Surviving a layoff with a generative culture

The State of DevOps report has spent years demonstrating that generative cultures (as opposed to bureaucratic and pathological ones; see also Westrum Typologoy) make for faster deploying environments. They're also much nicer to work in, as I know from experience. My current job is generative. My previous one was generative, then slid into pathological after a layoff round.

That was an educational experience, and begs the question:

Can a generative corporate culture survive a layoff, or is the trauma too great for that to endure?

I suspect it is, but the methods are very counter to American corporate values.

First and most important: Signal when the layoffs are done

This was something I learned from a friend who survived the AOL downsizings before the AT&T purchase. Giving that all-clear lets people know that they can stop worrying about their jobs. The paranoia and suspicion that come with having a damoclean sword over your head will kill a generative culture. The shorter you can make that period, the more of your culture you can salvage.

The second reason is it slows the loss of your top talent. When my company went through a layoff, our division was the higest earning in the company. We never took a layoff. Yet, from when the first layoff round hit to 6 months later, 4 months after the last layoffs, our teams had lost close to 50% through 'natural' attrition and no back-fill. This is what happens to teams facing job-insecurity while also having highly desired jobs in the local job market.

Fuck this shit, I'm getting another job.

As another data-point, our percentage of US Citizens to Visa-workers dropped a lot. By the 6 month line, Visa-holders were a much larger percentage of the workforce. That's a symptom of the Visa-sponsored side of the labor market being somewhat less fluid than for citizens.

This goes against capitalism because you need to keep the possibility of more layoffs available in case you were wrong about the cost-savings you got from the round. Money smart, culture-stupid.

Second most important: give notice to the laid-off before expelling them.

This goes against the US 'best practice' of telling people they're laid off and immediately walking them with escort out of the building. The idea here is that getting a layoff notice turns you into an Evil Insider, which is a huge business risk. Better not risk it, and perp-walk them out of the building immediately while all their electronic access was revoked. This often comes with a severance package of some degree, bound with a non-disparagement clause to reduce the impact on Glassdoor rankings.

And yet, in many European and Asian countries the US system is flatly illegal. We saw this at my last job when members of our European offices got layoff notices and were still around for a couple of weeks afterwards. We saw it again when we tried to close one of our two Chinese development centers, and had to take 3 months to do it because of local regulation; and still got in trouble with the government for being too American about it.

Giving a redundancy notice two or more weeks before their last date, and making it explicitly clear that it is perfectly fine to job-hunt on the job, will help take the sting out of the loss. People suddenly disappearing is uniquely traumatizing to a culture, letting them instead have a long good-bye makes for an easier transition, and preserves the generitivity of the culture.

Third, and not obvious: Be open about the post-layoff reorganization

Layoffs often are immediately followed by a larger than usual reorganization. US companies reorg all the time. Google is famous for rarely having a project team in one piece for longer than 9 months. Unless the reduction-in-force was simply to reduce the number of Individual Contributors, managers were also let go and that means the org-chart is getting an update. Some was done immediately, as existing teams report to a new manager with more direct-reports then they had before. Most happens in the months after the amputation.

The post-amputation reorg will be painful. In a generative culture, top-down dictats coming out of nowhere are rare. You destroy a generative culture by having nothing but top-down, no negotiation dictats coming down from On High. When the reorgs start, be open about where you're going. Be open about the changes in direction that are inevitably encountered along the way. Generative cultures are all about open communication, and this critical period is not the time to put that aside for the duration of the emergency.

This goes against Capitalism because your standard company is hierarchical. You can backtalk your boss (so long as you're not in a pathological environment), but if your grand-boss says something the only answer is

Yes. sir. Of course, sir. Right away, sir.

Generative cultures allow you to be dubious, and be told the background for the decision. Background that justifies it. And if that background has a fallacy embedded in it, there is the option of making the decision be something else.

Really, all of these are about maintaining the existing communication structures, and allowing employees to be treated like trusted individuals. That is the basis for a generative culture. Keeping those habits up during the trauma of a layoff will reduce the cultural harm experienced.