any favors keeping them around as “cannon fodder.” If they are a bad fit, and haven’t improved with all manner of coaching and mentoring, help them find a better role. It is the best thing you can do for them.

Second, they bring the rest of their team down. The rest of your team may be really great, but those low performers will be a drag on the whole team, performance and morale-wise.

Poor performers give you and your team a negative vibe just like high-performing folks give you a positive one. When it comes time for senior management to cut people, having known poor performers makes you a target. Instead, build a reputation for raising the level of your worst performers or managing out the ones you aren’t able to help. Actively managing your team will help inoculate your employees from a layoff. When senior management makes a decision to layoff, it may not just be your lowest performers that end up being affected. Better to protect the whole team, and do the right thing for people who would be happier elsewhere.

Manage Up
This may sound political or calculating, but it isn’t meant that way. When I say, “manage up,” I mean actively communicate with your manager and actively solicit help or feedback when you need it.

Your manager is busy. They are probably not aware of what is going on in every team in their organization. If you have great performers in your team, tell your boss when they accomplish something noteworthy. If you have folks with issues, let your boss know what you are doing help them. Let your boss know how you are aligning your team’s goals to the company and their goals. Then get feedback. What could you be doing better? Is there something you are missing strategically? By nature of their place in the organization, they have more visibility into what is happening across the company. Take advantage of that.

Knowing more about your team and its capabilities will be important when a senior leader looks across their organization to decide where to make some tough cuts.


Hopefully, these tips shouldn’t seem only like good ways to manage against layoffs, but like good strategies for managing, period. You should always recognize top performers for their work, raise the level or manage out the low performers, align with the company’s priorities and make sure your boss knows what is going on.

Disagree? Did I missing something? Feel free to leave a comment.

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