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RIM’s workforce moves: Lessons learned from layoffs

Layoffs may be a struggling company's last resort, but for organizations forced into showing some of their employees the door, there's a right way and a wrong way.

The provincial Liberal government's announcement this week that it would be teaming up with Research In Motion to help laid off employees — it announced in June that it would be trimming its global ranks by 5,000 — reinforces the somewhat perverse benefits of larger-scale job-shedding moves, as they're more likely to attract the attention of governments bearing gifts than smaller-scale ones.

A political connection?

With a Sept. 6 byelection in the provincial Kitchener-Waterloo region looming, the move by the government has been criticized by some as little more than political gamesmanship, with questions surrounding the timing of the announcement — namely two months after the layoff figures were first confirmed by the company.


The province's Rapid Re-employment and Training Service is normally supposed to respond within an hour of a layoff or closure announcement, and is designed to help workers navigate applying for provincial government employment services and programs.

The Ontario government, through the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, is focusing its RIM-assistance efforts in the following three areas:

  • An Employment Ontario partnership with Communitech, the region's largest technology incubator, to help departing RIM employees identify and connect more quickly with other tech companies in the area.

  • Additional entrepreneurship and business program spaces at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University for employees interested in setting up their own companies.

  • A new action centre to provide job search assistance, employment counselling and guidance for those heading back to school.

Progressive Conservative MPP Elizabeth Witmer's resignation in April — the McGuinty government subsequently appointed her chair of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board — triggered the byelection in Kitchener-Waterloo that could see the Liberals regain a majority in the provincial legislature. A second byelection, in Vaughan, was announced earlier this month after Liberal MPP Greg Sorbara announced his retirement.

Brad Duguid, Ontario's Minister of Economic Development, dismissed concerns that the province's outreach to RIM employees was politically motivated.

"This announcement is really based on the fact that there are layoffs taking place," he said in an interview aired on CTV Kitchener. "So we would be here with or without the byelection."

The assistance to RIM employees confirms the value of going big: When Equitrac, a print management software company, laid off 20 of its 100 employees in Waterloo last year following its acquisition by Massachussetts-based Nuance Corporation, the government didn't come calling with special arrangements for employees. Like any other laid off employee, former Equitrac staff accessed existing government programs and services.

Lessons learned

Despite the criticism, RIM's moves in the wake of the layoff announcement reflect improvements in communication and visibility from an organization that historically kept to itself. When a report last month mistakenly suggested that the company was preparing an additional round of 3,000 layoffs on top of the 5,000 already announced, RIM moved quickly to confirm that they were in fact part of the same overall number. The company has also shared details on where the layoffs will hit — and where they won't. Namely, anyone working on BlackBerry 10, the operating system and related devices slated for Q1 2013 release, is considered safe.

RIM's experience highlights some of the key best practices organizations in any sector should follow when faced with the grim task of laying off staff:

Visibility. Put a face on the layoffs to give employees, media and the broader community. Make key resources available throughout — and even beyond — the layoff period, and encourage them to build trusted relationships with key stakeholders.

Communication. Despite the challenges of maintaining confidentiality throughout what is essentially a human resources process, avoid the temptation to maintain radio silence. In the absence of at least some critical, higher-level details, stakeholders will speculate, and in the social media age such speculation often requires reactive intervention. Avoid the risk by being up-front about what's going on.

Honesty. Don't try to spin anything. Recognize the challenges departing employees face as they prepare to leave, and adopt an appropriate tone in all related messaging. A little dignity goes a long way.

Focus. Layoffs don't just impact those being shown the door. They can leave lasting scars on surviving employees, as well. Review existing employee assistance programs to ensure they're specifically able to help employees affected by the downsizing.

As RIM sheds staff in pursuit of $1 billion in savings by the end of its current fiscal year, it is already setting the stage for its post-layoff future. As other sectors, including manufacturing and public service, experience their own workforce turmoil, they'd do well to learn from what's going on in Waterloo. While no company ever wants to be stuck with large-scale layoffs, making the best of a bad situation can minimize the damage and maximize future growth potential.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.