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Three Characteristics of a Successful Reduction-in-Force (RIF)

Sep 7, 2017 3 MIN. READ
Facing a potential reduction-in-force? Here's how you can make it efficient, effective, and credible.

According to a recent report in Government Executive, the Office of Personnel Management says that more federal agency managers are preparing for possible government layoffs. So how can these managers prepare for what promises to be a challenging and sensitive process?

Agencies need guidance here, perhaps now more than ever. Although RIFs were more common in the 1990s and early 2000s,  they have since become smaller and less frequent. As a result, most agencies don’t have managers or HR staff with experience with any kind of large-scale reduction in force — the people who had the experience have retired. RIF is the last and least desirable option for most agencies, so it’s not surprising that those agencies have not developed and maintained expertise.

The good news? Aside from the Department of Defense (DOD), which got new RIF rules as a result of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, the RIF rules have not changed. When I was working in field HR offices in the Department of the Navy and the Defense Logistics Agency, RIFs were far too common. Some were caused by contracting out, some by Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) and some by implementing "most efficient organizations" following A-76 competitions.

Whatever the cause, there were some common practices that drove success in then and that still hold true today. Here are three things every team must do to ensure that a RIF is effective, efficient, and credible.

  1. Protect employee rights.
  2. Employees have substantive rights under the law and regulations that govern RIF. Agencies must protect those rights — not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but because decisions made without regard for those rights will be reversed on appeal. Protecting employee rights means an agency must begin with clean records. Employee qualifications information must be up-to-date, and the retention registers an agency uses must be accurate. Neither of these is a given: few employees regularly provide their agencies with updates on their experience, education, and other qualifications. Agencies, further, do not typically review and update retention registers because they view it as a waste of resources when they are not planning RIFs. That means agencies planning to conduct RIFs will need to reach out to employees to get current qualifications information. They must also review their competitive levels to ensure they are accurate. Without that planning, there is no way to ensure employee rights are protected.

    Even with careful planning, there is a good chance your agency will make mistakes, so make sure you have a way to identify them. In one large RIF I managed, we created what we called the "RIF Review Program" to allow affected employees to file for an internal review. We established a board that would hear their complaints and make a recommendation to the RIF program manager. The benefit was twofold. First, it allowed the employees to have their complaints heard quickly. Second, we identified our mistakes and corrected them. There were, as it turns out, a few people (fewer than 10) who should not have been downgraded or separated. Once they made their cases and we reviewed the records, we were able to give them a favorable decision and correct the error before the RIF was effective. If those cases had gone to U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) on appeal, we would have lost. By finding them during the notice period, everyone won and employees were reassured that we were not cheating. In the end, even though the RIF affected 1,500 of the organization’s 3,200 employees, we did not lose any MSPB appeals, or EEO complaints or arbitrations.

  3. Ensure that the organization can function well after the RIF.
  4. Badly planned RIFs can lead to a broken organization. For example, in one RIF I managed, the RIF team worked closely with mission managers to build the new organization, write job descriptions, and identify problems that would be likely to occur. One idea the mission leaders had was to create multi skill jobs that could be filled with any one of several skills. It sounded like a good idea, one that could create more flexibility in assignments and enable employees to expand their professional development. The problem, we realized, was the possibility that those jobs would be filled by people with only one of the skills. The result would be mission failure, so that idea had to be scrapped. 

    The scale of a RIF can also affect the ability to carry out the mission. The “bumping and retreating” that happens in RIF can cause a ripple effect: for every position that is abolished, multiple employees may be affected. A large-scale RIF can mean half of an organization’s employees are in new positions, a level of disruption that threatens morale and productivity

  5. Help employees and other stakeholders see the RIF as credible.
  6. Don’t underestimate the value of transparency. To ensure credibility, facilitate a constant stream of communications from the agency, erring on the side of overcommunication. The employees who remain and those who lose their jobs have to understand exactly what is happening and why — that may seem intuitive, but many managers are inclined to withhold information during RIFs. Transparent, frequent communication will earn far more respect and cooperation. That means talking with the workforce about the plan, why it’s necessary, and what the agency is doing to protect employees’ rights.

    As you might predict, rumors will fly — it’s unavoidable. The best approach is to publish them for the entire workforce to see. Respond to every rumor with the facts, regardless of whether that means confirming or quashing them.

    A combination of detailed information on critical topics, along with a more expansive explanation of the entire RIF process, can also help satisfy employees’ need for information at this difficult time. In one large RIF, we published more than two dozen RIF Facts documents, covering subjects such as severance pay calculation and eligibility; lump sum annual leave; placement rights; discontinued service retirement; and more.

    Knowing about the component parts of a RIF, though, does not tell you how a RIF is done. To help fill that knowledge gap, I wrote a booklet called Understanding Reduction in Force that we provided to every employee. It laid out exactly how RIFs work and walked the employees through a sample RIF. We knew it was a success when employees who were affected by the RIF brought their copies (often bookmarked and highlighted) to their RIF counseling sessions. They would point to sections of the book and say "I don't think you did it the right way, and here is why." That helped us learn more about where to improve and communicate clearly with those individuals.

Webinars and Other Resources

Every RIF is different, but these basic planning and communications processes will work for any agency that decides to do significant downsizing. To learn more about RIFs and how to prepare your organization for them, check out two of our recent webinars on the topic: 

What other information do managers need to fill the RIF knowledge gap? How else can we prepare for impending layoffs? Let us know what you think on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

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