Sometimes, the worst happens. You’ve got a crew of great people and the bottom falls out. If you don’t let some of them go, everybody gets let go when you have to shut your doors. It’s a no-win situation, but business is driven by the market, by demand. If demand’s not there, you do what you can to weather the storm, and that entails making progressively harder choices. That’s what leadership is, and make no mistake.

This has a whole lot less to do with management than you might think. Letting a good employee go the “right” way, the graceful and dignified way, that’s about leadership, pure and simple. If you’re not prepared to lead, if all you want to do is “manage,”, get out of the CEO’s chair and give it to someone else, because your company needs a leader, especially in times like these.

Leadership is a learned skill. If you’re uncomfortable with it, get some leadership training, but in the meantime, let’s talk about the awesome employees you have, with great reluctance, come to realize that you’ve got to say goodbye to. We’ll also assume that your time frame is fairly immediate, so you can’t take the “abdication of leadership” route and simply let attrition work its magic. You’ve got to do something soon, or bad things begin looming on the horizon. In that case, here are some approaches you can take:

Shared Sacrifice

When confronted with the “no-win situation,” do what Captain Kirk did, in Star Trek. Change the rules of engagement. Don’t let anybody go. Offer instead, to cut everybody’s pay proportionally, so that those who earn more see the bigger cut, to save enough money to keep everybody in the boat. The beauty of this approach is that management leads by example. Odds are, management is drawing the biggest salaries, so they (and you) will take the biggest hit.

This can only work if you get buy-in from your employees. To get that buy-in, you have to present the case. Things are bad, and if we don’t do this, we have to start letting people go. You’re all awesome and I can’t afford to lose any of you. Imagine, management offering to take a pay cut to keep the rank and file? They’ll revere you. They’ll follow you to the moon if you asked them to.

Early Retirement

If your management team rises up in open revolt at the very idea of taking a pay cut, and they might, the next best thing is to go to your longest serving, and probably best loved employees and talk to them about the situation in private. Frankly and honestly, pulling no punches. Tell them you don’t know what to do, and you were wondering how they might feel about accepting an early retirement.

Yes, it’s an upfront cost at a time when you can ill afford it, but again, this is about more than money. Right now, we’re talking about saying goodbye to some of the best of your best. If the first choice is a non starter, you’ve got to try and find a way to make this work. Assuming you get a long serving employee who is interested, of course. It’s got to be their choice.

The Funnel

If that doesn’t work, then you’ve got to make your selection via some non-emotional means. Break out your virtual funnel and begin analyzing your company. Sort your company by critical functionality and employees in each of those areas. Drill down by skill set, performance, and disciplinary actions. Use seniority only as a tie-breaker. Find “the person.” That’s the easy part. The hard part is actually dropping the ax.

First, don’t spring it on the person in question. Don’t do it via email, or leave an empty box on their desk to greet them some random Tuesday morning, and don’t call them into your office and hand them a pink slip. Call them in and outline the situation, and that for the survival of the company as a whole, something has to give. You hate it. You don’t want to do it. They’re a great employee and it’s nothing they did, but if the company is to survive, then this is what needs to happen. It is their final act of service to you, and it’s an important one.

Offer them a letter of recommendation. Take them to lunch. Help them get set up in their search, and make some calls on their behalf. Remember, we’re not talking about someone you’re firing for cause here. This is one of the good ones. If you’re asking them to do this huge, amazing final act of service for you, then you need to be giving as well.

Leading is about changing lives. You’re in a position of power. Make sure the changes you make are positive ones.

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