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Restructuring my organization was one of the toughest things I’ve done as a business owner. In the last 18 months, the demand for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) transformative work has exploded across the business world. With the rise of social justice movements and civil unrest, many businesses felt compelled to make DEI a bigger focus in their organizations.
And as the demand for DEI increased, companies experienced a hiring boom. But 18 months later, the needs of clients shifted from what they were previously. Businessses had to adapt to the evolving circumstances that clients were experiencing in order to tailor solutions appropriately.
These changes brought a major restructure to my business. In retrospect, the process wasn’t easy. All of my former employees were competent, heart-focused people ready to do the work, but their skill sets no longer matched the current needs of our clients nor the direction we were headed as a company. As a result, we had to discontinue certain roles with many hard lessons learned along the way.
It was difficult but necessary, and here’s what you can do to keep DEI in mind as you restructure your business.
There is no right moment to let employees go
Business owners often tend to hang on to employees that aren’t working out for way too long. There are false hopes that if the business continues to work in the same way as before, when the new structure comes, employees will magically become aligned.
That’s not necessarily true. Actually, it can be quite the opposite. You may find yourself trying to fit a circle peg into a square hole. While former employees somehow fit into the circles before, the new square-shaped structure could be more challenging for them to align with.
My executive leadership team and I spent a lot of time thinking about our restructure, every decision we would make and imagining how the next moves would go (and the impacts on employees). We realized there would be inevitable negative fallout, no matter how we went about it. Met with that realization, our goal was to determine how to best execute the inevitable with kindness, compassion and as little business risk as possible.
A major challenge to restructuring is implementing necessary endings. It’s important to not let employees that you suspect may not be happy in the new structure linger in the organization too long. Playing the waiting game in this regard can jeopardize the business’ vision, mission and direction.
It’s hard, but without the ability to end things efficiently and compassionately, we force ourselves to stay stuck in a situation that damages the company and the employees in the long-term. Holding onto employees that aren’t mutually invested in the future restructure is counterproductive to the employee’s health and happiness, as well as the company’s success.
Lead with empathy and compassion
When you’ve made the announcement that a restructure is occurring, people can experience a range of emotions. In the midst of the decision, some employees, particularly those who won’t be moving forward with the company post-restructure, may see the decision as a personal attack. Remember, hurt is not the same as harm. Expect people to be hurt and even confused by the decision while they process the changes. Some people may internalize the outcome as being harmful to them.
Here’s where it’s important to spend time in the restructure planning and determining how best to navigate with clarity, empathy and compassion. It could be a good time to take notes; think about the impact of the restructure on employees’ livelihoods and what the company can do to make the transition easier (more on this later).
It’s important to express empathy with those who feel hurt by the restructure. People may feel disregarded, harmed and disappointed by the decision. However they feel, someone in the company should offer a genuine and empathic listening ear. This role can be fulfilled by an HR professional, the employee’s former manager or someone on the executive team.
The most important part is to simply listen. Restructures can make people feel untethered and thrown off. Employees may gravitate towards their own narratives about why the restructure is happening and what impact it would have on their livelihoods. It’s wise to allow them to work through their emotions and not interpret their reactions as something the founder or executives should feel responsible for.
It’s also a good idea to make the announcement of the restructure in a personal, non-digital way. Ideally, in-person or via video call or live phone conversation. Holding a special meeting that feels authentic and human-focused can help the announcement of a restructure feel more genuine and less cold. And when employees feel connected, seen and heard, it’ll be easier for leadership to meet employees where they are and address their questions and concerns to the best extent possible
Assure employees everything will be OK
Restructures happen, but it’s not the end of the world. For some employees, especially those people who aren’t moving forward with the company after the restructure, it can feel like the sky is falling.
Assure employees that layoffs, role changes or other shifts as a result of the restructure aren’t an indication that someone is good or bad, qualified or unqualified. Remind employees that those who may be negatively impacted by the restructure will be okay even if it doesn’t seem like it now. Offer assurances to show how the restructure can be a positive thing for all parties involved.
The person will find another role elsewhere that will be more in alignment with their values and skills, while the company will hire people who uniquely align with the new structure and will move in the same direction.
Offer severance packages and job support
The good old fashioned way to ease the burden of restructuring is to offer severance packages to employees who are transitioning out of the company. The package can include one to two months of salary, resources to find another job, letters of recommendation and other means of support.
Severance packages are important because when a restructure happens, a soon-to-be former employee may ask themselves, “What will happen to me or my family?” And that’s a genuine concern with serious consequences.
It’s a good idea to support employees during this time with a severance package that addresses their concerns. Offering pay and resources can help ease the blow of restructuring and allow the person to focus on their next step.
If your company isn’t in a position to offer financial severance packages, focus on letters of recommendation, referrals and job search support.
Restructuring is challenging. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach that will make it easy for the company and employees. The steps above can be a good launching point for a more mindful restructure that supports the company and employees.
When employees (current and former) feel secure, heard and supported, everybody wins. It’s best to avoid restructuring without employee health and happiness in mind. If even one employee harbors bad blood toward the company, or if company morale dips after a less than thoughtful restructure, it can be devastating to the business. Remember, necessary endings are just that — necessary. Keeping your employee’s health and happiness in mind as the restructure occurs will help the transition go more smoothly for the business and everyone involved.