This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
A report in Government Executive says “[f]ederal agency managers are privately telling members of the Trump administration they will soon lay off employees, according to Office of Personnel Management officials, and are seeking advice for how to do so in the most effective manner.”
Agencies want advice because most do not have experience with any kind of large-scale reduction in force. The RIF rules have not changed (other than DoD’s move to RIF retention based on performance ratings) for many years, but few agencies have HR staff with experience doing large-scale RIFs. RIF is the last and least desirable option for most agencies, so it is not surprising that they have not developed and maintained RIF expertise.
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, I learned that there were some common practices that drove success in those RIFs.
Given the lack of experience that most federal employees have with RIF, I thought it might be helpful to tell the story of a RIF I managed — how we planned it, what the RIF accomplished, and why it worked. Along the way, I will include some of the key decisions we made that made it successful.
The RIF was in the Naval Aviation Depot (now renamed Fleet Readiness Center Southeast) in Jacksonville, Florida, and involved 1,500 of their 3,200 employees. It was undertaken to reduce costs to make them more competitive in an upcoming round of BRAC. The general belief was that the Jacksonville NADEP was likely to be closed unless they took dramatic action to reduce costs.
The NADEP RIF was done for a good reason. If we did not cut our costs, it was almost certain that we would lose all of the 3,200 jobs. The NADEP was one of the largest employers in town. Losing those jobs would have had a much larger economic impact, as businesses that supported the facility would either shrink or close. The leaders of the NADEP, including the presidents of the five unions that represented most of the workforce, concluded that they could reduce the workforce in a way that reduced costs and would not harm productivity. The plan called for eliminating 700 permanent jobs.
Losing 700 jobs is a big deal. The RIF rules would make it complicated, and the disruption to the workforce would be significant. The alternative was worse, so we set out to do it in the most humane way possible, while making certain the NADEP would retain the skills it needed to compete in the BRAC process and to be able to deliver the aircraft and engine maintenance services the Navy relied upon. While leaders in the mission departments did their parts, the HR team had to devise a plan to carry out the largest RIF they had ever done. I was the deputy personnel officer and got the task of leading it.
We quickly decided that the RIF would require a huge effort from us. We decided to create a dedicated RIF team that at times included as many as half of the 90 people in the HR office. At the same time they were working on the RIF, their co-workers had to do their own work, plus that of the people on the RIF team. Virtually no one was unaffected by it. 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. For example, creating multi-skill jobs that could be filled with any one of several skills sounded like a good idea. It would give them more flexibility in assignments and employees could learn new skills. The problem was that in a RIF, there was a chance they could end up with all of the jobs being filled by people with only one of the skills. The result would be mission failure, so that idea had to be scrapped until after the RIF was done. There were other similar problems, but by working together (and including union leadership) throughout the process we were able to identify them before we started abolishing jobs.
As the plan was unfolding, we began the communications process. Although some leaders wanted to keep much of the information close hold, we decided we had to be all-in on communications. That meant talking with the workforce about the plan, why it was necessary, and what we were doing to protect their rights. As you might predict, rumors began flying. Rumors are unavoidable, so we decided to publish them for the entire workforce to see. With every rumor, we provided the real facts. That meant we confirmed some rumors and squashed others. The workforce began sharing the rumors with us so we would have insight into what was being said “on the floor.” There were quite a few managers who thought publishing the rumors would give them weight that they did not deserve They were wrong — it was a successful approach that the workforce appreciated.
As we heard rumors and got feedback from employees, it became apparent that they were hungry for information about RIF. We began by publishing a series we called RIF Facts. I know the name isn’t catchy, but it was descriptive. We published more than two dozen RIF Facts, covering subjects such as severance pay calculation and eligibility, lump sum annual leave, placement rights, discontinued service retirement, and more. As the employees received the publications, they asked for more and helped us decide what subjects we should cover.
As we started doing RIF Facts, it became apparent that the workforce needed more. Knowing about the component parts of a RIF, and about subjects such as bumping and retreating, does not tell you how a RIF is done. So, I wrote a booklet called Understanding Reduction in Force. We gave one to every employee. The booklet laid out exactly how RIFs work and walked the employees through a sample RIF. We knew the book 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.”
We also decided to issue RIF notices to everyone in the organization, whether they were affected or not. Employees who were separated or downgraded got a package that included their appeal rights and information about what we were doing to help them. Those who were reassigned got a simple notice, while those who were not personally affected got a notice affirmatively telling them that. We did that for two reasons. First, we wanted people who were not affected to know it. We knew that there would be people who worried that somehow we had missed their RIF notice, and that they would get a bad surprise sometime soon. By telling them directly “you were not affected by the RIF,” we were able to reassure them. The second reason was that we wanted the entire workforce to share the experience of lining up to get a notice. We did not want to have a group of “you can’t touch me” employees. Everyone, from the highest-graded to lowest-graded employee, was given a notice by their supervisor.
Having supervisors hand out notices was another decision that was important. Many of the managers in the organization wanted HR to hand out RIF notices. These were people who decided which jobs would go and which would remain. We decided that their responsibility included facing the employees whose jobs they abolished. Some of them hated it, but they all did it.
Once the RIF was underway, we realized that some of the HR staff were suffering from stress because of their duties. When you make placement decisions that cause a husband and wife with four small children to both lose their jobs (I had to make that call), and then sit with the employees to explain their rights, register them in placement programs, and listen to their concerns, it generates a lot of stress. We could have told them that they should appreciate the fact that they still had their jobs, but that would be belittling their legitimate emotional reactions to the pain they were participating in and seeing every day. The better solution was to work with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselor. EAP was also offered to every other employee.
One of the things about RIF that is maddening to the employees who are affected is that RIF appeals to MSPB cannot be filed until the RIF is effective. That means you may have a RIF notice in hand for 60 days or more before you can appeal. Imagine having a letter that says you will lose your job, then being told that you can appeal once you are unemployed and wondering how you will support your family. It takes a situation where people feel powerless and makes them feel even less able to respond. So, we decided to create 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 (me). The benefit was twofold. First, it allowed the employees to have their complaints heard quickly. Second, we found some mistakes. There were a few people (less 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 MSPB on appeal, we would have lost. By finding them during the notice period, the employees won, the Navy won, and employees were reassured that we were not cheating. In the end, we did not lose any MSPB appeals, EEO complaints or arbitrations.
This is one story that eventually had a happy ending. The BRAC round that we expected did happen. NADEP Jacksonville was one of three depots that survived. Three other depots (including one that had previously been considered to be untouchable) were closed. The NADEP was a gainer in that BRAC, and the workforce eventually grew to more than the 3,200 positions we started with. It was a painful process, but it worked and a lot of people kept or got jobs as a result.
Every RIF is different, but the basic planning and communications processes we developed can work for any agency that decides to do significant downsizing, and the characteristics of a successful RIF remain constant.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.