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Preventing Brain Drain: 4 Strategies to Retain Top Performers After a Reduction in Force

Nicole Klemp

As unpleasant as layoffs or a reduction in force (RIF) can be for everyone involved, sometimes they’re necessary for a business’s health and future growth. 

With the current economic climate—inflation, banking crisis, global conflicts, supply-chain issues, you name it—many companies across the globe have had to make that difficult decision. According to a survey by SoftBank Vision Fund, 62% of CHROs report they’ve cut their workforce in the past year.

During a RIF, the logistics and execution of layoffs—and all the tough conversations that go along with that—tend to (understandably) dominate the focus for HR teams. 

But what happens after? What about the employees who are left? 

Don’t assume high performers are A-Okay after a RIF

Employees’ belief in your company’s mission and commitment to the company culture can suffer after a RIF. Especially high performers, who may feel like the organization they work so hard for has let them down or isn’t as stable as they once thought.

Without some proactive and strategic effort, a RIF can cause some serious unintended consequences, like talent drain (aka regrettable turnover). Losing team members can be mentally and emotionally challenging for employees. And on top of that, they may also be dealing with changes to their role, responsibilities, or team dynamics. 

High performers need to clearly see what their future with the company might look like and how they can still make an impact going forward. Retaining good employees in tough times and limiting the damage of a RIF requires HR leaders to think differently, and look closely at both the opportunities and the threats. 

4 strategies for post-RIF retention

To help you refocus efforts and prevent brain drain during a disruptive event, we’ve outlined some strategies and tactics for retaining key employees in times of change. Read on for four effective employee retention strategies for plugging unwanted brain drain. 

1. Revisit employee role clarity 

There’s typically a shuffling of the deck that happens after a RIF. Teams and reporting structures can change, responsibilities are reallocated, and there may even be more work with fewer people to take it on.

Your remaining employees need to be clear on how their priorities and goals will shift due to those changes. Focusing on role clarity as you embark on your organization’s “new normal” will be essential. 

As Jennie Yang, Vice President of People at 15Five, said: 

“Role clarity is an important driver of employee engagement, yet it’s often overlooked or undervalued. When employees have role clarity, they understand specifically what is expected of them in their job. They know what responsibilities and outcomes they’re supposed to accomplish, their specific goals, how their work impacts the business’s larger goals, and how their performance will be evaluated and measured. When this clarity is lacking [especially after a RIF], it can significantly impact your team’s engagement and productivity.”

Addressing role clarity is crucial to reducing disengagement and burnout. For example, if employees are working from home, they may want to discuss their current work life balance or get more support from their manager during and after the RIF. Reviewing role expectations can remove some of the disconnect they may be feeling and help remote teams stay connected.

Reevaluating an employee’s role and making them part of the conversation can empower them to define what their job looks like today and what they’d like it to be in the future. 

2. Reassess team and individual goals 

After a RIF, reorganization, merger, or other major event, many organizations make the mistake of not updating their goals to reflect the new state of the business. This can be a big problem, especially in cases where employees are already working at capacity, and the company decides to dump even more on their plates.

After a RIF, leaders and managers must reassess organizational, team, and individual goals and look at the company’s long-term priorities. Goals should be thoroughly reviewed and updated to reflect new objectives. 

By doing a reset on OKRs (or whichever type of goal-setting method you use), executives can look at company-wide objectives to ensure they’re still relevant, managers and direct reports can assess whether they have the skills and capacity to take on new responsibilities, and HR can see what training or coaching may be needed to improve employee performance.

3. Do stay interviews with remaining employees

You may already be doing exit interviews, which can be valuable for learning what causes an employee to leave. But what makes them want to stay? That’s something you want to find out before it’s too late.

Stay interviews provide an opportunity to ask current employees how satisfied they feel in their jobs, what’s going well in their work environment, and what challenges are impacting their employee experience.

In a stay interview, employees can air their grievances before reaching the end of their ropes. The insights gained can help HR leaders and individual managers take action to stay ahead of regrettable turnover.

Here are a few questions SHRM recommends when conducting a stay interview:

  • What do you look forward to each day when you commute to work?
  • What are you learning here, and what do you want to learn?
  • Why do you stay here?
  • When was the last time you thought about leaving us, and what prompted it?
  • What can I do to make your job better for you? 

Collecting and acting on employee feedback is key to preventing turnover, especially after a major upheaval in the business. Here are a few more ways to gather feedback:

4. Make sure career path conversations are happening between managers and employees

Providing professional development opportunities and helping employees grow and thrive in their current roles is essential to retention after a RIF. That being said, it’s also necessary to support people’s long-term career goals, even if that means they could eventually outgrow their position—or your company.

Unfortunately, our recent study of 1,000 managers and 1,000 employees across the U.S. showed that almost half (48%) of employees said they had yet to have even one conversation with their manager about their career vision. (You can read more about our findings in the 2023 Manager Effectiveness Report.)

After a layoff or RIF, remaining employees need to see that the organization still has growth opportunities for them. And during times of change, leaders can identify new roles and responsibilities that align with the company’s changing priorities, which can become exciting new opportunities for high performers. 

Here are a few things managers should talk about in career conversations:

  • The employee’s long-term and short-term career vision
  • What they’d like to do more (or less) of
  • What they feel their greatest strengths are
  • What their ideal workday might look like
  • How their values align with what they’re doing (or want to do)
  • What training or coaching they need to achieve their career goals

Need help developing an employee retention strategy after a RIF?

Leading an HR or people operations team through a RIF is hard—but you don’t have to go it alone. 

Join 15Five’s HR Superstars community and get support from awesome peers who have gone through the same things you have. You’ll also get access to exclusive content and valuable (and fun!) events.

And check out Building Organizational Resilience: The HR Leaders’ Guide to Maintaining Engagement After a RIF or Layoff for a deeper dive into strategies, tactics, and tips for taking your team from brain drain to brain gain.