In Kerry Field's career, she's had many triumphs and she's dealt with numerous setbacks.
Field, the senior vice president of HR and chief people officer at Harvey Building Products, has worked for six organizations and has been laid off twice in that timeframe — once as a part of a reduction-in-force (RIF) and once as part of a reorganization — she told HR Dive in an interview. Both instances gave her an understanding of how change is constant for everyone in the working world.
"My mindset is that we are on a career journey, and a career journey involves multiple steps," Field said.
That philosophy explains the reasoning behind Field's advice to HR managers at a time when analysts have started to talk about the next recession. Change is inevitable, she stressed, and it comes for both employees and employers. This alone isn't enough to reassure the reportedly large portion of workers dealing with "layoff anxiety" — nearly half of workers according to one study — but it could prompt HR teams to be more proactive.
"Our job is to make sure we have the right people in the right place at the right time," Field said. Among the questions she said HR needs to be prepared to answer:
What are the organization's business strategies and how are its HR strategies lined up against them?
What skills are becoming outdated, and what does this mean for the organization's workforce?
What job aspects actually comprise an employee's role, and are those aspects lived out in the day-to-day?
Employers need to get in the habit of having these discussions without losing sight of the unique strengths that workers bring to their jobs, Field said. One of the biggest things to stress to workers is the importance of continuous development, particularly of skills that can carry employees from job to job.
It's not just a vague set of soft skills that employees need, either, Field noted. Employees can very intentionally focus on leadership competencies like active listening, team-building and, perhaps most importantly, curiosity.
"For folks to know that their current skill set is time-locked … that's a big piece of it," she said.
Curiosity can motivate employees to fill in the very technical skills that define their current and future roles, because those skills will always change, according to Field. It's on employers, too, to create a learning environment that allows workers to flourish, despite the expenses associated with learning and development.
Mentors are an obvious entry point. Field knows that from experience, and she talked about her "first job out of school" experience, a role she admits was not the best fit for her in the moment. "The folks around me saw that I had the intellect and work ethic," she said. "I had mentors around me who were astute enough to let me in on how to be a part of this changing world."
Continuous development is an important counterbalance to the anxiety provoked by job loss, Field believes, but employees can't be prepared for job loss if they're unable to ask tough questions and receive answers. "HR tries to protect folks from their own concerns," she said, yet a lack of information can hurt employers in the long run. "In the absence of information, people make up their own stories."
Transparency is the point, and Field advised HR teams to push for as much of it as possible. The alternative is not worth the risk to an organization's internal brand, she added: "Whenever you spark fear you're going to lose your best people first."
When layoffs do happen, leaders need to step up and articulate what the future of the company is, Field said. She described the need for "purposeful energy" and a vision that clarifies where the organization is going and what restructuring will achieve.
Managers need to be involved in that discussion, too, but Field warned it's not enough just to hand down boilerplate language for them to deliver. "You can't ask a direct-line manager to participate as a communicator until you've communicated with them and they've been able to understand the why and the how," she said.
Whether an individual is conducting a layoff or is the victim of one, Field believes it's important to overcome stigmas. "Too many leaders have got this culture of, 'if you leave, it's because I failed.' Something went terribly wrong," she said. "But a lot of times … the situations that cause layoffs are outside of an organization's immediate control."
Layoffs also don't mean that relationships have to end. HR departments can maintain alumni networks that keep in touch with former employees, Field said. They can treat people with dignity rather than projecting contempt. Accepting that layoffs are going to happen is a mindset shift that Field called her "aha moment."
"Make it okay for folks," she said. "You make it okay by treating them fairly and with respect — as humans and not as just numbers."