How to fire your enemies, or how to avoid a layoff

We interviewed a group of HR corporate executives at a recent Fortune 100 event and came upon a fascinating new layoff tactic. This tactic is relevant to (1) managers in mid-to-large organizations who wish to improve their political capital, and (2) non-managers who do not wish to be laid off. As a manager, you can use this tactic to gain power by eliminating individuals who tax your reputation and your political capital.


The tactic:

As a manager, in large organizations, firing an individual is a task that's nearly impossible to accomplish. Human resources and legal workstreams and processes can easily take five to nine months to fire someone. During the process of evaluating individuals for firing, these individuals will be very vocal and will tarnish your reputation as a manager. So how can executives fire a group without negatively affecting their own reputation? The answer is layoffs.

Layoff selection is a silent process, and layoff execution is quick and certainly less bumpy than firing an employee. So how do executives fire targeted individuals with a layoff? They do so in a two-step process. The first step involves moving all the target individuals into a single new organization that is "cutting-edge," "innovative," or meant for "all-stars." Given the nature of this new team, it makes sense that more vocal experimental thinkers will be added to this group.

If most or all of the members of this new organization have a common enemy or an executive they despise, or they have been targeted because they are not a "cultural fit," then that is a tell-tell sign that this new team is very likely to be discarded by a layoff in the future.

After the herding process is complete, launching a layoff due to an "unforeseen" organizational restructuring because of "market shifts" can be executed in as little as a week —boom! This allows an executive to discard a team of misfits within a few days. This tactic is possible because all the employees of the newly formed unit willingly accepted the risks and rewards of joining the new pre-layoff unit.


As an employee:

Now that this tactic has been explained, as an employee you need to be watchful of being sold on giving up your current position and moving into a pre-layoff team. If you find yourself being urged to join a "new" and "innovative" all-star team, consider the following first:

  1. Do all the members of the newly formed team have a common organizational enemy?
  2. Does this new team have impossible, undefined, or unique goals with hard-to-measure KPIs?
  3. Can the team be laid off without affecting the success of the larger organization?

If the answer to the above questions is "yes," this team should be considered a pre-layoff team. To protect yourself, build strong relationships with teams outside of your organization and outside of the reach of any common enemy. Start developing capabilities outside of your current role in case you need to interview with other groups. If you follow this advice, we're sure you'll know how to react if you feel you've been targeted.


As a new employee:

Sometimes new employees are added to these pre-layoff groups by default as a risk-free way for the larger organization to measure their capabilities. Imagine you're a recent graduate of an Ivy-league MBA program and you've been recently hired into a new "super innovative" team with hard-to-measure KPIs that satisfy the three criteria above.

As a recent MBA graduate, your high-ego and career aspirations are satisfied because you're part of a "new," "cutting-edge," "all-star" team. On the other hand, a business gets to evaluate you as an MBA without having to fire you if the performance isn't there. Overall, it's a win-win situation!