A number of years ago I helped close several business units and manufacturing facilities. My role included advising leaders on people aspects of the closing; developing communication plans and strategies to keep employees motivated, productive and serving customers; and delivering programs to help employees achieve their transition goals.
In each case, people were treated with care and dignity. They responded in kind - acting with respect for the business, customers, and each other. Stories from from two of these businesses appear below.
The Southwest plant (SW) was without competition for its product so reducing cost and advancing the process technology were low priorities. This changed when several new companies entered the market. Within a short period SW’s costs were not competitive and they missed a generation of technological advances that improved production speed and product quality. Loss of customers, revenues and decreased profit margins followed quickly. After a two year decline the parent company gave SW’s leadership team one more year to develop a plan for staying in business or one for going out of business. The leadership team, in turn, involved the entire employee population in these endeavors. For the first 9 months they focused on ways to stay in business, but the required investment was too great. Neither the parent company nor other partners were interested. Together the leadership team made the painful decision to close the business. The team spirit they developed and what they learned about working together in the previous 9 months served them well in doing so.
They began with a vision. “Downsizing with Dignity” became their charge and along with it a goal of ensuring that every person who wanted one would have a job. For the next 6 months as they tended to the business of closing the plant - selling assets, dealing with legal commitments, fulfilling customer orders, closing the books - they banded together, shared resources, and supported each other. During one event everyone wrote their name on the back of each business card in their collection and tossed them into an empty aquarium tank. Employees looking for work, went through the piles of cards. When they found one for a company of interest, they contacted the related SW employee who then made an introduction to his/her contact. Every person from the SW plant found a job within months of the closure. At the final ending ceremony each member of the leadership team was gifted with a clock that was designed and hand assembled by employees. The face of the clock was made from the plant’s main product and the rest from spare parts. It included an engraved note of gratitude. This clock is one of my most cherished pieces of professional memorabilia.
Southern New England
The assembly work of the southern New England plant was being outsourced to the Far East. Within a year the plant would shut down. Employees would be laid off in stages. Again, the challenge was to engage needed employees through their time of departure.
I developed and led 3 experiential hands-on workshops. “Managing Transitions” mapped out the various stages employees would go through as a result of the layoff and provided strategies and tips for moving through them. Managers were the first workshop participants. They went through an additional module where they learned how to work with and communicate to employees during the transition process. Guidelines included:
1. Over Communicate - people often don’t hear things the first time around when the message raises stress and anxiety.
2. Communicate information via multiple channels and modalities.
3. Create symbols and ceremonies to mark endings, such as a monthly goodbye party for exiting employees.
4. Provide emotional support if and when employees need to talk or vent.
5. Arrange a final closing event and invite all former employees.
6. Create a private and quiet space where managers can just sit and breathe, listen to music, run on a treadmill, talk to a coach or their peers, and engage in other activities to help manage the stress of supporting employees while knowing their futures are uncertain as well.
We provided two more workshops and resources to help employees develop job search goals and strategies, resumes, and cover letters; as well as to increase their comfort and effectiveness with networking, interviewing and negotiating offers. As in the case with the Southwest, employees were grateful and while they were sad to see things come to an end, they were not angry, there were no law suits or ugly scenes.
Prior to the final closing event, a seasoned assembly technician whose hobbies included horticulture asked permission to deliver a short speech about “endings.” The day of the event he walked onto the stage carrying a healthy vibrant geranium plant with over-sized brilliant crimson flowers. In the other hand he held a pair of trimming shears. Standing in front of the podium, he began to hack away at the plant. The audience responded with a chorus of ooohs, as if feeling the pain of each cut. He delivered a short but poignant and emotional speech explaining the need to cut back the older life of the plant that had reached its peak in order to make way for new leaves and flowers to grow.