Dear Crucial Skills,
I’ve been with the same company for twenty-five plus years. It is a good company. We have had three “workforce reductions” in the past six years. I feel another one coming. I am fifty and therefore vested. However, at fifty-five, my early retirement pay would go up. Even though I have always received the highest reviews, I still feel that I could be next. How do I approach management about this? In the past, supervisors and managers have said that they have no input into who gets let go. I do not believe this. Is there anyone in management that I should approach about securing my future? And how should that dialogue go?
Worried in Texas
It sounds like your concerns about possible “workforce reductions” are justified because you have seen three of them in your company already. You are right to not let this subject become an “undiscussable.” Certainly if you don’t talk it out, you will act it out, and the possibility of being let go will affect your performance, your interactions, and your emotional well-being. You feel another layoff coming and definitely should talk to your management about this. Your question becomes, “How?”
Choose which manager to talk with by following your chain of command. Go first to your boss; then, if your boss isn’t able to answer your questions, request a conversation with his or her boss. You don’t want to create new problems by appearing to bypass your boss or by “ambushing” a senior leader.
Okay, so what do you say to your boss?
Let’s start by identifying what you don’t do. Don’t make accusations: “This company doesn’t care about its older workers!” Don’t start with an “I” statement of emotion: “I feel so betrayed!” These statements are sure to create defensiveness and take the conversation away from effective dialogue. Rather, begin your dialogue by stating the facts. For example: “We’ve had three workforce reductions in the last six years. I’ve noticed that each reduction is preceded by a fall in revenues, profits, and market share. The last three quarters have been trending down in each of these metrics. Even though I have consistently received high reviews, past managers have told me they have no input as to who stays and who is let go.”
By beginning with the facts, you minimize defensiveness and begin on common ground. People tend to agree on the facts, so they decrease the likelihood of an argument. By stating the facts, you also help your boss understand the reasons for your opinions.
Next, tentatively share your stories. In a way that shows you are open to consideration, share the assumptions and conclusions you are drawing based on your set of facts. The meaning we create from our experiences and data are our stories. Don’t dress up your opinions as facts. Take responsibility for the subjective nature of your conclusions and make room for other points of view. For example: “I’m beginning to think another workforce reduction is likely if not inevitable, and that my good performance will not protect me. I’m also wondering if my age makes me more vulnerable.”
Having stated your facts and shared your stories, you should ask the questions that are on your mind. Doing so invites others to disclose their knowledge and opinions and allows you to test your data and assumptions. Could you be mistaken? Is your data accurate and complete? Is there another way to interpret the facts? For example: “Is management planning another workforce reduction? Do my high reviews offer me any protection? Do you have input into these types of decisions? Does my age make me vulnerable? Help me understand what’s likely to happen.” Your next step is to listen well and ask clarifying questions.
This approach does not guarantee you’ll get the whole truth about what’s going on. Factors like management policy and corporate strategy still exist. However, this approach does dramatically increase the likelihood that your boss will dialogue with you and not get defensive or think ill of you. Crucial conversations skills are not methods of controlling or manipulating others. These skills do help to open up crucial subjects so you and others can talk about and revisit these issues as developments occur without great discomfort or unease.
By following this approach you might gain insights that will confirm or disconfirm your concerns and suspicions, enabling you to choose your response based on more accurate information and conclusions.
All the best in your crucial conversations,