Salary Freeze or RIF? Another View

8 Feb

I recently responded to a question from an executive in the insurance industry about whether a salary freeze or a reduction-in-force was the best way to reduce costs while maintaining employee morale and engagement. I’d like to offer the perspective of someone who looks at this question primarily through the lens of my research and consulting experiences, which leads me to conclude it may have less to do with which choice and everything to do with how leaders going about it.

I spent 12 years with a global consulting firm that assisted employers with force reductions. I’ve seen that done extremely well, where both departing employees and those remaining are treated professionally and with dignity. The communication was open and honest, senior leadership was front and center to answer questions and get feedback, and there was a specific plan that was well coordinated that helped remaining employees move forward in a productive way. For those terminated employees there were decent benefits offered–severance payments, benefits continuation, preference for re-hiring, outplacement services– which sent a message that the leadership of the company truly cared about these folks and wanted to help their transition go as smoothly as possible. (For more information about outplacement services you might find this New York Times article of interest.) In those cases I’ve talked to all parties involved and heard very positive things about the employer in spite of the RIF, feelings that often led to employees wanting to return and solid productivity for those on-the-job.

On the other hand, I’ve witnessed horrible “RIF train wrecks”, where communication was terrible, rumors were rampant, senior leadership was hiding, and there was no plan to move the company forward confidently– disaster for everyone.

I think the same can be said for salary freezes. I’ve worked with companies where that has worked well, and others where the results are less than positive. I’m familiar with one company that has been frequently awarded a slot on the “Great Places to Work” list that Fortune magazine publishes every year, and stayed on the list one year when their business hit hard times and they were forced into both a salary and hiring freeze.

The common denominator for successful outcomes? Great leadership, of course, leadership that has built over time a positive, engaging culture. It’s been my experience that how a company will go about this is just as important as what they do, and effective senior leaders can make a big difference in determining whether a freeze or RIF is successful. If that leadership has developed a culture of trust and confidence they can more easily deal with many challenges such as a difficult decision such as this.

Your take-away from this rant? I won’t presume to tell any company what the best choice is from a financial perspective. But I can tell you that how you act, how you lead, how you communicate, how to vision-cast– all these things will make all the difference in the world regarding this any many other important issues in these difficult economic times.

One Response to “Salary Freeze or RIF? Another View”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 25% Plan Salary Freeze, Study Reports « Engaged Employees = Remarkable Results - February 12, 2009

    […] I do know is how you go about communicating and managing this effort will be very important. I posted on this topic a few days ago, regading the need for leadership to be at their best as they help […]

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