What I Learned From Surviving Layoffs Exceeding 50,000 People

Last year, I wrote an article entitled “Yahoo Has Become The Nokia Of Internet Companies.” In that moment, I admit I contributed to something I hated when I worked at Nokia: the stream of negative press about an employer. If you care about your job, seeing the media align against your company stinks.

From 2010-2014, I dreaded Nokia’s quarterly earnings releases. I learned to expect ambivalent device reviews. I couldn’t tune out the coverage, though. I knew my employees would want to talk about the news and would be eager to know what I thought.

Yahoo has deteriorated since I wrote about its Nokia similarities, as the headlines below illustrate. The company reports having 10,400 employees as of Dec. 31, 2015. When you factor in their family and friends who read the same lousy press, it’s easy to imagine there are well over 100,000 people who have personal reasons to worry whenever the company makes news.

Techcrunch, Recode Yahoo headlines

Recent Yahoo headlines in TechCrunch and Re/code can be tough for employees and their loved ones to read.

What should Yahoo employees do? For that matter, what about anyone working for a distressed company?

 The first decision is “stay or go.” Having chosen to stay through layoffs exceeding over 50,000 at Nokia and Microsoft, I know every situation is unique. There can be good reasons to ride out a company’s decline (see below), but those reasons do not apply universally.

If you do decide to stay, though, don’t do it passively. Be deliberate and know there are some things you can do to make the most of it.

  • Be honest: When times get tough, don’t waste time trying to convince anyone else, yourself included, that things are normal. At best, it signals to others that you’ve got your head in the sand. Worse, it conveys dishonesty. Admit the problems and that processing them can be scary.

naked-gun-nothing-to-see-here-reaction-frank-drebin-police-squad-13911001861

When confronting bad news, don’t emulate Lt. Frank Drebin. GIF created by Keenobserver and posted to gifsoup.com.

  • Share your reason for staying: If nothing else, this will force you to make the decision proactively. If you can explain it coherently to yourself, then you’re ready to tell your boss, colleagues and direct reports why you think staying makes sense. That may convince others to stay, too.

  • Give your team a choice: Staying with a struggling company is not for everyone, and leaving doesn’t make anyone a bad person. Let your employees know you’ll understand if any of them decides to pursue other opportunities. At the same time, make it clear that staying requires the same commitment you expect after your team has argued over a strategy. Once you decide on a direction, it’s time to execute. There can be no tolerance for re-litigating the decision.

  • Sprint through the finish line: A company in decline can’t reverse its fortunes if it experiences a dip in productivity from those who choose to stay but allow themselves to get distracted. Just as runners are taught to hit the tape hard, commit to executing more crisply than ever.

  • Document your contributions: A former dean of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University once told several of my classmates and me that interviewers love underdogs. Don’t forget to write down all the best things you’ve done for your employer, including your achievements under duress. It will help you construct a compelling story to tell later.

As bad as things may seem to some, there are excellent reasons to stay at Yahoo. Companies in bad shape need more help than ever to stabilize and grow again. They can offer unique opportunities for taking on more responsibilities and learning how to do more with fewer resources. Not every troubled company fails, either. They often rebound or get sold to another firm, one that will want to retain the fighters who helped keep the enterprise afloat. If you can shepherd your team through the headwinds and get some wins on the board, you’ll have an icebreaker ready for every interview and industry trade show you’ll ever attend.

Just make the decision to stay or go with purpose.

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